Journey to a Japanese archipelago in the South Pacific and you’ll find a community of island dwellers who consistently live for over 100 years. The astounding longevity of the Okinawans has prompted extensive scientific study into the particular habits that may lead to such long, healthy lives. Instead of finding a proverbial fountain of youth, researchers realized that the unique Okinawa diet and strong social networks have helped these centenarians slow the aging process.
Even if you live on other side of the globe, following a similar eating style may help promote good health. Here’s what you should know about the Okinawa diet:
What is the Okinawa diet?
“The traditional Okinawan diet is very produce-rich, making it abundant in phytonutrients and antioxidants, which is the likely reason for its associated health benefits and anti-aging properties,” says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN., Registered Dietitian for the Good Housekeeping Institute. “The Okinawan diet limits meat, refined grains, saturated fat, sugar, salt and full-fat dairy products, which tend to have more inflammatory properties.”
The National Institute of Aging and National Geographic have identified the Okinawa diet as a Blue Zone diet, meaning it’s specifically associated with longevity. “Though they aren’t exclusively vegan, a focus on plant-based eating is a common theme among the Blue Zone diets,” Sassos says.
What does the Okinawa diet consist of?
The vast majority of the Okinawa diet primarily consists of green and yellow vegetables, root vegetables, soy-based foods, and mushrooms. Okinawans eat fish, meat, dairy, and grains like rice in much smaller amounts. Some examples of foods common to Okinawa diet include:
- Vegetables: orange sweet potato, purple sweet potato, seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, radish, bitter melon, cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, papaya, and mushrooms
- Soy-based foods: tofu, miso, natto (fermented soybeans), and edamame
- Grains: millet, wheat, rice, and noodles
- Meat and seafood: fish, seafood, and some pork
The diet typically does not include beef, processed meat, eggs, cheese, milk, and processed carbohydrates like sugary sweets and snacks.
“While the Okinawan diet is low in refined carbohydrates, that doesn’t mean the diet itself is low-carb,” Sassos says. “In fact, Okinawans are known for their high intake of unrefined carbohydrates like root vegetables and green-yellow vegetables, a staple of their diet being sweet potatoes.”
Because some Okinawan foods like salted fish and miso can contain high levels of sodium, talk to your doctor before adopting this eating plan — especially if you’ve been instructed to follow a low-sodium diet.
How often do Okinawans eat?
Okinawans eat regular meals, but the philosophy they follow at each meal makes a key difference. “The Okinawan phrase hara hachi bu is said before meals to remind Okinawans to stop eating when they are 80% full,” Sassos says. “This plays a role in weight management and fighting off obesity.”
Why are Okinawans so healthy?
One reason that Okinawans maintain good health is due to their diet. Like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, this particular eating style is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Researchers theorize that the low levels of saturated fat, high antioxidant intake, and low glycemic load affect multiple biological mechanisms, like reducing oxidative stress.
Okinawans also form unique social networks at age 5 called moai. One studied moai had met every day for 97 years. If one member did not show up, the other four would walk across the village to check on their friend. In addition to forming these strong friendships, Okinawans prize their families and faith communities. They also move naturally throughout the day, getting active by simply cooking, doing housework, and walking.
Can following the Okinawa diet help you lose weight?
“You could certainly lose weight on this type of eating plan, especially with eliminating a slew of higher caloric items like sweets and processed foods and following the hara hachi bu concept,” Sassos says. However, the Okinawa diet is not particularly designed for weight loss, unlike other eating plans out there.
The bottom line:
“This type of diet can be difficult to follow if you aren’t living in Okinawa and don’t have ready access to special foods from the region,” Sassos says. “That being said, we can learn a lot from certain principles of the diet. Emphasizing more whole foods, produce, and plant-forward plates can have a slew of health benefits. Limiting refined processed foods and highly sugary items, as well as eating in moderation, are all important strategies to incorporate into your lifestyle.”
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