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!)
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.
(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