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The Problem of Meal Skipping and Ideal Nutritional Support
-Lessons on Dietary Intake from Olympic Athletes-

Motoko Taguchi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

The selection of Tokyo as the host city for the 2020 Olympics is still fresh in our minds. The speeches and lobbying efforts of Yuki Ota and other Japanese Olympians (Olympic team members) were impressive. I have worked with many top athletes, and I have never met a medalist who skips meals. As you can see in Photos 1 and 2, these athletes eat very well from the morning onward, regardless of their living arrangements. There are no special ingredients or dishes—just combinations of ingredients you can find anywhere that are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. They say they were raised from a young age in homes where eating without skipping meals was expected.

Photo 1: Olympian (Medalist) Breakfast Example 1 (Living at Home with Parents)

Photo 2: Olympian Breakfast Example 2 (Living Alone)

Food is of utmost importance in ensuring the mental and physical health of all Japanese citizens and enabling them to live vibrantly throughout their lives. In recent years, however, there have been dramatic changes in the environment surrounding the Japanese diet, including increases in nutritional imbalance, irregular meals, obesity and lifestyle-related diseases, a decline in the food self-sufficiency rate, a crisis surrounding traditional food culture, and changes in food security, which have started to have a profound impact on mental and physical health. The Basic Law on Shokuiku (food and nutrition education) was established in 2005 to resolve these kinds of problems. It casts dietary education as the foundation for living and the basis for intellectual, moral and physical education.

According to surveys conducted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, children who eat breakfast every day tend to score higher, on average, in surveys on academic ability and earn higher total scores on physical fitness tests. There is also data indicating a low incidence of childhood obesity among these children. This information resulted in the Cabinet’s determination in March 2010 that the skipping of breakfast was a current problem requiring improvement and that it would be addressed in coordination with the relevant ministries and agencies.

Infancy is regarded as the time when the foundation of a child’s eating habits is laid, later childhood as the period when eating habits are established, and puberty as the period when the child develops independent eating habits. Given the fact that eating habits are established relatively early in life, it seems that the elementary and middle school years are a critical time for influencing them. However, while there appeared to be a decrease in the rate of meal skipping among children and students from 2005 to 2007, when dietary education began to be actively promoted, the rate has not decreased since then (1). In addition, the rate of meal skipping among 18-19-year-old high school graduates has rapidly increased, and the percentages of men and women in their twenties who skip breakfast have reached their highest levels, at 34.1% for men and 28.8% for women (2). This means that roughly one in every three people does not eat breakfast, a surprisingly high proportion.

On the other hand, in a survey of elementary school students who played sports (3), it was found that very few of the children skipped breakfast and that the more competitive the athlete (team), the better the consumed breakfast was in both quantity and quality. The appropriate interpretation of this data is not that the children were strong, so they ate breakfast, but that they were strong because they ate breakfast. In addition to building awareness about the importance of daily meals, the researchers in this research project made a “Sports Nutrition Education Placemat” (Figure 1) and communicated a simple, practical message about preparing a staple food, main dish, two side dishes, milk or other dairy product, and fruit for every meal.

Figure 1: Sports Nutrition Education Placemat
(Sports Nutrition Guidebook for Elementary and Middle School Students [Shou/Chuugakusei no Supootsu Eiyou Gaido], 2010, Kagawa Nutrition University Publishing Division)

Photo 3 shows the changes in the food selected for breakfast due to a dietary intervention (dietary education) at a JAAF (Japan Association of Athletics Federations) training camp for junior JAAF-certified athletes. Meals had been provided in an all-you-can-eat format, and athletes had only been choosing the staple foods and dairy products they wanted to eat before the intervention. A few days after the dietary intervention, however, the selection of vegetables, fruits, and other foods increased, as seen in the photo on the right, and nutrient intake greatly improved with the changes in food selection. If one meal can bring about such a dramatic change, it is clear that the accumulation of every meal we eat has a profound effect on physical condition and body development. It is not enough to simply raise dietary awareness. Making changes in the food that goes in our mouths and the quantity and quality of the dishes directly affects physical condition, nutrition, and health. Thus, rather than starting dietary education when people are in their twenties, repeated practical instruction and talks with children at home and school from the elementary school years onward are needed. People don’t suddenly start eating full breakfasts one day, so those who regularly skip meals should first start with consuming something—for example, one glass of milk or a roll.

Photo 3: Changes brought about by dietary education at a JAAF training camp

Exercise well, eat well. We live in an age when this obvious principle is difficult to follow. But if we want our children to grow and develop in a healthy way, improve their studies, and be active in sports, we need to first start with parents and guardians enhancing their children’s breakfast. If parents and guardians’ awareness of food does not change, their children’s nutritional health will not change either.

With the recent developments in the Olympic Movement, I have high hopes that the eating habits of Olympians, or athletes who train intensely day after day to achieve their dreams, will serve as a model, that the dietary awareness and attitude of parents and guardians will change, and that meal-skipping among children and young people will decrease.

1) Results of the Survey on the Actual Eating Habits, Etc. of Children and Students [Jidou Seito no Shoku-seikatsuto Jittai Chousa] done by the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health
2) From the results of The National Health and Nutrition Survey in Japan, 2011 [Heisei 23 Nen Kokumin Kenkou Eiyou Chousa]
3) A Survey and Research on the Development of a Sports Nutrition Education Program for Elementary School Students [Shougakusei wo Taishou to Shita Supootsu Shokuiku Puroguramu Kaihatsu ni Kansuru Chousa/Kenkyuu], a 2006-2008 report published in the Report on Sports Medicine/Science Research, Japan Sports Association

Motoko Taguchi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Associate Professor Taguchi received a bachelor’s degree in Dietitian Studies from the Department of Food Science, Faculty of Home Economics, Otsuma Women’s University. She received a master’s degree from the Japan Women’s College of Physical Education and a doctoral degree from the Graduate School of Sport Sciences, Waseda University. She has a doctorate in sports science, and is a registered dietitian, a certified sports nutritionist, and a health fitness programmer. Her area of specialization is sports nutrition. She assumed her current position after working at companies, and as a collaborative researcher at the Department of Health Promotion and Exercise, National Institute of Health and Nutrition, a contract researcher at the Department of Sports Medicine, Japan Institute of Sports Sciences, and an Associate Professor at the Japan Women’s College of Physical Education. She is on the board of directors of the Japan Sports Nutrition Association. She is a member of the Medical Committee for the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, as well as a member of the Expert Panel on the Future Shape of Dietary Education in Schools under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. She received an Honorable Mention for the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Medicine and Science Award in 2010. She has extensive experience in giving nutritional guidance to athletes and coaches from the junior to the elite level. Her major publications include Meals and Nutrition to Help Athletes Build Combat-Ready Bodies [Tatakau Shintai wo Tsukuru Asuriito no Shokuji to Eiyou] (co-authored, Natsume Sha) and Sports Nutrition Science for Conditioning, New Edition [Shinpan Kondishoningu no Supootsu Eiyou-gaku] (co-authored, Ichimura Publishing House), among many others.