When we talk about longevity, Okinawa is one place that comes to mind. This southernmost region of Japan has some of the longest-living inhabitants on earth.
This makes Okinawa one of the “blue zones” – places in the world where the residents live longer and suffer from fewer age-related disabilities or diseases such as stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (Other blue zones include Sardinia, Italy, and Ikaria, Greece.)
Scientists have been studying Okinawa’s centenarians to learn the reasons behind their longevity, and many believe that their diet plays a large role in their long and healthy lives.
What is the Okinawa diet?
The Okinawa diet is a traditional one that the indigenous people of the Ryukyu Islands follow.
It comprises mostly vegetables and legumes, particularly soy. It is high in complex carbohydrates, and low in fat and calories.
Okinawans believe that we are what we eat, and revere food as medicine. So the “longevity food” they eat is good for health in general.
The diet, which features low levels of saturated fat and glycemic content, and high antioxidant consumption, is a probable reason for Okinawans’ lower risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and chronic diseases.
Benefits of the Okinawa diet
1. Promotes weight loss
Low in calories and high in fibre, the Okinawa diet can help with achieving a healthy weight, which is necessary for preventing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer.
2. Rich in essential nutrients
Essential nutrients are vital for the body’s proper function, and antioxidants help to guard the body against cellular damage. The nutrient-dense, high-antioxidant whole foods in the Okinawa diet help to keep diseases at bay and slow down the aging process.
An anti-inflammatory diet can lower our risk of chronic diseases because:
it is low in refined carbohydrates such as white rice, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike, encouraging an inflammatory state in the body, increasing the risk of chronic disease;
it is low in saturated fat (which can increase inflammation), but high in omega-3 fatty acids (which reduces inflammation);
it is packed with vitamins A, C, E, and phytochemicals, which are antioxidants that protect your cells from free radical damage and reduce inflammation.
What’s in the Okinawa diet?
The traditional Okinawa diet is low in calories and fat, and high in carbs. Although regular Japanese diet includes lots of white rice, the Okinawa diet features the Okinawan sweet potato as its staple.
Fibre-rich vegetables make up 60 percent of an Okinawan diet, including seaweed, kept, daikon radish, carrots, bamboo shoots, pumpkin, and the Okinawan sweet potato.
Grains such as millet and wheat, noodles and rice make up about 30 percent, and soy foods like tofu, natto, edamame, and miso make up about five percent.
The rest is meat and seafood – white fish and the occasional pork, including the internal organs.
Okinawans also consume lots of jasmine tea, and add a dash of antioxidant-rich spices like turmeric to their food.
In fact, compared to the average Japanese diet, the Okinawan one consists of only 30 percent sugar and 15 percent grains.
Lifestyle wise, Okinawans are diligent with their daily physical activity and practice mindful eating so they don’t overeat.
What’s not in the Okinawa diet?
As a result of Okinawa’s geography (it’s in relative isolation), it doesn’t have access to a lot of foods for most of its history.
This means they don’t get to eat beef or chicken, or processed meats like sausages, ham, bacon and other cured meats.
They also have limited access to eggs and dairy products like milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter, processed cooking oils and breakfast cereals, snacks like cookies, pastries, or chips, nuts and seeds and legumes (other than soy beans).
So if you’re planning to wholly adopt this diet, those are the foods you’ll want to restrict.
How you can adopt the Okinawa diet
The good news is you don’t have to follow the Okinawa diet strictly to reap some of its many benefits. You can easily incorporate some changes into your diet, such as:
Doubling up on your greens. Three-fifths of your plate should be filled with vegetables, preferably deep green ones like kale and spinach or brightly coloured ones like bell peppers and pumpkins. The remaining two-fifths should be split between proteins and grains equally.
Switching red meat for half to one serving of fish. Even better, increase your intake of legumes like soybeans.
Going for soy or soy foods. For instance, include some tofu or replace dairy milk for soy milk.
Adding a variety of mushrooms to your meal – button, shiitake, oyster, and enoki – and replace your meat with them wherever possible.
Should you go on the Okinawa diet?
“When looking at diets that promote health and long life such as the Okinawa diet, it is important to look at it as a whole and extract elements from it,” says Dr Pooja Vig, functional medicine nutritionist at The Nutrition Clinic.
“Traditional diets have evolved as part of a complete lifestyle; it came from what was available in the environment, as well as restrictions that the environment placed on its people. With the Okinawa diet, for example, the level of minerals in the water and soil play a big role in its health benefits – as does the use of root vegetables, such as purple sweet potato in place of large quantities of rice.”
Bonnie Rogers, functional medicine health coach at The Nutrition Clinic, agrees.
“I see so many clients that try to restrict their lifestyle and diets. They usually end up with nutritional deficiencies and lose sight of why they started following the diet in the first place. So I urge clients to avoid following the latest diet without first looking into what nutritional needs they might have. What works for one might not work for another.
“Also, very few people stick to a prescribed diet long-term if it doesn’t fit into their lifestyle. So take the parts that make sense, such as increasing vegetables, being more active, and eliminating processed foods, instead of being too rigid and following an unsustainable short-term fad diet,” urges Bonnie.