The Secret of Longevity the Okinawan Way!

Okinawa womenIn my quest to discover how to live longer a few days back, I began thinking about who the world’s oldest people are.

This has led me into a very interesting study on the Okinawan people of Japan, and I thought I’d share their secrets of longevity with you.

Apparently the island of Okinawa is the best place on earth for healthy aging!

Statistics tell us that in Okinawa there are more people over the age of 100,  per head of population, than anywhere else in the world.

And, not only do they live longer, but they spend a surprisingly large amount of that time healthy, mobile and happy.

There’s no lingering about in nursing homes with this group of people, they’re still working in their gardens, cycling their bike, or fishing at age 90!

In terms of disease, they’re much less likely to be afflicted, unlike us Westerners:

  • 80% less likely to get heart disease
  • 1/4 less likely to get breast or prostate cancer
  • 1/2 the risk of getting colon cancer
  • Less likely to get dementia
  • Around 97% of their lives are spent free of any disability
  • Obesity is rare

I’m sure you’re wondering by now what exactly the Okinawans are doing right. In fact, this is a question researchers have been mulling over since 1976.

It seems that genetics do play a part, however when an Okinawan moves to a new environment, which leads to a lifestyle change, they lose their longevity – this indicates other factors are indeed at play too.

Let’s take a closer look at the Okinawan diet and lifestyle habits

If you’re a strong believer in the theories that we’re ‘hunter gathers’ and poorly suited to eating a high carb diet, you can forget it!

Okinawan Diet

The Okinawan diet is said to include:

  • 7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day – emphasis on dark green veg
  • 7 servings of whole grains a day – noodles, bread, and rice (mostly wholegrain)
  • 2 servings of soy products a day – tofu, soy beans, soy flour
  • Fish 3 times a week – especially omega-3 rich fish
  • Low intake of dairy and meat
  • Seaweed
  • Plenty of water
  • Green tea
  • No alcohol
  • Eat slowly and stop before feeling full

In terms of the dietary proportions: vegetables, grains, and fruits make up around 72% of the diet. Soy and seaweed provide another 14%.  Fish about 11%. Meat, poultry, and eggs account for just 3% of the diet.

Okinawan Food Pyramid

To help us get a better idea of what the Okinawan diet should look like doctors who studied the Okinawan lifestyle produced this pyramid:

(Click pyramid to enlarge)

Okinawa Food PyramidSource: Okinawa Food Pyramid

Okinawan Lifestyle

The Okinawan lifestyle is also very different to the way most of us do things:

  • High levels of physical activity
  • Positive attitude to reduce stress
  • Deep sense of spirituality
  • Close ties with family

By far one of my favourite things I’ve learned about the Okinawan people is that age is celebrated!

It’s never hidden or lied about. Apparently you’re considered to be a child until you turn 55! When when you reach 97 years, the local town will hold a special ritual called ‘kajimaya,’ symbolising your return to youth.

Isn’t that awesome? What a wonderful place to live, and such a far cry from the lives most of us live!

What are your thoughts on this way of life? Do you think it is achievable in the Western world?

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About Melanie
Melanie is a Registered Dietitian who started Dietriffic in March 2007. Her aim is to make good health attainable and sustainable, without guilt and torture, making her approach popular with those who desire a level-headed approach to good health. Have you got your copy of her free book yet?


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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy in NZ February 7, 2009 at 5:58 am

National Geographic (Nov 2005) also suggests the Residents of Loma Linda, California, the Okinawans and Sardina, Italy. ‘genes’ mentioned alot.

You question was not this of course…………but other than implanting the ‘genes’ of these people in the entire population I doubt it will be the complete answer.

I know that my herditary genes have mucked up a couple of things in my ‘body’ – 2 physical things both of which are not noticeable until certain actions are performed (don’t judge the book by the cover!) – the other is medical which is under control by both medications and self management…

so the best I can is try for the healthy lifestyle both physically and mentally but living within the lines of these damn dashed items! :-)

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Stephanie February 7, 2009 at 9:08 am

Japanese soy intake is actually only about a couple of grams per day. Note, though, that the soy is not the processed stuff we have here in America, but probably fermented i.e. natto.

BODA weight loss

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John W. Zimmer February 7, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Oh that – eating right, exercising, reducing stress and becoming socially active in one’s community. Sounds like good, sage advice.

It is good that you noted the environment is one of the main factors. That gives me hope as I can (and will soon) control that! :)

John W. Zimmer’s last blog post..Small Size Me Please! – The New BK Sizes

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Giovanna Garcia February 7, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Thanks for the story, she sounds like she would make a very cool grandma. She reminded me of grandpa. He lived his life in very much the same way.

Thank you,
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action

Giovanna Garcia’s last blog post..An accident became an invention that sold over 250 million.

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Trey - Swollen Thumb Entertainment February 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm

A child until you’re 55. That really is something. It goes to show you that age is just a number, and it’s all in your head. I think that we could learn to celebrate age, instead of mourn it. I believe that since you can die any day, there’s no reason to obsess over your age. Who knows, you may end up to be 100. With that in mind, what’s the big deal over turning 30?

Trey – Swollen Thumb Entertainment’s last blog post..Top 10 Problems With The Movie Industry

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Cathy in NZ February 7, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Trey,
I didn’t ‘read’ that 55……gosh I’m no longer a child!

