Have you ever heard of the Okinawa Islands, located between Japan and Taiwan, which host one of the longest living people in the world? Even compared with the rest of Japan, to which the islands belong, people grow older on Okinawa.

On average, women become 86 years, men 78 years (1). And more than that, people there maintain a good health up until a very high age. So, what exactly is it that the Okinawans do differently? And what can we change in our lives to get the same positive effects for our health?

Research has extracted many factors that might contribute to this striking longevity, such as a constant moderate physical activity, lack of time pressure and the importance of a solid family structure (see also my blog on effective lifestyle changes here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/four-easy-rules-for-healthy-eating-and-lifestyle/).

What might be easier to change in our everyday lives, however, is the composition of the food we eat.

Let’s investigate what makes the Okinawan diet so healthy (2):

Their diet is rich in root vegetables, especially the very healthy sweet potato. (Who would have guessed that a vegetable carrying the term “sweet” could be more beneficial for your health than its common counterpart?). Sweet potatoes have a high content of dietary fibers, anti-oxidant vitamins A, C and E and anti-inflammatory properties.

They eat many legumes, such as soybeans.

An abundance of mostly green and yellow vegetables is eaten regularly.

Okinawans don’t abstain from meat, alcohol or tea. They consume it in moderation, choosing lean meat and products from the sea.

It seems that no food should be strictly avoided, but that it’s more like the phrase: “Eat everything in moderation and not in abundance.”

Different fruit and medicinal plants (like curcumin or bitter melon) further contribute to a healthy and diverse cuisine.

Altogether, their food is high in unrefined carbohydrates (refined carbohydrates occur e.g. in sweets or white bread, unrefined carbohydrates occur e.g. in brown rice or wholemeal bread) and they consume protein in moderate amounts and mostly plant-based (from legumes, vegetables, but also occasionally from fish or meat).

The Okinawan diet is characterized by a healthy fat profile: rich in omega-3 fatty acids (which occur in fatty fish like salmon, but also in seeds, like flaxseeds, and nuts), high in other polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids (occurring e.g. in olive oil or avocado, and low in saturated fats (e.g. occuring in butter).

Hence, its composition resembles that of the Mediterranean Diet, which also is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other age- and lifestyle-related diseases (Download your free report on the current state of research on the Mediterranean diet here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/the-mediterranean-diet-and-depression-free-report-download/).

By changing our diet and adapting it to the Okinawan (or Mediterranean) diet, you could contribute to a long and healthy life.

Now you might ask how this relates to “new brain nutrition”? Well, a healthy diet affects our gut, which is linked closer to our brain than we originally have assumed (learn more here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/the-gut-brain-axis-an-important-key-to-your-health/​).

Hence, diet should have an impact on our brain health just as on our general health. Substances from fermented soy beans (so-called ​natto), for example, are said to have the potential to prevent the formation of plaque in the brain, which is related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Also, anti-inflammatory effects of a high polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption might have an effect on the production of neurotransmitters (essential for the transfer of information between nerve cells), which largely takes place in the gut.

Interestingly, due to a more western-style cuisine, the younger Okinawans are starting to face the same diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, etc, just as people from the rest of the world.

Diet matters. So: What changes in your diet do ​you​ want to start with?

Take the first step and try a typical Okinawa dish: Goya Champuru

1 Goya cucumber (may also be frozen)

1 block tofu, dried and as firm as possible approx. 80-100g

Shabu-Shabu meat (thinly sliced pork); cut meat into bite-sized pieces

1-2 tablespoons soy sauce

1-2 tablespoons rice wine (sake)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons neutral oil (must be suitable for frying!)

2 eggs

For vegetarians: Follow the same recipe, but replace Shabu-Shabu with chopped vegetables like carrots, onions, cabbage and bean sprouts or pumpkin.

Wash the Goya cucumber, cut it in half and remove the seeds with a spoon. Slice thinly, salt it, let it rest for a few minutes. Wash again, press firmly to remove as much water as possible.

