The Japanese Diet, and the Mysteries of the Okinawans

Okinawan Diet

Why Do The Japanese Live So Long?

For some time the Japanese have had the highest life expectancy in the world. Life expectancy is a broad measurement that incorporates a lot of variables like your social habits, levels of physical activity, and of course…..the food you eat.

As the table below demonstrates, Japanese females have a life expectancy of almost 90(!) years old.

Life expectancy by country

Not too shabby.

People have hypothesized for years what it is about the Japanese lifestyle that causes them to live so long. Japanese culture is well known for its emphasis on a simplistic lifestyle, and some studies like this one have suggested that social and political organization were responsible for the huge increase in Japanese life spans after World War II.

However, a closer look at the Japanese diet has revealed a number of clues about why they’re able to live so long, and has helped shed light on unique health benefits found in particular groups of foods. The japanese diet is very low in saturated fats, meat, calories, and processed carbohydrates, while being very high in vegetables (particularly sea vegetables), legumes (particularly soy),  rice, and water based soups. Fish is eaten occasionally, but not as much you might expect if you base your perceptions on the sushi stands you see in the west.

Okinawans: The Most Prevalent Centenarians

For many years, people in a region of Japan called Okinawa had the highest life expectancies in the country.  The region is relatively poor and fairly isolated from the rest of the country. The region and the “Okinawa Diet” experienced some fame after researchers discovered the observed rate of centenarians in Okinawa was much higher than anywhere else previously studied.

Miso soup - a staple of the japanese diet

After some studies, it was believed the typical Okinawan diet had these staples:

  • Miso soup – a water based soup with seaweed, sweet potatoes, and leafy vegetables as filler
  • Champuru – a stir fried dish consisting of sweet potato and a mix of other vegetables
  • Very little dairy or high glycemic index carbohydrates

The okinawan diet’s biggest difference from the traditional japanese diet is its staple carbohydrate, which is the sweet potato instead of rice. The sweet potato is more nutritious, has a lower GI index, and is less calorically dense than rice. Curiously enough, the sweet potato contains much of the nutrients commonly missing in the american diet, such as vitamin A, C, magnesium, and zinc. The okinawan food pyramid is believed to look like this:

Japanese Food Pyramid

Drawbacks To the Okinawan Diet

The japanese have a lower incidence of cardiovacular disease, obesity, and breast and lung cancer. However, their rates of mortality due to stroke and stomach cancer are higher than in most countries. This is believed to be due to the high salt content in their diet. Pickled vegetables, soy sauce, and the broth in miso soup have large amounts of salt, and their consumption has a positive correlation with the most prevalent lifestyle diseases in the country.

5 thoughts on “The Japanese Diet, and the Mysteries of the Okinawans”

  1. This is great, thanks! I just came back from a trip to Asia, and the Japanese food was amazing. It’s good to know it’s also nutritious!


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