What Is The Okinawa Diet?
The Okinawa diet is the reason that the people of Okinawa have long healthy lives. Or, at least they used to before the second world war. Okinawa is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, and the fifth largest island in Japan. It was once famed for having one of the longest living cultures in the world. Researchers studied people in Okinawa to discover the secret behind their longevity. One of these studies is in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. Authors Michel Poulain and Gianin Pes describe certain places in the world as “Blue Zones”. These are geographic hot spots in the world where people live the longest. Okinawa is one of their Blue Zones. In a 2005 story in National Geographic, Dan Buettner popularised the idea of Blue Zones. The researchers found that Okinawan people had less chronic diseases than Western people. There was less incidence of cancer, stroke and heart attacks. They found that the people of Okinawa had some of the longest lifespans in the world. There were 34 centenarians per 100,000 people. Old people also lived full active lives to the end of their days. The average life expectancy was 84 years for men and 90 for women. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Things changed after World War II when Okinawa became a strategic base for the US Military. With the socio-economic changes that it brought about was a change in diet. Many people adopted a Western diet. Along with fast food, rice became a common food, replacing purple sweet potato as a staple. An article in The Okinawan Journal of American Studies noted that:
“over the last two generations, Okinawans have gone from the lowest body mass index (BMI) and lowest prevalence of type 2 diabetes to the highest among Japanese prefectures”.
That is sad, but the traditional Okinawa diet and way of life still has lessons for us. We can improve our health and live a better lifestyle by following some of their principles.
The Blue Zone Lifestyle
The researchers who studied Blue Zone cities found that people who lived in Blue Zones:
- lived longer, having more centenarians.
- were healthier, having less disease.
- were happier, involved with family and community.
- aged well, remaining lean and energetic till the end of their lives.
INFOGRAPHIC - Blue Zones Overview
Where are the Blue Zone Cities & What do they have in common
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The Traditional Okinawa Diet
In a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition Drs. Bradley and Craig Wilxcox and Makoto Suzuki reviewed the Okinawan Diet. They note that the traditional Okinawa Diet is a plant-based diet low in calories and dense in nutrients. Characteristic of plant-based diets, it is rich in antioxidants and flavonoids. In the Okinanwan Way, a typical meal consists of a starter of Miso soup made of miso paste, seaweed, tofu, sweet potato and green leafy vegetables. It is followed by the main dish which is usually a combination of stir-fried vegetables flavoured with small amounts of meat or fish. The meal is finished with Jasmine or Green tea. The chart below shows nutrient breakdown of a traditional Okinawa diet:
Okinawa Diet Pyramid
Based on traditional meal patterns, the Okinawa food pyramid looks like one below. If you compare this to the modern healthy food pyramid, you will notice there are similarities. For one, the Okinawa diet is mostly based on vegetables and legumes (mostly soy), whole grains, moderate amounts of fish and small amounts of meat and dairy. This is also similar to the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet.
The Okinawa Diet Food List
What do Okinawans eat? The Okinawa diet is mainly plant based, with lots of leafy greens and colourful vegetables. One of the staples of their diet is the purple sweet potato. A common dish is chanpuru or stir-fry, made with bitter melon or “goya”, tofu and egg. Okinawans eat plenty of soy, in the form of Tofu. Brown and white rice are also eaten regularly. The table below lists foods that make up the Okinawa diet.
Okinawa Diet Sweet Potato
One of the most important foods is the purple sweet potato, which is the staple carbohydrate of the traditional Okinawan diet. The shoots and leaves of this common root vegetable are sometimes added to soup and eaten as greens. It is a low-GI vegetable rich in antioxidants and a good source of Vitamins A, B, C and E.
|How Much To Eat
The Okinawa Way
The Okinawans live by a strong ethic called ikigai which means to have something that makes life worth living, or the thing you get up every morning for. This is something that is very clear for the Okinawans and gives them a feeling of confidence and being needed well into old age. It embraces what is important to a person in terms of those they love, what they are good at doing and what makes them happy.
Another valuable lesson that we can learn from the Okinanwan Way is the tradition of Hara Hachi Bu which can roughly be translated as “Eat until you are 80% full”. The Okinawans say this before beginning every meal to remind themselves to stop eating before they are stuffed. As a result the daily calorie intake of an Okinawan is between 1200 – 1900 calories. A lot less than the average intake of 2500 calories of a person in the Western developed world. One was of putting this principle in practice is to eat mindfully and slowly, eating smaller portions.
In conclusion we can see that the secret to longevity among traditional Okinawans lies in eating a nutrient rich low calorie primarily plant based diet. Coupled with controlled eating and an active social and family life this should help us live much healthier and happier.