Stir-fry the Shabu-Shabu in a tablespoon of oil, salt it afterward.

Add tofu and stir-fry it until it turns slightly dark. Put tofu and Shabu-Shabu aside.

In the same pan, heat another tablespoon of oil and stir-fry the Goya cucumber in high temperature.

Add the meat and tofu, then soy sauce and sake, stir.

Scramble two eggs and add them.

Stir and don’t let the food turn too dry.

Serve the Champuru with rice.

(1) https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Präfektur_Okinawa

(2) Willcox DC; Scapagnini G; Willcox BJ. Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: a focus on the Okinawan diet.Mech Ageing Dev. 2014; 136-137:148-62 (ISSN: 1872-6216); found here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047637414000037

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Emotion regulation difficulties, such as rumination, deficits in acceptance and problem solving, are observed in eating disorders. However, few studies have explored whether emotion regulation improves after treatment of the eating disorders, and whether difficulties in emotion regulation are different for various eating disorder types.

Eating disorder is a broad term that includes binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Recently we explored emotion regulation difficulties across eating disorder types and a healthy control group without eating disorders (Study 1) and we assessed pre-treatment and post-treatment changes among the different eating disorder types (Study 2).

In Study 1, 438 adult women with eating disorders and 126 healthy women without eating disorders completed an assessment including Eating Disorders Inventory-2 and Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale and Symptom Checklist-90-Revised (which assesses psychological problems and psychopathology).

In study 2, we included 69 women with eating disorders who were also reassessed after treatment. This psychological treatment was different according to the eating disorder type. On the one hand, patients with anorexia nervosa completed a day hospital treatment programme, which included daily group cognitive behavioral therapy sessions during 3 months. On the other hand, patients with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and other specified feeding or eating disorders had completed group cognitive behavioral therapy over 16-week sessions.

All eating disorder types reported worse emotion regulation compared with the control women, and differences in emotion regulation were also found between the different types of eating disorders. Especially, patients with binge-related behaviours (e.g. binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa) presented higher emotion regulation difficulties compared with patients with restrictive behaviours (i.e. anorexia nervosa restrictive subtype).

Prospective analyses (Study 2) show emotion regulation improvements after treatment, particularly in patients with bulimia nervosa, with greater improvement in those with a better treatment outcome. We also observed that changes in emotion regulation are closely linked to psychopathology and symptom severity improvement.

To sum up, emotion dysregulation is a part of all forms of eating disorders, which means that this is a transdiagnostic risk factor for the occurrence of any disorder of the eating disorder spectrum. Furthermore, emotional dysregulation can be modified. Treatments for anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder might be enhanced by targeting emotion regulation skills.

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Recently, I participated in the Radboud Talks 2019, a scientific pitch competition, where I was lucky to be one of the eight finalists.

Why Radboud Talks? It is a perfect opportunity to share my work/ideas with the world and to gain more experience regarding presentation skills. They organized two workshops beforehand, where I had the opportunity to learn presentation techniques from professionals (actors and science communication advisors). We also received a lot of feedback, so I really learned a lot about how to present my scientific work to a general audience.

Below you can find the video from the preliminaries based on which I was chosen as a finalist. There you can hear about my research project which is about gut bacteria and their potential role in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). ADHD is a common worldwide neurodevelopmental disorder. Every person with ADHD has a unique combination of symptoms and challenges. Importantly, it has a significant social impact on patients’ lives, causing disruption at school, work and relationships. Despite its societal importance, progress in understanding disease biology has been slow.


The study of the human microbiome has become a very popular topic, because of their revealed importance in human physiology and health maintenance. Numerous studies have reported that gut bacteria may have an effect on our mental health. Some studies showed a potential role of gut bacteria in a psychiatric disorder like depression, autism or Parkinson (1). Above all, diet showed to have a profound effect of ADHD symptoms. This was earlier described in this blog: https://newbrainnutrition.com/investigating-the-effects-of-a-dietary-intervention-in-adhd-on-the-brain/ and we know that diet is one of the main factors influencing gut bacteria. Taking all together, I am curious (and investigating) if gut bacteria play a role in ADHD and if yes what kind of effect do they have on ADHD symptoms.

