Want to live a long life? Try the traditional Okinawa diet, which helped islanders live to 100

The traditional Okinawa diet helped people living on the Japanese island to live to age 100 and beyond. Here’s how to eat as the Japanese centenarians from Okinawa did.
The Japanese diet is famed the world-over for promising those who follow it a long life. That’s because according to the United Nations, the Japanese population includes the largest number of people aged 100 and over in the world.

But if you drill down into the Japanese story of a little further, you’ll see that part of Japan’s longevity fame actually derived from Okinawa: the destination that used to have the largest proportion of centenarians in Japan, before traditional dietary habits changed.

Okinawa is a Japanese island belonging to the Ryukyu Islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and Japan’s mainland. As the name suggests, it’s here where the traditional Okinawa diet originated. It’s also associated with the eating habits of the indigenous people of Ryukyu Islands, Japan.

“There are so many centenarians in Okinawa. They generally have a low risk of age-related diseases and, from my understanding, in general, a lot longer life expectancy.”

“The Okinawa diet is not technically a low protein diet but it is a ‘lower’ protein diet that contains a higher amount of carbohydrates,” says Joel Feren, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.

“From my end, this diet ticks all the nutritional boxes. Why? The proof is in the pudding. There are so many centenarians in Okinawa. They generally have a low risk of age-related diseases and, from my understanding, in general, a lot longer life expectancy.”

What foods did traditional Okinawa people eat?

The traditional Okinawa diet focuses on whole foods. It consists of around 30 per cent green and yellow vegetables and smaller quantities of rice compared to mainland Japanese diets.

“The diet features a small amount of omega 3 fatty acid rich fish. Pork is valued highly in this diet but eaten rarely. Most of the protein is plant-based.”

A main staple is the purple-fleshed sweet potato. “Lots of people today shun sweet potato or any starchy vegetables or grains because of their carbohydrates content. But we know that these kind of foods contain vitamins and minerals, and are also high in fibre. We also know the more fibre people consume, the less chance they will have of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke.”

The traditional Okinawa diet focuses on whole foods. It consists of around 30 per cent green and yellow vegetables and smaller quantities of rice compared to mainland Japanese diets.

A traditional Okinawa stir-fry dish is called chanpurū. It’s made with tofu and some kind of vegetable, meat, or fish.

The traditional eating plan is also low in discretionary, highly processed foods and alcohol.

“When you combine all of these dietary elements together, you will have a diet that has low levels of saturated fats, high antioxidant levels, high GI carbs and high fibre.”

How did they used to eat?

Feren explains that one of the guiding principles of the traditional Okinawa diet is the concept of ‘hara hachi bu’: a Confucian teaching instructing that you should only eat until you are 80 per cent full.

“It promotes mindfulness and recognising your body’s cues for hunger and fullness,” says Feren. “Having worked in private practice, I see that people today just eat too much. They aren’t in tune with their body’s signals for hunger and fullness. And if you eat too much, you’re likely to gain weight.”

“It’s clear that you can enjoy a healthy level of carbohydrate-rich foods and still enjoy a healthy weight.”

Times and diets have since changed 

Although longevity indices in Okinawa were traditionally once the highest in Japan, rates have since declined.

“In 1990, in Okinawa, the age-adjusted death rates of the three leading causes of death were lower than their national averages. By 2000, the standard mortality ratios of heart disease and cerebrovascular disease for both sexes in Okinawa had increased, compared to their 1990 levels,” a paper published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health in 2013 reads.

The paper’s authors suggest changes in diet and the abandonment of key Okinawa diet principles may be the cause. Okinawa locals now eat more meat and fat and consume less green and yellow vegetables than they used to.

So what’s the main dietary lesson we can take from the traditional Okinawa diet if we want to live as long as possible? Feren says it’s to stick to a well-rounded diet that contains a low amount of protein, and is rich in wholefoods and good carbohydrates.

“It’s clear that you can enjoy a healthy level of carbohydrate-rich foods and still enjoy a healthy weight,” he concludes. “That’s what the evidence has always shown us.”

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