Japan by many studies is the country with longest life expectancies. The life expectancies by gender are: males 80.6, females 86.8, with total life expectancies of 83.7 years. Japan also is the country with highest number of centenarians. The credit for this may go to the southernmost prefecture of Japan – Okinawa.
Residents of Okinawa have the highest long expectancies and the highest number of centenarians, and the reason behind this is the traditional Okinawan diet. The Okinawan diet can be described as low-caloric, nutritionally dense diet. The longevity of the Okinawa people may be a result of “avoiding” major age-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes, and major health diseases. The excessive caloric intake that people from postindustrial societies consume is becoming a major problem related to very poor health. Overeating, inactivity and obesity are the main causes for increased age-related diseases.
The Traditional Okinawa Diet
The Okinawa diet as we said is very low in calories but yet very high in nutrient dense foods. On the bottom of the pyramid (as the most important and most eaten ingredients) are fruits and vegetables. This diet is high in carbohydrates (orange-yellow root vegetables as primary source), moderate in protein and very low in saturated fats. This diet contains little amounts of meat, refined grains, sugar, salt and full-fat dairy products. The Okinawa people eat a lot of vegetables and legumes (mostly soy), and food that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The traditional Okinawa diet is very high in phytonutrients, especially antioxidants and flavonoids.
The staple carbohydrate source in the Okinawa diet
Rich in antioxidants, low in calories and full with other healthy substances, the sweet potato is the staple carbohydrate source in their diet. The sweet potato is a plant that is a part from a family that has over 50 genera and more than 1000 species, but it is the only vegetable from this family that is widely distributed around the world. The sweet potato has a low GI (glycemic index) and its leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten as greens and often added to miso soups or served as side dishes in traditional Okinawan cuisine. The American Heart Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has even ranked the sweet potato as the most nutritious of all vegetables, mainly for its content of dietary fiber, naturally occurring sugars, protein content, vitamins A and C, potassium, iron, and calcium as well as its low amounts of fat, sodium and cholesterol. It’s very interesting that the sweet potato contains all of the things that are lacking in the American (Western) diet. The sweet potatoes have been utilized as functional foods (traditional medicines) throughout Japan for many years.
Foods that are heavily present in the Okinawan diet and their health effects
- Flavonoid-Rich Tofu and Other Soy Products
-The high legume content in the traditional Okinawan diet mostly comes from soy and soy products. This may be very important factor that contributes to the longevity of Okinawa people. They are consuming soy in the form of miso soup and tofu much more than any other population on Earth. Soy is rich in flavonoids, which have antioxidant-like effects, among the other health promoting properties. The tofu in Okinawa is lower in water content than the Japanese version and higher in healthy fat and protein. This not only increases the flavor of the tofu, but also increases its isoflavon content, which may possibly be connected to the extremely low rates of breast and prostate cancer in Okinawa.
- Goya ( bitter melon)
-In Okinawa, bitter melon is known as goya. Goya is very unique cucumber shape like gourd that possesses rough, pockmarked skin. Goya is a mainstay in Okinawan cuisine. The Okinawans are using goya in salads (raw or cooked), stir-fries, sandwiches, tempura, as juice and tea, and even in burgers and goya chips in fast food restaurants. Goya is low in caloric density and high in fiber and vitamin C, and it has been used as a medicinal herb in China, Africa, South America, and India, among other places. Folk medicine uses include tonics, emetics, and laxatives, as well as teas for colds, fevers, stomachaches, rheumatic pains, and diabetes.
-Konnyaku is a traditional jelly made from yamlike tuber known as “devil’s tongue” that like originated from China, Indochina, or Southeast Asia. It is an ancient food that lacks flavor but it readily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients in simmered dishes. Konnyaku is extremely low in calories, high in fiber and calcium, and contains practically no fat, making it an ideal food for weight control. Konnyaku is more than 90 percent water, and the rest is glucomannan, making it an effective treatment for constipation and a beneficial therapy for high blood cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
- Shiitake Mushroom
-The shiitake is a large, dark brown, umbrella-shaped mushroom widely used for centuries by Asian culture. Once they were considered as a very important source of protein in Japan and other parts of East Asia. Shiitake mushrooms appear to have immunomodulatory, lipid-lowering, antitumor, and other beneficial or therapeutic health effects.
-Gobo (burdock) is a slender root vegetable with a rusty brown skin and grayish-white flash that is high in iron, with a sweet, earthy flavor. It s also popular folk medicine in Okinawa and many other parts of the world, renowned as a “blood purifier”. Gobo belongs to the family same as lettuce, artichoke, sunflower, chamomile and others. Burdock root is low in caloric density and is high in two kinds of fiber: inulin and a spongy fiber called mucilage, which is thick, glutinous substance related to the natural gums and used in medicine as an emollient. Inulin extracted from edible burdock has also shown probiotic properties that could promote health by increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut.
-Hechima, part of the gourd family, was introduced to Okinawa more than 3 centuries ago. People in mainland Japan don’t eat as much hechima. It is usually served with Okinawan tofu in a miso sauce and called nabera in the local dialect. It is very low-calorie vegetable that is high in vitamin C, folate, carotenoids, and some very interesting proteins that could have important health consequences.
-Seaweeds have been dietary staple in Okinawa, Japan, China, and other parts of Asia for millennia. More than a dozen varieties make up an indispensable part of Okinawan cuisine. Seaweeds are very low in caloric density; nutrient-dense; high in protein, iodine, folate, magnesium, iron, calcium, and carotenoids; and contain significant antioxidant capabilities. They represent much untapped potential for therapeutic interventions.
Traditional Herbs and Spices
-In the past in Okinawa, fuchiba was one of the only readily available treatments for stomach ailments. Fuchiba is known in the West as mugwort and is usually available in liquid or tea form, as well as dried herb for cooking. Mugwort is frequently used in Okinawa cooking in vegetable pilaf dishes, teas, and fish and other soups; and it gives a fresh spring scent to almost ant recipe. Folkloric claims include efficacy in treating multiple conditions, such as respiratory ailments, gout, kidney stones and gallstones, infections, gastritis, tuberculosis, and wounds, among others.
-The Okinawan pepper can be dried and ground to sprinkle on food and is a prime ingredient in the hot, spicy dishes that came to Okinawa from southern China. The leaves of the plant are also used in tempura dishes, and the herb can often be found in the apothecaries of Okinawan herbalists. In Okinawan herbal medicine, hihatsu has been used to treat stomach problems and gout, among other ailments.
-Ichoba (also known as fennel) is a tall, hardy, aromatic perennial of the parsley family, and it has been traditionally used in Okinawa both as a vegetable and an herbal medicine. It has also been a popular herb in Europe since ancient times. Fennel “seeds” have a traditional reputation as an aid to weight loss and longevity.
From everything said above we can conclude that the Okinawan diet is a very healthy one. It combines foods from the sea and land, herbs and spices that are used for flavor but also for medicinal properties, combined together with a lot of vegetables and fruits, prepared on healthy oils or boiled and steamed. This healthy mixture lies behind the longevity of Okinawan people. The Okinawan diet is high on vegetables and legume; moderate consumption of fish products; low consumption of meat; low consumption of dairy products; moderate alcohol consumption; low caloric intake and very high nutrient dense food. This diet can be used as a way to avoid age-related major health diseases like cardiovascular problems, some type of cancers, diabetes, and many others.
– Willcox BJ, Willcox DC, Todoriki H, Fujiyoshi A, Yano K, He Q, Curb JD, Suzuki M: Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet and healthy aging: the diet of the world’s longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and lifespan. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1114:434–455, 2007.
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