Bastiaanssen, T., Cowan, C., Claesson, M. J., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2018). Making Sense of … the Microbiome in Psychiatry. The international journal of neuropsychopharmacology22(1), 37–52. doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyy067


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In every classroom, approximately two children are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). They struggle with attention problems and hyperactive and impulsive behavior. This has negative consequences for these children. For example, they can have difficulties learning, it puts them at risk for other psychiatric problems, and it can cause parent-child relationship problems. Therefore, children with ADHD do need some sort of treatment for optimizing the quality of their lives.

After psycho-education to the child, parents and teacher, medication is often the first choice of treatment because it is evidence-based. However, there is a growing group of parents that do not wish to medicate their child. They are concerned about the side and long-term effects. Thus, these parents seek other treatment. That is where they get stuck: which other effective treatments are available?

In order to develop new treatments, there is a growing field of research focusing on risk factors for ADHD symptoms. One of these risk factors that has been studies increasingly is nutrition. Nutrition plays a role in physical well-being, but could also play a role in psychological well-being and cognitive functioning. Consequently, dietary treatments could be an alternative treatment for children with ADHD. There is a long history of research in nutrition, but there is not enough evidence yet about the cost-effectiveness to implement dietary treatments in clinical health care.

So far, studies examining the effectiveness of a so-called elimination diet showed the strongest effects (1). The aim of an elimination diet is to find out which products trigger ADHD symptoms. However, results of these studies are inconclusive because of several limitations. First, outcome measurements used in these studies were not objective. Second, studies suffered from a sample bias towards highly motivated and educated parents. Third, underlying mechanisms are still unknown. Fourth, long-term effects are unknown. Moreover, it is unknown if an elimination diet is more effective in reducing ADHD symptoms than a healthy diet based on the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines (2).

We thought: can we take into account these limitations ánd examine the effectiveness of two dietary treatments? This resulted in the TRACE study: ‘Treatment of ADHD with Care as usual versus an Elimination diet’ (TRACE) study. This is the first study to determine the short- and long-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of two dietary treatments as initial addition to care as usual as a treatment trajectory for children with ADHD. We will substantially improve upon previous studies by implementing the intervention in non-commercial mental health centers, including blinded and objective measurements, and comparing two dietary treatments with care as usual. Also, understanding the biological effects could inform clinicians to potential markers and targets for preventative or individualized treatment. For this reason, we also examine the underlying biological mechanisms (e.g. mechanisms in the gut and brain) of dietary treatments (TRACE-BIOME and TRACE-MRI studies). We collect blood, stool and saliva samples.

The TRACE study is a two-arm randomized control trial: participants are randomized to either an elimination diet or a healthy diet. The comparator arm includes children who are being treated with care as usual. Currently, we included in each dietary treatment arm about half of the targeted participants (N=81 in each dietary group). In the care as usual group, we included about one-third of the targeted participants (N=60). We hope to finish inclusion around January 2020.

I am really looking forward to the results and hope to share this with you in a couple of years! If you have any questions, feel free to contact us via trace@karakter.com

(1) Nigg, J. T., Lewis, K., Edinger, T., & Falk, M. (2012). Meta-analysis of attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, restriction diet, and synthetic food color additives. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(1), 86-97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2011. 10.015 .
Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321798/

(2) Izquierdo Pulido, M. L., Ríos Hernández, A., Farran, A., & Alda, J. Á. (2015). The role of diet and physical activity in children and adolescents with ADHD. Recent Advances in Pharmaceutical Sciences V, 2015, Research Signpost. Chapter 4, p. 51-64.
Link: http://diposit.ub.edu/dspace/bitstream/2445/67543/1/T_1444299316Munozv%204.pdf

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Loss of appetite is among the most common side effects of stimulant for ADHD. Across studies, approximately 20% of patients with ADHD who were treated with stimulants reported a loss of appetite [1,2]. Weight loss is also quite common, as are digestive problems [3]. Together, such side effects are often referred to as “gastro-intestinal adverse events”. But why do stimulants change the way we go about eating? And what could this tell us about ADHD itself?

