The residents of Okinawa, Japan, live longer and in better health than anyone else on earth. Could their diet hold the secret?
We should all be so lucky to be born in Okinawa. This tiny group of islands off the coast of Japan boasts a higher percentage of centenarians (people aged 100+) than any other place on earth. “There are more than 700 centenarians there now; that’s 5 times as many than in the United States, if you adjust for population,” says Dr. Bradley Willcox, a geriatric specialist who has been studying the Okinawan people since the 1970s.
Not only do the Okinawans live longer, they live healthier–largely avoiding the common diseases of aging, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. It’s not uncommon to see a 92-year-old Okinawan woman climbing nimbly up a fruit tree to to pick guavas for her farm stand, or a 95-year-old Okinawan man jogging briskly down the beach.
So what’s their secret–great genes? Not according to Dr. Willcox, who confirms that while genetics play a role, the Okinawan lifestyle, including their unique diet, is perhaps the most important factor. In fact, over the last several decades, the gradual introduction of a more western diet in Okinawa has coincided with a rise in cancer and heart disease rates in the younger generations, suggesting that genetics plays much less of a role than food.
We spoke to Dr. Willcox, who shared 7 key tenets of the Okinawan diet, and why they might help you live Fab Over One Hundred.
- Fill your plate with plants.
Long before Michelle Obama redesigned our plates to include more veggies, the Okinawans were making it a way of life. The average Okinawan consumes at least seven servings of vegetables daily–mostly dark leafy greens, seaweed, bean sprouts, green peppers and sweet potatoes. “Most Okinawan centenarians were and are farmers,” says Dr. Willcox. “Even if they’re no longer working large farms, they have fruit and vegetable stands. They eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit from their own trees.” If you’re a gardener, you’re half way there. If not, head to your local farmer’s market or join a CSA.
- Consider the sweet potato.
Atkins, be damned, Okinawans love their sweet potatoes. Until recently, the tubers made up almost 70 percent of the Okinawan diet. “Sweet potatoes contain a powerful Flavonoid and they have a low-glycemic index,“ says Dr. Willcox, referring to the measure of how much a carbohydrate effects blood sugar levels. This is a major difference between the Okinawan diet and that of mainland Japanese, who eat primarily white rice, a high-glycemic-index carb. Since the recent introduction of more rice into the Okinawan diet in place of sweet potatoes, rates of obesity and type II diabetes have increased. “According to classic Okinawan diet, carbs are okay as long as they’re low-glycemic carbs,” says Dr. Willcox. For a complete list of foods and their Glycemic Index number, click here.
- Eat soy every day.
Okinawan women tend to avoid many of the typical issues that come with menopause, such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Dr. Willcox attributes this, in part, to their high intake of soy. “Most Okinawan women were farmers or tofu makers, and you still see women in their 90s walking around carrying pots of fresh tofu on their heads. Tofu, miso and other forms of soy are a main source of protein–they’re eaten every day.” Why soy? “Most of the literature shows a protective effect for soy against many diseases, like breast cancer, because it’s a weak estrogen that occupies the estrogen-receptor and prevents the damaging effects of the body’s natural estrogen.” Other isoflavones in soy have been shown to actually slow the development of prostate cancer, which is virtually unheard of in Okinawa.
- Learn some recipes that call for turmeric.
Turmeric is one of the Okinawans’ favorite culinary spices, ever since they began importing it from India in the 6th century. Long used in Ayurvedic medicine, Turmeric is now being studied by Western medicine as a tool for cancer prevention and treatment. It’s active ingredient, curcumin, is a powerful anti-inflammatory proven to kill cancer cells in a lab dish and shrink tumors in animal specimens. Studies in humans are still in the early stages, but if the Okinawans are any indication, a diet rich in the spice might be a good idea.
- Make meat a rare treat.
Okinawans are not vegetarians. In fact, unlike the rest of Japan, they aren’t Buddhists, so they have been able to cook with pork and beef. That said, meat is used sparingly. “Historically, Okinawans would slaughter a pig at the beginning of the year and nip away at it for months,” explains Dr. Willcox. “They’d save it for special occasions and use every part–even boiling the hooves and snout for stew.” Beef is even rarer. Their primary source of protein comes from soy, legumes and fish.
- Drink green tea like it’s going out of style.
Traditionally, Okinawans spent all day drinking unsweetened green tea–dipping their cups in a big bucket of home brew while they fished or worked in the fields. The unique Okinawan tea blend–called Sanpin–appears to be even more potent than regular green tea, with antoxidants shown to protect against everything from cancer and heart disease to the aging effects of UV rays. A recent study shows that one ingredient actually burns calories, while another induces a feeling of calm and well-being. Bottoms up!
- Forgo the “all-you-can-eat buffet” mentality.
Before tucking into a meal, Okinawans typically toast with the words hara hachi bu, which translates to “eat until you are only 80% full.” “There were times when food was scarce,” explains Dr. Willcox. “Okinawans learned to eat conservatively and exist on fewer calories.” That doesn’t mean they’re constantly hungry–rather, they tend to eat slowly, stopping before they’re completely full to spend 20 minutes sipping green tea before finishing a meal. “This reflects their cultural belief in balance and moderation. There’s no such thing as ‘all you can eat’ in Okinawa.” This type of calorie restriction–eating small, highly nutritious meals–has been scientifically shown to extend life, both in animals and humans. A typical Okinawan elder subsists on 1200 calories per day. Compare this to the average American male, who eats 3500 calories per day.
PhysicianBradley Willcox MD, MS, is a physician specializing in geriatrics and long-term care. He studied geriatrics at Harvard, and currently serves as a Medical Director at The Queen’s Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii and a Professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii. Along with his brother, Dr. Willcox is Co-Principal Investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study and the co-author of The Okinawa Program and The Okinawa Diet.