What is Okinawa Diet? Does it Work?

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on December 18, 2019
Last updated on May 23, 2021

Fad diets are very popular these days for weight loss. They all promise rapid results and other health benefits, yet very few have scientific evidence supporting their use. It can really be hard to know what works and what’s healthy.

Japanese food

The best type of weight loss is a plan that you can live with long-term. You’ll surely want something that can keep those excess pounds off permanently. Do you think it is possible to eat your way to 100 years old? Have you heard of the Okinawa diet? Read on to know more.

What is the Okinawa Diet?

The Okinawa diet is the best for longevity. Gone are the days of searching for the fountain of youth, a certain way of eating seems to be the key. Japan, in general, has the lengthiest life expectancy at birth or LEB with the island of Okinawa having the highest longevity indices (1).

These zones are regions where you can find remarkable demographics of people who live longer than the normal range. Okinawa is one of them (2). There are only five of these blue zones in the world. The other four are Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Icaria, Greece.

The Okinawa Islands in Japan is the home to the healthiest elderly inhabitants. You may argue that it does not matter how long a person can live if his or her quality of life is questionable. But these people can live up to a hundred while enjoying most of their days in perfect health. The lifestyle of Okinawans may be rooted from several environmental, genetics, and lifestyle choices. However, experts point the finger towards the direction of the Okinawa diet.

Simply put, the Okinawa diet refers to the traditional eating habits of individuals living on the island of Okinawa, Japan. Their diet and lifestyle are considered to be the source of their good health. The Okinawa diet is high in carbohydrates but low in fat and calories. Most of the food in this diet is vegetables and soy-based products. Sometimes, noodles, pork, and fish are incorporated, but only in minimum amounts.

However, modernization of how different food products are created paved the way to the change in Okinawa’s macronutrient allocation. Modern dietary habits might have also influenced them. The modern Okinawa diet is still low in calories and still high in carbs.  However, both protein and fat percentage in the diet are increased.

In the Original Okinawa diet, carbs consist of 85% of the diet, while protein and fat are 9% and 6%, respectively (3). The modern version is now made of 58% of carbs, 15% of protein, and 28% of fat. This is quite ironic because so many fad diets these days recommend a low-carb foundation for better overall health. The keto diet, for example, has 55% to 60% of fat, 35% of protein, and only 5% to 10% of carbohydrates. This means that in a 2, 000 calories a day diet, only 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates can be consumed (4).

Another difference evident in Okinawan culture is that they consider food as a way to heal themselves. This is why most of their recipes include traditional Chinese medicines such as certain herbs and spices. Their diet includes plenty of spices and herbs that have remarkable health benefits, like mugwort, and turmeric. Okinawan diet revealed that these traditional foods can be considered functional foods and should be utilized in the modern diet for their health-enhancing properties. Furthermore, their lifestyle supports their healthy living as Okinawans always incorporate physical activities in their day. Mindful eating is also observed.

Researchers have been eager to find out the secrets of the Okinawa centenarians since 1975 (5). According to a study, the diet’s high antioxidant intake, low glycemic load, and low saturated fat levels are the reasons for decreased cardiovascular disease risks, cancer prevention, and inhibition of certain chronic diseases (6). A lot of studies suggest that a lowered risk of chronic diseases comes from eating plenty of vegetables and fruits. Thanks to the phytonutrients and antioxidants that these foods contain.

How Does It Work?

Nowadays, consuming a lot of carbohydrates is frowned upon. However, a study proved that what made Okinawans shorter and leaner is the ratio of their protein intake to their carbohydrate consumption, which is 1:10. This ratio is very similar to the ratio in diets considered helpful in lengthening life span (7). Below are some reasons why the Okinawan diet can extend your life:

1. Absolutely No Sugar or Any Refined Treats

A study proved that high sugar intake is linked to increased mortality risk (8). However, the risk is also discovered in low sugar consumers even if their lifestyles are generally more favorable. The link between mortality and sugar intake depends on the type of sugar consumed.

2. Red Meat is Rarely Included in Meals

In one study, the increase in red meat consumption was observed for 8 years and was associated with a higher mortality risk for men and women (9). Unfortunately, red meat makes up the majority of the Western diet. The average consumption in the US has lowered through recent years, but it is still twice more than the global average (10).

3. Dairy is Consumed Minimally

Dairy has essential nutrients that are not available in other types of milk. However, dietary guidelines suggest a reduction in whole-fat dairy intake. This is due in part to their effect on blood lipids and the increase in cardiovascular occurrence. A study conducted on individuals with ages 35 to 70 years old from 21 different countries across five continents proved that dairy consumption is linked to major cardiovascular events and lower risk of mortality (11).

4. Alcohol is for Special Occasions Only

Alcohol use is associated with an array of negative health outcomes, which includes disability, morbidity, and mortality (12). Regular intake of alcohol is a major contributing factor to acute and chronic health problems, let alone the life-threatening accidents on the road.

With these, it is easy to understand that a healthy and simple diet regimen like the Okinawans have can do wonders for one’s health.

Which Foods Should You Eat?

Intake of essential nutrients can repair the body of any damage and protect it from potential harm. The Okinawa diet’s abundance of nutrient-dense and antioxidant-filled foods plays an advantage.

