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The Okinawa Diet and long life

March 16, 2005

The Okinawa Diet, derived from the nutrition and eating habits of people from that Japanese Island, has been credited with giving people all around the world the benefits of good health and long life.

When the Japan Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare conducted the Okinawa Centenarian Study in 1976, it was to investigate anecdotal reports of the long life expectancy of Okinawans.

What it found were low rates of cardiovascular disease and hormone-dependent cancers, low rates of dementia, strong bones and many other signs of vitality amongst the elderly in Okinawa.

The people of Okinawa live longer and are healthier than anyone else in the world. There are more than 800 centenarians living on the tiny island and diseases like cancer, diabetes and hypertension are rare. Healthy seniors work actively in fishing and farming, seemingly immune to the effects of old age.

Authors of the Okinawa Diet Plan, doctors (and brothers) Bradley and Craig Willcox, joined the Okinawa Centenarian Study 10 years ago. The study, started by a Tokyo-based cardiologist, Dr Makato Suzuki, carefully studied the genetic makeup and lifestyles of the Okinawans.

The Willcox doctors were struck the uniqueness of the people and their lifestyle.

"Okinawa appeared to have alot of healthy elderly people and it was kind if a special place in terms of diet and lifestyle so the government of Japan was very interested," Dr Bradley Willcox said.

He was convinced by his participation in the study that diet was an important factor.

"There's many things in the Okinawan diet that have contributed to their chances of living longer and healthier than other populations," he said.

"The Okinawans ate alot of water-rich foods and sweet potatoes and other vegetables and they ate alot of salad as well and when they ate meat, it was boiled and the fat was scooped away," Dr Willcox said.

Small portions of protein like fresh fish and tofu and carbs that were unprocessed and as natural as possible, like brown rice and whole wheat.

Dr Bradley Willcox said that exercise was important too as were other environmental and social factors.

"They were physically active, hence they were in energy balance, they were lean all their lives, those centenarians, they didn't smoke, they drank in moderation, they had good social networks and social support, they got better health care," he said.

When Australian grandmother Dora Wurtz turned 105 she attributed her long life to eating good food regularly.

"I think you've got to have proper meals, not eat one day and have just a pick the next day, you've got to have proper meals," Ms Wurtz said.

Ms Wurtz also credited an absence of stress in her life and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol as being critical to longevity.

Charlie Fleming turned 101 and said plain food and getting enough sleep were his secrets.

"The simplest of food, no luxuries, I would say that was a contributing factor," Mr Fleming said.

"I never knew the taste of alcohol until I was 50 years of age."

But some are critical of the Okinawans' legacy of good health being translated as another fad diet for modern societies, and their obsession with staying young.

Scientist David Suzuki said that it was far more important to find ways to reintegrate our elders back into the community so they can enjoy their twilight years with dignity.

"Why are we cranking up people out of medical school to go and do cosmetic surgery for God's sake? This whole obsession with staying and looking young is not accepting basically, that we are biological creatures, we're ageing as a part of our lives," Dr Suzuki said.

But Dr Willcox said if we took a leaf out of the Okinawans' book, we could grow old gracefully, without ever needing to go under the knife.

"Better diets, fewer calories, more vegetables and fruits, less red meat, fish at least a couple of times a week, soy is a good source of healthy protein. Those kind of changes, whole grains rather than white grains, simple changes in your life," Dr Willcox said.

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