In the wellness world, there seem to be two distinct types of diets. There are those that are inspired by a certain principle, such as the Ketogenic Diet, which advocates for fats over carbohydrates, and the Paleo Diet, which suggests eating in a manner similar to that of our ancient ancestors. Then there are those that are inspired by a certain location, like the Nordic Diet and the Mediterranean Diet. The latter has proved particularly buzzy, growing to become one of the largest dietary movements across the world (right up there with veganism). It focuses on consuming fruit, veggies, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and fish, and steering clear of red meat and dairy, just like people have traditionally done throughout the Mediterranean. This diet is thought to increase life span by preventing certain diseases—cancer and heart disease included.
The newest diet gaining traction in the wellness world is similar to the Mediterranean Diet, yet different in that it takes heed from a small Japanese island called Okinawa. Since Japan has a higher percentage of centenarians (people aged 100 and older) per capita than anywhere else, it's only apt that the rest of the world is looking to them for healthy living inspiration. Below, learn all about the Okinawa Diet, including what it entails, why it's trending, and what it can mean for your health.
The reason it's called the Okinawa Diet and not simply the Japanese Diet is that it's specific to that region, which is a small island on the southern-most tip of Japan. It gained international attention when author Dan Buettner wrote about it in National Geographic. He had set out with a team of demographers, scientists, and anthropologists to identify the healthiest places on earth, where the highest percentages of people were living beyond average life expectancy without disease complications. He coined these places "Blue Zones," and Okinawa made the list.
On this island, there is an almost astonishing amount of people aged 100 and older. As reported in National Geographic, it's home to "to the world’s longest-lived women," all with less heart disease, cancer, and dementia than women living in the United States. In fact, according to a subsequent article Buettner wrote on the Okinawa lifestyle, inhabitants of the small Japanese island experience only "a fifth of the rate" of cardiovascular disease, breast and prostate cancer, and "less than half of the rate" of dementia seen in Americans. Let's consider it by the numbers, shall we? When the initial article was published, the average life expectancy for Okinawan men was 78 years. The average life expectancy for Okinawan women was a staggering 86 years (yeah, that's the average).
While researchers postulate that it has a lot to do with their environment, social habits, and other lifestyle variables, their diet cannot be overlooked as a potential source of their incredible longevity sans disease complications. Okinawans eat a diet rich in vegetables, specifically orange and purple sweet potatoes, which are a staple of their agriculture and culinary tradition. Whole plant foods make up 90% of a traditional Okinawan diet, with less than 1% coming from meat and dairy. In lieu of meat and dairy, Okinawans opt for soy-based protein, like tofu (and beans), which is often eaten alongside stir-fried vegetables in a traditional dish called Chanpurū. Experts say this is an anti-inflammatory diet that's high in antioxidants. It's low in calories, yet dense in nutrients, which could explain its life-lengthening effect on the Okinawan people.
As we mentioned before, it's similar to the Mediterranean Diet in that it rests on a simple foundation of vegetables and protein, focusing less on animal-derived foods like meat and dairy—not to mention processed foods—than other cultures do. It is worth noting, however, that the life expectancy in Okinawa has dropped in recent years, meeting the rest of Japan's national average. Researchers believe this could be due to dietary changes and divergence (especially by young men) from traditional cuisine. If anything, this implies an even stronger link between the traditional Okinawan Diet and enhanced longevity. In fact, it makes us want to take stock of the food sitting in our fridges and pantries for the sake of our own disease prevention and longevity.
Start adding Okinawan principles to your diet through the addition of plant-based foods like sweet potatoes (which are high in flavonoids, vitamin C, fiber, and carotenoids), goya, radishes, mushrooms, and carrots. Incorporate herbs like turmeric and mugwort, which are also staples of the diet. At the very least, attempt to eat less processed foods. Opt for plants instead. It might have a significant effect on your health and subsequent longevity.