Dieters across America are turning to a Japanese lunchbox, called a bento, as an innovative way to help with counting calories and weight loss. The bento has been used for centuries in Japan to carry a delicious, nutritious, and visually appealing meal to eat on the go — kids take their bento boxes to school; employees take their bento boxes to work. Many Japanese restaurants in the United States have bento boxes on their menus.
Bento Box: Controlled Portion Sizes
The bento box is a tray with four or five compartments of varying shapes and sizes, some that are open and others that can be sealed tightly to hold liquids, such as soup, salad dressing, or sauce.
Typically, a bento box in Japan is packed with foods such as rice, fish or meat, vegetables, and pickled vegetables or perhaps dessert. The idea is to make the portions as attractive as possible, dividing the food into striking arrangements and using eye-catching color combinations.
Bento Box: Helping With Counting Calories
All of this sounds like a nice idea, but what does it have to do with weight loss?
“The compartments in a bento box are relatively small, so there is built-in portion control,” says Ken Fujioka, MD, director of the Center for Weight Management and director of nutrition and metabolic research at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, Calif. “You end up counting calories, even though you may not know it.”
For example, Dr. Fujioka notes, you can only pack a certain amount of any given food into even the largest container. “If you try to stuff two cups of rice or pasta into a container built for half a cup, it just won’t work,” he points out.
Bento Box: Stick to a Nutritious Menu
Don’t kid yourself: You won’t lose weight just because the portions are small. Even with a bento box, it’s still important to pack foods that won’t pack on the pounds.
For example, if you include potato chips in one container with sour cream dip in another, and throw in a brownie for dessert, you are not going to lose weight just because you carry a bento box to work.
Still, the varied sizes included in the bento box container help when you’re trying to lose weight. They make it easier to balance a healthy ratio of foods. For example, larger sections can be used for vegetables and smaller sections for carbohydrates, which may help the pounds come off faster.
Bento Box: Channel Your Inner Van Gogh
If, like the Japanese, you choose to fill in any little gaps after your main bento box is filled, you can place low-calorie foods, like broccoli flowers or red pepper strips, in any empty spaces within each compartment. Cherry tomatoes, radish halves, and slices of fruit work well, too.
Remember to use bright colors to keep things appetizing. Let your imagination be your guide. Kids — and some adults — like to use cookie cutters to shape their bento box food.
“Using a bento box for weight loss is a very good idea,” Fujioka says. “Even when you’ve reached your goal weight, you won’t gain it back if you keep using a bento box filled with nutritious meals.”
Bento boxes are available in a wide variety of designs for adults and children at Asian markets, housewares stores and gift shops, supermarkets, and online. Also, there are kid-size and adult-size bento boxes, so make sure you buy the appropriate one. Then have fun filling it!