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Blake February 9, 2009 at 6:31 am

great stuff. Thanks for sharing that pyramid too. I had heard about the Okinawan studies but had never seen the pyramid. Pretty interesting stuff!

Blake’s last blog post..Another Dinner Snap Shot

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Melanie February 9, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Hey Cathy,
I was actually going to discuss the oldest women ever to live, Jeanne Calment, the French woman, who died at age 122 years 164 days!

When asked what her prescription for a long life was, she atributed it to garlic, vegetables, two pounds of chocolate each week, red wine, olive oil, and avoiding brawls. Certainly an interesting combination of advice!

Hi Stephanie,
Do you know what the favoured type of soy would be to eat? Or perhaps it just depends on the person.

Hi John,
Are you moving house?

Hi Trey,
Excellent points. I think women are particularly guilty of not wanting to admit their age. But, I’m really glad to have read about the Okinawans now – it has actually changed my perspective about the whole age thing!

Hey Blake,
I found it extremely interesting too, definitely something I will now keep referring back to.

Hi Slacker,
Are you a pescatarian for health reasons or is it a stepping stone to a fully vegetarian diet?

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Slacker February 9, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I’m actually a pescatarian so my diet is very similar to that of the Okinawan diet. However, sadly, I haven’t been able to cut out cheese yet.

Slacker’s last blog post..Slacker Method for Taking Out the Trash And Saving the Environment

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The Weakonomist February 10, 2009 at 12:48 am

I am a big fan of green tea and try to drink a few cups every day. My diet is also quite healthy. In the end though, there are certain foods not worth giving up. I’d rather live to 91 and have a beer every
night than live to 92 and not. This also stems from the personal belief that life beyond death is just as good or etter than life on this plane.

The Weakonomist’s last blog post..Weaky #11: Sweet Home, Nigeria

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Lara February 9, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Hey Mel,
Am I right that the Okinawan diet is closely associated with the macrobiotic lifestyle? I briefly studied/ practiced macrobiotics in college and I seem to remember the name coming up. Very interesting post. Thank you!

Lara’s last blog post..Dinner for Two (02/08/09)

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Slacker February 9, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Melanie,

I don’t think I could ever become a full vegetarian. But the diets of the healthiest people in the world such as the Okinawans suggest that mostly vegetables, grain, and fish is the best combination. Health is my number 1 reason, followed by environmental, followed by my respect for living creatures, especially mammals like the cow and the pig. While I won’t say that I don’t enjoy the taste of meat, and it’s not like I don’t ever eat meat (I went to a BBQ last week and the closest I could get to no meat was baked beans with little pieces of pork in it), it is one of the reasons.

More specifically, I have genetic high cholesterol, and I’ve researched a lot about the foods that combat this. Fish is a lot better for the cholesterol than meat, so the pescatarian diet seems to be the ideal diet for controlling it. My concern is the mercury from the big fish, which unfortunately also tend to have more omega 3. Plus because I want to avoid eating animals but still get protein, fish is an acceptable substitute for me. I also pair grains with legumes to get a complete protein. If you haven’t already maybe you could write an article about how to get protein as a vegetarian, that’s always been a challenge. I’m a runner (marathons and completing my first triathlon next week). I’ve referenced this article for that: http://www.bodyforlife2.com/incompletprotein.htm

Slacker’s last blog post..Slacker Method for Keeping Air Clean

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Melanie February 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

Hey Lara,
I’ve read that the macrobiotic diet consists of eating a large amount of grains, fruits and vegetables. Apparently cultures practising the macrobiotic diet in the past include the Incans, the Chinese and the Japanese, so you are possibly right in saying it is linked to the Okinawan way of eating.

The composition of the macrobiotic diet is supposed to be around 50-60% of whole grains, 25-30% vegetables, and 5-10% of beans and legumes. The rest of the diet should be made up of fish and seafood, seeds and nuts, seeds, nut butters, and fruits.

How did you get on with the macrobiotic style of eating in college?

Hi Slacker,
Thanks for your suggestion. I have written about the vegetarian diet in the past, but a post specifically on getting protein would be helpful. I will have a think about that for next week; thanks for the link too.

BTW, best wishes for the triathalon next week, I’d love to hear how you get on :-)

The Weakonomist,
Personally I don’t care if I live to be 100 or not, I also believe that life after death for me will be better than on this earth, however if I am going to live to be old I want to have a good quality of life..if possible :-)

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Lara February 12, 2009 at 7:40 pm

It was really hard to do in college! I am still so intrigued by macrobiotic theory, but it is so difficult to practice with minimal resources like I had in college. I am trying to move toward a more vegetarian/vegan diet (slllowly), so I think those practices would be easier now that I’m not a struggling student!

Lara’s last blog post..Brit Love (02/11/09)

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Rene February 24, 2009 at 11:24 am

Great article. I’d like to know what type of study they did, and where you found the statistics. Was it a survey or controlled qualitative data. How many years have they followed? Was it double-blind? I don’t expect you to know the details, but if you could forward me the info on the statistics report, I would really appreciate it.

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Melanie February 24, 2009 at 11:47 am

Hi Rene,
You can find out more here: http://okicent.org/study.html. There are also many studies on their way of life if you search Pubmed or Google Scholar.

As far as I know it is an ongoing population-based study of centenarians and other selected elderly, which began in 1975. I think 900-plus people have been studied.

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