There are more centenarians-those aged 99 or older-living on Japan’s Okinawa islands than anywhere else in the world. Okinawa is one of the most well-known Blue Zones-places with the world’s longest-lived and healthiest people. People living in Okinawa have especially low rates of obesity and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The secret to their good health? Experts suspect it has to do with their local diet-the Okinawa diet.Â
“Many variables account for these long lifespans, but the key is their particularly healthy diet,” says Luiza Petre, MD, a weight management specialist and assistant clinical professor of cardiology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Here’s how the Okinawa diet may improve your health and how you can incorporate this way of eating into your lifestyle.
What is the Okinawa diet plan, and what makes it so healthy?
The Okinawa diet is a traditional eating pattern of people living on Japan’s Okinawa islands. This way of eating emphasizes eating plenty of vegetables and seafood and limiting processed foods. Many Okinawans also eat moderate portions at mealtime and treat food as a source of medicine, Dr. Petre says. Some of the most popular foods on the Okinawa diet include:
- High-fiber carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes, root vegetables, and buckwheat soba noodles make up more than half of Okinawansâ€™ plates
- Green vegetables such as leafy greens and cabbage
- Soyfoods like tofu and miso paste
- Seafood and seaweed such as kombu and hijiki
- Small amounts of red meat, especially pork
- Shiitake mushrooms and bitter melon, a bitter gourd-like fruit
- Jasmine tea
As for sweets or added oils? Okinawans donâ€™t factor those foods into their diet as much. Okinawans tend to enjoy sugary treats only on special occasions. Plus, many of their dishes are steamed or quickly stir-fried, so there’s not much added fat. Most of the fat they do consume comes from omega-3-rich fish.
A typical Okinawan meal consists of stir-fried or boiled vegetables, miso soup, and a small serving of tofu or fish. But these foods aren’t just eaten for lunch and dinner. Instead of munching on a bowl of cereal or a pastry, Okinawans tend to have these savory staples for breakfast, too. “They donâ€™t overload on sugar, so their breakfast is automatically healthier,” says registered dietitian Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD.
Can the Okinawa diet help you lose weight and live longer?
Itâ€™s no secret that eating more high-fiber foods and fewer processed foods can promote weight loss. But thatâ€™s not the only reason the Okinawa diet might help you drop pounds. Many Okinawans eat in accordance with a Confucian teaching called hara hachi bu-eating until youâ€™re satisfied, not full.Â
However, Okinawans aren’t weighing or measuring their food to avoid overeating. “This diet is not about portions or calories, but about thoughtfulness and health,” Dr. Petre says. â€œThe Okinawans choose to eat to live, not live to eat.â€
And indeed, eating more like an Okinawan could help improve your overall health, therefore, promoting longevity. Seaweed, bitter melon, shiitake mushrooms, and fatty fish are loaded with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that may help lower the risk for diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and some cancers.
Taking note of what Okinawans arenâ€™t eating is just as important. Refined carbs and sugary foods cause blood sugar levels to spike, causing cravings. “That creates a pro-inflammatory state that dramatically increases the risk of chronic disease,” Dr. Petre says. Limiting red meat also means that Okinawans donâ€™t get much saturated fat in their diet, which can also decrease your risk for heart disease, says the National Institutes of Health.
Are there any drawbacks to the Okinawa diet?
Health-wise, thereâ€™s nothing to lose by following the Okinawa diet, Portnoy says. You’ll reap plenty of benefits from eating sweet potatoes, seaweed, tofu, and fatty fish. But if youâ€™re used to eating a wide variety of foods and flavors, sticking purely with Okinawan-style fare could get boring and lead to nutritional deficiencies-say, if you don’t load up on enough protein-and cravings. Dining out might be more difficult, too, as most American restaurants don’t offer entrees of boiled sweet potatoes, tofu, and miso soup.
How to get started on the Okinawa diet
Thereâ€™s no need to completely change the way you eat overnight. Instead, try swapping more Okinawan foods into your diet. â€œMaking even minor changes should leave a positive impact on your health,â€ Dr. Petre says. Some ideas for getting started:
- Say yes to sweet potatoes. Enjoy some sweet potato as your carb source daily, Dr. Petre recommends. Also swap out refined carb sources, like white pasta or white rice, for complex ones like buckwheat soba noodles or brown rice.
- Make veggies your mainstay. Aim to have green veggies, like kale or broccoli, and mushrooms with most of your meals. Want to experiment with seaweed? Try topping your grain bowl with hijiki or adding kombu to soup.
- Rethink your proteins. Stick with plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, or legumes most of the time. Have at least a few servings of fatty fish each week and eat red meat only once in a while.
- Skip the sugary snacks. Snacks donâ€™t factor much into the Okinawa diet, Portnoy says, so save cookies and other sweet treats for special occasions. If youâ€™re really hungry in between meals, try a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, or a cup of miso soup instead.
- Sip more tea. Get an extra dose of antioxidants with a simple, unsweetened brew like jasmine, green or black tea.