Appetite can arise in response to physical cues, such as an empty stomach or low blood sugar. Psychological cues can also influence our appetite; for instance, we may get hungry when we watch other people eat, or when we are bored. For most people, eating is a pleasant and rewarding activity. In the human brain, pleasure, reward, craving and, thus, appetite, have everything to do with dopamine. More specifically, with dopamine levels in the striatum, a cluster of neurons at the very base of the forebrain. The striatum is strongly connected with the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex exercises cognitive control over the urges of the striatum: when we’re hungry, the striatum makes us crave high-caloric, high-fat, or sweet foods; at the same time, our more rational prefrontal cortex helps us make responsible food choices.

Interestingly, ADHD also has everything to do with dopamine and the striatum. Dopamine levels in the striatum are slightly ‘off’ in individuals with ADHD. As a result, people with ADHD feel a higher urge to seek pleasant experiences, and less prefrontal control over this urge. Impulsivity, a prominent feature of ADHD, can be viewed as a failure to sufficiently activate the prefrontal cortex. Finding a balance between pleasure-seeking on the one hand, and rational decision-making on the other, can be difficult for all of us. However, for people with ADHD whose dopamine balance is slightly off, making healthy, non-impulsive decisions about what to eat may be even more challenging. Indeed, overweight, obesity and diabetes seem to be more common in people with ADHD compared to people without ADHD [4].

Stimulants such as methylphenidate and dexamphetamine can restore the dopamine balance in the brain. This may result in less craving for food (as well as for other pleasant activities) and more control over impulsive urges. It is thus not very surprising that stimulant medications may cause a loss of appetite or even weight loss. Interestingly, stimulants are sometimes used to treat obesity and certain eating disorders as well. Especially for eating disorders involving impulsive eating, such as bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, stimulant treatment could be promising. [5]

There is one other interesting angle on stimulants, dopamine, and eating. Did you know that most of the dopamine in your body is not located in the brain? In fact, a substantial proportion of all dopamine-related processes in the human body take place in the gut. Throughout the gastro-intestinal tract, dopamine receptors are abundant. Therefore, in addition to the indirect effects described above (i.e., via craving and/or impulse control), stimulants may have direct effects on eating behaviours as well. Unfortunately, we know very little about such direct effects.

[1] Storebø, Ramstad, Krogh, Nilausen, Skoog, Holmskov et al. (2015). Methylphenidate for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: Cochrane systematic review with meta-analyses and trial sequential analyses of randomised clinical trials. Cochrane Database Syst Rev (11):CD009885. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009885.pub2

[2] Storebø, Pedersen, Ramstad, Kielsholm, Nielsen, Krogh et al. (2018) Methylphenidate for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents – assessment of adverse events in non-randomised studies. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 5:CD012069. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012069.pub2

[3] Holmskov, Storebø, Moreira-Maia, Ramstad, Magnusson, Krogh et al. (2017) Gastrointestinal adverse events during methylphenidate treatment of children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review with meta-analysis and Trial Sequential Analysis of randomised clinical trials. PLoS One 12(6):e0178187. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178187

[4] Cortese, Moreira-Maia, St Fleur, Morcillo-Peñalver, Rohde & Faraone (2016). Association Between ADHD and Obesity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Psychiatry 173(1):34-43. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15020266

[5] Himmerich & Treasure (2018). Psychopharmacological advances in eating disorders. Expert Rev Clin Pharmacol, 11(1):95-108. doi: 10.1080/17512433.2018.1383895

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