Years ago Chinese expeditions referred to Okinawa as the land of the immortals and today we know these islands as one of the famous Blue Zones. In case you never heard of it, Okinawa, often called the ‘Japanese Hawaii’, is a picturesque archipelago known for its laid-back atmosphere, palm-fringed beaches, and warm climate.
Japan has a high number of semi-supercentenarians (those over 110 years old) – seven per million people. And Okinawa is the leader of this race, compared to the rest of the country, with 35 semi-supercentenarians per million. Despite enduring centuries of challenges, including wars and natural disasters, Okinawa has maintained its reputation for fostering extreme longevity.
Let’s dig into this ‘mystery’ and find out what are the key features of Okinawans’ impressive lifespan. according to Dan Buettner’s best-seller ‘The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’.
Plant-based diet – a key to the longevity of people of Okinawa
Before World War II, Okinawans who lived to be centenarians endured hardship, including hunger and physical exertion, but had healthy diets. However, after the war, the American military base brought prosperity, fast food, and larger portions, leading to a decline in healthy habits, and a noticeable disparity between the older and younger generations.
Due to that, Okinawa now faces obesity-related diseases, with the highest obesity rate in Japan and a high number of premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases, particularly among middle-aged men.
That is why, to understand the roots of Okinawan centenarians’ lifespan, we have to focus on year-long dieting traditions.
The older generation of Okinawans has predominantly followed a plant-based diet throughout their lives. Their meals consist of nutrient-rich and low-calorie options such as stir-fried vegetables, and miso-soup. They don’t necessarily eat more or less than others, relative to body weight, but the food they eat is rich in calcium, vitamins, and iron.
Hara hachi bu – a reminder that keeps Okinawans from eating too much
Okinawan centenarians never forget to say out loud ‘hara hachi bu’ before each meal.
They follow this practice, meaning they eat until they are 80% full, as a Confucian-inspired adage.
Okinawans not only focus on what they eat but also on how much. This deliberate calorie restriction slows down the body’s metabolism, reducing the production of damaging oxidants.
By adopting the principle of hara hachi bu and feeling satisfied at 80% fullness, they achieve even better results in terms of maintaining a lean physique and prolonging their lifespan.
Unprocessed foods are at the base of centenarians’ diet
Every day long-livers of Okinawa practice bio-ecological prevention, which involves consuming simple, nonprocessed foods. These foods promote a positive ecology of friendly bacteria in our intestines, including beneficial lactic acid bacteria.
Stressors like certain medications, and the consumption of meats and processed foods disrupt this balance, shifting from friendly to unfriendly bacteria. Junk food consumption also leads to chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, causing harm to our organs and arteries. Managing this inflammation is crucial for overall well-being, which is why Okinawans’ way of consuming food is so beneficial.
Top 10 longevity-promoting foods of Okinawa
The majority of elders who reached a centenarian status in Okinawa were shaped by the hardships they faced. They endured periods of hunger, discipline, and physical exertion, and got a taste for consuming low-calorie and sometimes unpleasant in taste yet healthiest foods. It raises the question of whether their affinity for these foods is rooted in a longstanding appreciation or if their taste has evolved in response to what is truly beneficial for their well-being.
The traditional Okinawan diet includes a variety of soy-based foods, such as tofu, miso soup and edamame (whole soybeans). The average daily consumption of soy products in Okinawa is approximately three ounces.
The flavonoids present in tofu may contribute to heart protection and act as a safeguard against breast cancer. Fermented soy foods, in particular, promote a healthy gut microbiome and offer even greater nutritional advantages. Soy also has the potential to lower levels of ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol in the body and can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
According to experts, soy products containing phytoestrogens are likely a better option than hormone supplements. There is speculation among researchers that these products may offer the rejuvenating benefits of estrogen without the associated risks of cancer.