A lot of people in Japan consume rice. Think of sushi. But in Okinawa, they do not consume too much of it. Their primary sources of calories are sweet potatoes, whole grains, legumes, and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

1. Vegetables

The reason why most Okinawans consume only sweet potatoes is originally because of its affordability. In the past, only rich people can afford white rice. It was a bit of a status symbol back then. Sweet potatoes have been the main source of carbohydrates of ordinary Okinawans. Sweet potatoes have a lot of nutrients. They are rich in different vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, C, and E, potassium, and calcium.

Another favorite of Okinawans is bitter melon. The bitter taste of this vegetable is masked when added in stir-fried meals or salads. Bitter gourd teas and juices are also filled with different phytochemicals, vitamin C, and fiber. Bitter melon has been proven to have therapeutic benefits on metabolic disorders and obesity (13). Other types of vegetables to munch on are dark and leafy veggies.

2. Seaweeds

Seaweeds like mozuku and hijiko are commonly used in Okinawa. It is tossed in noodles, salads, stir-fries, or cooked with other vegetables. Seaweed contains high amounts of folate, calcium, magnesium, and iodine. Compared to land plants, seaweed has more dietary fiber, fatty acids, and essential amino acids (14). Its soluble fiber can also improve one’s digestive flow.

3. Legumes

Legumes are fundamental in many healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet, vegetarian and vegan diets, DASH eating plan, and low glycemic index or GI diets (15). It can prevent and manage different health conditions. Its blood-glucose-reducing effects are helpful for people with Diabetes. Regular consumption of legumes also lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Because of the magnesium, fiber, and potassium content of legumes, it is easier to manage blood pressure levels (16). Okinawans consume two servings of foods that are rich in soy every day. It constitutes 12 percent of daily calorie intake.

4. Herbs and Spices

Turmeric, mugwort, fennel seeds, and Okinawan peppers are some of the widely-used seasonings in Okinawa recipes. These seasonings used in the preparation of Okinawa meals not only make the dish more flavorful. They also impart health benefits with no additional calories. For instance, the curcumin found in turmeric has been traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, and anti-cancer (17).

5. Fish

Just because Okinawa is an island, does not mean Okinawans thrive on fish. Fish constitute a measly 1% of their diet.

The Rules of Okinawa Diet

The Okinawa diet may be a little restrictive, but there are only two rules to successfully pull it off.

1. Eat Until You Are Only 80% Full

It sounds a bit weird because you can never tell how full you are at the moment. The brain takes about twenty minutes to acknowledge the stomach’s feeling of fullness. So, when you think you are about 80% full, you are actually already full. Eating up to 100% full means you are already over-eating. Okinawans call it Hara Hachi bu, which is inspired by Confucian teaching.

Eat mindfully and enjoy your food. Okinawans always check with themselves if they are already satisfied as they nourish themselves. Okinawans eat only about 1,300 calories a day. In the US, a 2, 000-calorie diet is the recommended daily intake. With that huge difference in calorie intake, Okinawans do not feel deprived because they are used to having restricted calories.

2. Eat as Many Healthy Foods As You Can and Avoid All Unhealthy Eating Habits

Very simple, but very challenging. Nowadays, every street is lined up with delicious restaurants or bakeshops offering all sorts of junk food. Instead of torturing yourself, start slowly by increasing your veggie intake. Enjoy a colorful diet, literally. Mix up your fruits and veggies. Spice up your meals. Do not get intimidated with new vegetables that you are not familiar with.

Okinawans always have a plate of orange and yellow vegetables and fruits. These foods are rich in carotenoids that fight inflammation and improve the immune system, both of which are essential as we age.

The Okinawa diet does not have any advice on timing. You can eat whenever you like so long as you monitor the quality of your food. Below are recipe ideas if you want to give Okinawa Diet a go.

Modern Okinawa Recipe Ideas

These recipes are done to agree with the Western Diet. Keep in mind that you must choose ingredients that are high in vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals, but with low glycemic index and saturated fat content.

1. Blueberry Pancake For Breakfast

Prepare your pancakes with soy milk (preferably a calcium-fortified one). Use whole grain flour, free-range eggs, and blueberries. This simple meal offers nutrients and fiber. Take green tea with your breakfast and enjoy the additional flavonoids and catechins it contains.

2. Stir-fried Tofu for Lunch

Enjoy a block of tofu divided into tiny cubes and cooked with onions in sesame oil. A sauce made of sake and soy sauce with a bit of salt and pepper will make the dish tastier. Add bonito flakes and Chinese chives to spice things up.

3. Miso Soup for Dinner

A processed mixture of miso, rice vinegar, ginger, garlic with water serves as the base of this miso soup. Add tofu, mushrooms, scallions, and pea shoots. Pair it with your favorite fresh vegetables to make it healthier and more enjoyable.

For snacks, you can enjoy a piece of fresh fruit in the morning and some sliced up veggies in the afternoon.

The benefits linked to the traditional Okinawan diet have been introduced to the modern world. Unfortunately, it seems like the new version was modified to promote weight loss and is altered to favor the Western diet.

Key Takeaway

While the Okinawa diet has received worldwide recognition, it is not the only reason why there are centenarian Okinawans. Surely, their eating habits are remarkable, but environmental factors and physical activities are also key players. To give you an idea, people living in Blue Zones walk around 18, 000 steps a day. It is not enough to eat just like them, you have to move like them, too.

References

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