The Okinawan Secret to Longevity

An Okinawan fish market. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Known for having a high life expectancy compared to the rest of the world, Okinawans might have discovered the holy grail of living a healthy life. Ever wonder about what exactly they have for lunch and dinner?

“Eat your greens,” our moms used to say. Some people neglect the importance of veggies since childhood, oftentimes wearing a face of disgust after getting a taste of them. To Okinawans, vegetables are a major component of their diet, a major part of their life. Even at old ages, they’re found to be youthful as youngsters. This has inspired people around the world to eat the “Okinawan” way.

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Okinawan diet and benefits

Okinawa is one of Japan’s largest islands. Moreover, the island is considered one of the blue zones, one of the 5 regions in the world where the population has a high life expectancy and low-risk rates to debilitating diseases like heart failures, diabetes, and obesity.

Their lifespans can be attributed to their environment, genes, lifestyle, and of course, diet. Most people think that the Okinawan diet is just a plan, a list of what to eat from breakfast to dinner, but it’s more than that. It is, at its roots, an eating style — handed and passed down through generations.

The diet of the Okinawans is rich in carbs and low in calories and fat. This is because a traditional Okinawan diet is plant-based: pumpkins, bitter melon, bell pepper, seaweed, sweet potatoes, and beans to name a few. “The predominance of yellow vegetables makes this diet high in carotenoids which can lower inflammation and improve immune system function,” says bariatric dietitian Melissa Rifkin R.D.

A traditional cafe in Okinawa. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)
A traditional café in Okinawa. (Image: Pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Rice is part of an Okinawan meal, but it is found in smaller quantities. Instead, most of the calories come from purple and orange sweet potatoes. Tofu and mushrooms complete the meal. 

Okinawans include fish, meat, dairy, and eggs in their meals, but they occupy a small portion of the dining table. To them, “meat is a condiment rather than the main course,” says wellness coordinator Tomeka Flowers.

Food is also seen as a medicine. The Okinawan diet features aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. As such, herbs and spices that are highly beneficial to health like turmeric and mugwort are included.

As for eating practices, mindful eating is practiced. Okinawans do it by eating only until they’re satiated — but not necessarily full. This is called “hara hachi bu” by locals.

From a nutritional point of view, the macronutrient content of the traditional Okinawan diet used to be 85 percent carbs, 9 percent protein, and 6 percent fat. With the modernization of food production, the diet has changed. Today, it is 58 percent carbs, 15 percent proteins, and 28 percent fat. Not only is the diet anti-inflammatory, but it is also a potent antioxidant.

Their diet is so healthy that when you compare it with the United States, you’ll be surprised by the large gaps. People dying of heart disease on the island are 6 to 12 times fewer in comparison with the U.S; prostate cancer risks are 7 times fewer, colon cancer mortality is 2 to 3 times less, and death by breast cancer among Okinawans is 5.5 times less likely to happen than in Americans.

Okinawans love their sweet potatoes. (Image: maxpixel / CC0 1.0)
Okinawans love their sweet potatoes. (Image: maxpixel / CC0 1.0)

Okinawan meal plan samples

Now, on to the meal plan. To give you some idea of an Okinawan meal plan, here are some samples you can try from breakfast to dinner.

Breakfast features brown rice and natto (fermented soybeans). Congee is also present and is often served with soy products and veggies. And of course, there’s the miso soup. Stir-fries of bitter melon, bamboo, and cabbage served alongside a small amount of fish, pork, tofu or egg composes dinner and lunch. Side dishes like mugwort, sauteed greens from sweet potato plants and marinated seaweed accompany the vegetable dish. A small plate of fruits is kept for dessert. And sometimes, on special occasions, a brandy made from millet grain is served for a fun and relaxing night.

Besides the diet, Okinawans enjoy a close relationship with each other; their social bonding and sense of belonging are very strong. All this combines with being physically active, whether it’s in the gardens or elsewhere.

So there you have the recipe for a long life: a balanced diet, the company of family and friends, an active lifestyle, and a sense of joy in life. Now, what are you waiting for?

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