By Robin Silver

There is an Okinawan saying about ageing: “At 70 you are still a child, at 80 a young man or woman. And if at 90 someone from Heaven invites you over, tell him: ‘Just go away, and come back when I am 100.’”

Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands in Southwest Japan, has been called the healthiest island in the world, and its inhabitants are well known for their long lives—for every 100,000 residents, there are 68 people over 100 years old.

Not only do its inhabitants regularly live to be over a century, but they seem to age slower than the rest of us. The physical fitness and energy levels of the Okinawan elderly are comparable to those of people decades younger in the rest of the world, and the rates of chronic, often deadly illnesses such as heart disease or cancer are significantly lower.

Why do so many Okinawans live so well for so long? The secret lies in their healthy diet and a laid-back island attitude.

You Are What You Eat

The Okinawan diet places a heavy emphasis on whole foods packed with nutrients and antioxidants. The island’s residents’ plates tend to comprise of mostly vegetables (58-60%), a smaller proportion of grains (33%) than their mainland cousins, 5% soy products and a mere 1-2% animal products.

While you may expect the Okinawan diet, like many island cuisines, to be heavy on the fish, the primary source of animal protein in Okinawa actually comes from pigs. However, the main source of protein in the Okinawan diet does not come from animal products at all. Their protein is more likely to come in the form of soy, whether that be fermented miso or tofu. Unlike the majority of us, the Okinawans also view food as medicine and use many herbs and spices that have been proven to have health benefits, such as turmeric and mugwort.

Seaweed and kelp play a large part in Okinawan cuisine, and the sweet potato (both orange and purple varieties) is the most common starch as opposed to rice, which is ubiquitous in the rest of Japan. Sweet potatoes, as well as other brightly-coloured vegetables and seaweed, contain significant amounts of a nutrient called carotenoids. Carotenoids have anti-inflammatory properties and help deactivate free radicals within the human body, both factors that can lower overall cancer risk.

There is also evidence to suggest that the restrictive calorie intake of their traditional diet has positive effects on health. The Okinawan cultural practice of eating until only about 80% full is a Confucian inspired philosophy known as hara hachi bu. This mindful eating, in combination with calorie restriction, appears to have many positive effects, lowering inflammation and the risk of diseases such as diabetes and even some cancers.

Holistic Lifestyle Choices

Life on Okinawa promotes good health through more than just diet though. The lifestyle of the average islander is more active and community-oriented than many modern lifestyles. For example, Okinawans tend to have higher bone density than most elderly people. This apparently can be attributed to the vast quantities of vitamin D they absorb through spending more time outside (vitamin D comes from sunlight).

Older Okinawans make a habit of staying busy and active. Whether it’s by not retiring until well into their 70s or 80s, making sure to stay active by public dancing, or having various hobbies that keep their minds and hands occupied. Any and all of these contribute to a general feeling of purpose and well-being, which ultimately makes living such a long life a more appealing option. Keeping the mind occupied can even help stave off dementia.

What We Can Learn

If adopting the entire diet and lifestyle seems overly ambitious or impossible, there is still plenty to learn from the Okinawan menu, and many health benefits that can be attained without having to completely give up your current lifestyle.

One shift that could have an enormous effect is cutting back on animal products. Okinawans view meat and dairy as additions to meals, not the main feature. Eating mindfully and stopping before feeling stuffed can help with weight loss or stability, as well as potentially lessening inflammation. 

The most important part of the Okinawan diet, an aspect that is sorely lacking in many modern diets, is the emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. Many people rely too much on processed and pre-made food, high in sodium and other chemicals that are harmful to our health. Taking a page from the Okinawan book concerning whole foods and living active lifestyles may seem obvious, but committing to those two seemingly simple things can help prolong your life, as well as improve its quality. Eating and living like an Okinawan might be the best change to your lifestyle you can make.