Okinawan mugwort, a species belonging to the Artemisia genus, possesses a remarkable natural substance renowned for its effectiveness in combating malaria. Recognising its importance, the World Health Organization has prioritised ensuring the availability of a specific form of Artemisia in developing countries. In Okinawa, however, mugwort is so abundant that it is considered almost like a weed. It thrives everywhere, and the locals incorporate it into their diet and medicinal practices, including its use in treating fevers.
Mugwort itself has an intensely bitter taste, making it quite unpalatable. Yet, somehow, Okinawans have developed a preference for this bitter herb and frequently utilise it as a seasoning for their rice.
3Goya (bitter melon)
Just like mugwort, the vegetable known as goya, or bitter melon, had a similar destiny of becoming a common addition to the meal despite its remarkably bitter taste.
Despite its misleading name as a fruit, is actually a long and knobby gourd resembling a warty cucumber. In Okinawa, it is frequently included alongside other vegetables in a popular stir-fried dish called goya champuru, which is considered a national dish and a fundamental component of the local diet.
Recent studies have revealed bitter melon to be an effective anti-diabetic agent, exhibiting similar potency to pharmaceuticals in regulating blood sugar levels. Similar to other Okinawan foods, goya contains compounds that have the potential to inhibit the production of harmful free radicals.
Okinawans have a distinct green tea variety known as shanpien, meaning ‘tea with a bit of a scent.’ It is prepared by adding jasmine flowers and sometimes a touch of turmeric. Green tea is enriched with exclusive compounds that research indicates may provide protection against a range of age-related issues. These include heart disease, various types of cancer, stroke, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cognitive decline.
Turmeric holds a significant place in the Okinawan diet, serving as both a spice and a tea. Renowned for its potent anticancer, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric contains several compounds currently being studied for their potential anti-ageing effects, particularly their ability to mimic the benefits of caloric restriction in the body.
One of its notable compounds, curcumin, has demonstrated in both clinical trials and population studies its ability to slow the progression of dementia. This may help explain why Okinawans experience lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease compared to Western countries.
Notably, the Okinawan practice of combining turmeric with black pepper enhances the bioavailability of curcumin by an astonishing 1,000-fold.
In Okinawa, where centenarians consume rice as a daily staple, both brown and white rice are part of their diet. From a nutritional standpoint, brown rice holds the advantage. The refining process involved in producing white rice removes dietary fibre and essential nutrients, including most B vitamins and all essential fatty acids present in rice.
However, Okinawan brown rice, known for its delightful taste, undergoes a soaking process that allows it to germinate until the early stages of sprouting. This germination activates enzymes that break down sugar and protein, resulting in a naturally sweet flavour and a softer texture for the rice.
7Seaweeds (kombu and wakame)
Seaweeds, such as kombu and wakame, offer a satisfying and nutrient-dense addition to the diet while being low in calories. These seaweeds are commonly consumed in Okinawa and are often used to enhance the flavour of meals – soups and stews.
They are abundant in carotenoids, folate, magnesium, iron, calcium, and iodine. Moreover, they contain six specific compounds that are exclusive to sea plants, which demonstrate potent antioxidant properties at the cellular level.
Okinawan imo, a vibrant purple sweet potato, is a highly nutritious variant of the yellow-orange sweet potato family. Despite its deliciously sweet flavour, purple imo has a lower impact on blood sugar levels compared to regular white potatoes. The leaves of the imo plant are consumed as greens, often added to miso soup, while the potato itself has been a dietary staple since the 17th century in Okinawa. Similar to other sweet potatoes, it contains valuable antioxidants known as sporamin, which possess various powerful anti-ageing properties. However, the purple imo variety boasts even higher levels of antioxidants compared to its counterparts.
Shiitake mushrooms, known for their smoky flavour, are a favored ingredient in Okinawan cuisine, particularly in traditional dishes like miso soup and stir-fries.
