My daughter Lisa has always loved to travel and enjoyed seeking adventure in a new place. When she was in sixth grade, she asked my husband and me if she could go to a summer sleep-away camp in New Hampshire (about a five hour drive from our home in New Jersey). She wanted to stay not two weeks, like most of her friends attending the camp, but four weeks! She continued to attend the camp each summer for four weeks at a time, and ultimately became a member of the leadership development program, for the last two summers, when she stayed almost the entire summer, and spent 48 hours alone on an island. In college, she studied abroad a couple of different times, visiting London, Madrid, Barcelona, and parts of Africa. During the last few years she has traveled to Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, and Australia. Her latest trip was to Japan, from which she just returned. She visited Tokyo and Hiroshima and ended the trip with a two-day junket to Okinawa, which she decided to visit, in part, I believe, because she has heard me speak about it so often as a place known for the amazing health and longevity of its people.
So what makes Okinawa so special and what did Lisa learn there?
Okinawa is known as one of the Blue Zones, areas of the world where people not only live remarkably long, but also enjoy a terrific quality of life. The active lifestyle, nutritious diet, and social customs of the Okinawans are all thought to contribute to their vibrancy. Okinawa has a high rate of centenarians ( people who live to be 100 or more), and it not unusual for Okinawan elders to be biking, surfing, fishing, or gardening well into their nineties. They also have a strong social network and get together frequently with friends and family to enjoy music, including karyoke, and attend dance festivals.. Also important to the Okinawans is to have a sense of purpose, ikigai – the reason to get up each morning.
Because of the remarkable health and longevity of these Japanese, scientists have closely examined their diet practices, hoping to glean some wisdom that others might use to enhance their own well-being. The Okinawans have a saying, Ishoku-dogen, which means, “food and medicine from the same source.”
Here are a few of the diet practices of the Okinawan elders:
- They practice mindfulness and moderation regarding their food intake. Before each meal they say, Hara hachi bu, which means, “Eat until you are 80 percent full.” This practice helps keep their weight in a healthful range, which is a huge factor in disease prevention. Many of their favorite foods, especially vegetables, have a low caloric density, meaning they provide few calories relative to the weight of the food. This allows the Okinawans to eat a relatively large volume of food, which contributes to satiety, without the ingestion of too many calories. ( e.g, a large bowl of salad versus a small bag of potato chips).
- They eat a largely plant-based diet, rich in vegetables, supplemented with grains, fruits, and small amounts of pork, fish (including sea bream, salmon, shrimp, and mackerel), and eggs. About two-thirds of the traditional diet consists of organic vegetables that the Okinawans grow themselves. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients that promote health and deter disease. Popular vegetables include leafy greens, carrots, okra, daikon ( a Japanese radish), green onions, Shitake mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, cabbage, and goya (a bitter-tasting gourd). Unfortunately, the Okinawans generally eat white rice. This is an area of the diet that could be improved by substituting whole brown rice, which provides more fiber and nutrients and has a lower glycemic index. Soba noodles and millet are other popular, nutritious grains. Popular fruits include watermelons, bananas, oranges, papayas, pumpkins, pineapples, and hirami lemons ( a cross between an orange, tangerine, and lemon.)
- They enjoy their purple sweet potatoes. The sweet potato ( imo) was a staple in the Okinawan diet from the 1600’s to the 1960’s. Around 1900 Okinawans obtained about 80% of their calories from sweet potatoes, often eating them with every meal! While sweet potatoes are still eaten today, they are not as popular as they once were. Sweet potatoes are extremely nutrient-dense. Like the orange-flesh sweet potatoes, purple sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and iron. The purple variety obtain their color from phytonutrients known as anthocyanidins. They have been shown to kill the stem cells that lead to colon cancer. The purple potatoes also appear to enhance the healthy gut bacteria, which play an important role in our immunity.
- They consume a lot of soy, including miso soup, tofu, and natto ( traditional fermented soybeans). Okinawans eat about three ounces of soy products daily. Miso soup is often eaten at breakfast, and tofu is often combined with vegetables in stir-fry dishes consumed later in the day. Natto is used as a condiment. Soy protein is thought to benefit the heart by helping to lower blood cholesterol. Natto is high in vitamin K2, which benefits both the heart and the bones. High intakes of natto are associated with better bone density and lower fracture rates in women.
- Goya, also called bitter melon, is essential to Okinawan cuisine. Goya grows easily in Okinawan gardens and is often used in stir-fry dishes with tofu and other vegetables. It is rich in vitamin C and contains compounds that regulate blood sugar. Locals rub the leaves of the plant on their skin to treat heat rash and drink its juice to treat a variety of ailments.
- They eat soba noodles made from buckwheat. Buckwheat is a gluten-free grain that is rich in both fiber and protein, which help to balance blood sugar levels. It is also rich in rutin, a flavonoid also found in citrus fruits, apple peels, and parsley, that helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure and also strengthens capillary walls.
- They consume a variety of seaweed including kombu ( also known as kelp), wakame, and hijiki. Seaweed is a good source of minerals including iodine, iron, and calcium. These brown seaweeds contain a compound called fuicodan, which has proven anti-tumor properties and has been shown to boost the immune system by stimulating the production of interleukins and interferon.
- They season their food with fresh, local herbs and spices including mugwort, ginger, turmeric, and garlic. Mugwort grows like a weed in Okinawa. Its leaves can be used to season rice and make tea. It contains a powerful natural substance that fights malaria, and locals use it to treat fevers. Turmeric is a golden root that is grated to flavor soup and and is also used to make tea. Scientific research has shown that curcumin, the key phytonutrient in turmeric, has powerful anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties and also protects against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
- They aim to eat at least five different colors at each meal, a goal called shojun ryori. A variety of colorful foods at each meal helps insure the ingestion of several different phytonutrients, as many phytonutrients also serve as plant pigments. Examples include beta-carotene in orange sweet potatoes, lycopene in red peppers, anthocyanins in purple cabbage, indoles in broccoli, and allicin in garlic.
- They drink calcium-rich water, green tea, jasmine tea, and an alcoholic beverage called awamori, a fermented rice wine. The naturally calcium-rich water helps strengthen the bones, lowering the risk of osteoporosis. Green tea is rich in catechins, antioxidants that help protect against cancer. Regular consumption of green tea is associated with better muscle strength as people age. Jasmine tea has antibacterial and antiviral properties and has been used in aromotherapy to relieve stress and depression.
- They don’t eat processed food. By eliminating processed food, they avoid unhealthy amounts of added sugar, sodium, trans fats, and chemical preservatives.
Lisa confirmed that many Okinawans actually do eat this way, although there were some less-nutritious options available on the restaurant menu as well, including fried chicken wings, chicken gizzards, fried pork, and white rice.
For one of her meals, Lisa enjoyed several small plates, including salmon sashimi; buckwheat soba noodles with ginger, fried okra, seaweed, scallions, and chili peppers; and white fish with vegetables, including snow pea, carrot, and purple sweet potato. All of the items were artfully arranged on their plates.
Like Lisa, I personally find the traditional Okinawan diet and way of life to be a great inspiration for healthful, joyful living. I was excited to try an Okinawan recipe from 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People by Sally Beare. You too might like to try my adapted recipe, Sauteed Tofu and Vegetables Recipe. It features a great mix of delicious, nutrient-dense ingredients, including cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, onions, ginger, garlic, and tofu. It tastes great served over brown rice too! Enjoy!