The Goldilocks diet: not too little, not too much – just the right amount

The Goldilocks principle – not too little, not too much, just the right amount – has been applied in science, economics, engineering, business and other fields.

In a classic British fairy tale, the young, golden-haired, female protagonist, Goldilocks, enters a house belonging to a family of bears – mother, father and baby – who are mysteriously absent. She tries in turn each member of the bear family’s bowls of porridge, chairs and beds. In each case she judges one to be too cold/small, one to be too hot/big, but one to be just right. Subsequently, the Goldilocks principle – not too little, not too much, just the right amount – has been applied in science, economics, engineering, business and other fields.

Living to 83 on average, today the Japanese have one of the world’s highest life expectancies. This fact is often ascribed to their diet, which is widely believed to feature large amounts of fish – think sushi and sashimi. But the truth is actually more complicated and surprisingly the relatively recent addition of meat to their diets may be the key to their good health and long lives.

For twelve centuries, meat eating in Japan was largely banned and the diet of the average Japanese person was often nutritiously poor, at times consisting of just a little rice, other coarse grains and acorns with very little protein. 

This was the situation as recently as the Second World War. Japan, which was heavily dependent on imported food, suffered more from hunger than almost any other war-affected countries. 

After the war, prosperity in Japan rapidly increased and there was a major shift from rural to urban living. Post-war American food aid also introduced a wide range of new foods, including meat and dairy, to a new generation through a school lunch program. Western fast foods also became popular: today Japan has more MacDonald’s outlets than any other country except the United States[1]. As a result, meat consumption in Japan started to rise: from almost nothing in 1960 to 52 kg per capita by 2013, which is still less than half the amount consumed in the United States. 

List of countries with McDonald’s restaurants – Source: Wikipedia

At the same time as meat consumption increased, longevity began to increase in Japan. In 1970, life expectancy was merely average for OECD countries. Although rates of cancer and heart disease were relatively low, Japan had the highest frequency of cerebrovascular deaths – strokes – amongst any OECD country. Between 1970 and 1990, rates of cerebrovascular deaths fell to the OECD average and as a result Japan rose rapidly up the global longevity league table; today Japanese people are amongst the longest lived in the world.

In a recent article in the Economist newspaper[2], Tsugane Shoichiro of the National Cancer Centre in Tokyo proposed the theory that some meat and dairy may be needed to keep blood vessels robust (and prevent strokes), though not so much that those vessels get clogged.

A major study recently published in the UK[3] seems to support this idea: compared to meat eaters, vegetarians had higher rates of stroke.

In a recent newsletter from the International Livestock Research Institute, Hank Fitzhugh, adjunct professor and senior fellow at the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, Texas A&M University and a former director general of ILRI, neatly summarised this as the ‘Goldilocks diet’: not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of animal-sourced foods for healthy living.

[1] List of countries with McDonald’s restaurants – Wikipedia

[2]Japanese people may have gained longevity by balancing their diets | The Economist

[3]Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study | The BMJ

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