These mushrooms grow naturally on decaying bark in forests and boast over 100 different compounds that offer immune-boosting properties. When purchased in dried form, they can be easily rehydrated through soaking or cooking in a liquid such as soups or sauces, while retaining most of their nutritional value.
Garlic, occasionally enjoyed in a pickled form in Okinawa, is renowned as one of nature’s most potent natural remedies.
Numerous scientific studies have indicated that consuming garlic can potentially prevent or reduce the occurrence of significant chronic diseases commonly associated with ageing. These diseases include atherosclerosis, stroke, cancer, immune disorders, cerebral ageing, arthritis, and cataract formation.
Garlic’s remarkable medicinal properties make it a valuable addition to promoting overall health and well-being.
In 1902, Okinawans got 80% of their calorie intake from sweet potatoes.
Before 1940, Okinawans ate fish three times a week, along with seven servings of vegetables and a couple of servings of grains daily.
Non-food habits of Okinawans that you can adopt for better healthspan and longevity
1Find and safeguard your sense of purpose
In Okinawa, the concept of ikigai, or the reason for waking up in the morning, holds great importance. Roles and a sense of purpose play a vital role in longevity. When individuals suddenly lose their traditional roles, it can have a measurable impact on mortality, especially observed among retired teachers and policemen. These professions provide clear purposes and higher status, and upon retirement, the loss of these qualities often leads to rapid decline.
Older Okinawans can easily express the reason they wake up each day. Their purpose-filled lives grant them clear responsibilities and a sense of being needed, sustaining their well-being even into their centenarian years.
2Maintain strong social connections
The concept of moai, meaning ‘meeting for a common purpose,’ originally served for Okinawans as a financial support system in villages. It involved pooling money locally to assist with land purchases or emergencies. Today, moai has evolved into a social support network, a ritualised means of companionship.
Japanese women, who live nearly 8% longer on average than American women, may attribute part of their longevity to the practice of moai which helps avoid stress and isolation.
3Start gardening – it’s a perfect hobby!
Gardening is a common practice among Okinawan centenarians, providing physical activity and stress reduction. It also promotes cognitive health and ensures a steady supply of fresh vegetables. Additionally, having a garden reduces the reliance on grocery stores and pharmacies.
4Keep moving every day
Stay active by following the example of older Okinawans who, apart from gardening, engage in regular walking. Their lifestyle involves minimal furniture, with meals and relaxation done on tatami mats on the floor. The frequent movement between sitting and standing builds lower body strength and balance, reducing the risk of falls.
5Enjoy a gentle sunbathing
Regular exposure to sunlight enables the body to produce vitamin D, which enhances bone strength and overall health. Senior Okinawans maintain optimal vitamin D levels year-round by spending time outdoors. While sunlight is necessary for vitamin D synthesis, excessive exposure can harm the skin. It is recommended to practice 10-15 minutes of sun exposure twice a week, followed by the application of sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. This approach allows for sufficient vitamin D production while safeguarding the skin from excessive sun damage.
6Adopt a positive outlook on things
The shared characteristics among Okinawan centenarians, such as their sharp sense of humour, resilience forged through hardship, and purpose-driven traditional lifestyles, may offer insights into their longevity.
Let’s sum up
The lifestyle habits of Okinawa centenarians offer valuable insights into the key factors contributing to their longevity. One prominent aspect is their diet, which is predominantly plant-based and emphasises fresh vegetables. They consume lean sources of protein, such as tofu, while minimising their intake of processed foods. Another important factor is their active lifestyle, as they engage in regular physical activity through gardening and walking. Additionally, Okinawans have a strong sense of community and social support networks. Finally, Okinawans benefit from ample sunlight exposure, which promotes the production of vitamin D.
Want to learn more?
Watch this fascinating short documentary to see how daily life looks for the elders in the village of Ogimi (Okinawa). They share their wisdom on maintaining purpose in life and keeping the community together. Just don’t forget to turn on the subtitles! 🙂
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