More sweet potato, please, I want to live longer...

Haydn Shaughnessy

The oriental recipe for slowing ageing

The world of the long-lived is populated by porkies -- that’s lies, not your Melton Mowbrays. It seems that old people have been leading scientists a merry dance when it comes to telling their real age.

In Vilcabamba, in Ecuador, and in the Hunza region of Kashmir, ionised oxygen in the air, milky water, even apricot stones, have been cited as dubious explanations for staying fit 50 years beyond the average Western life-span. It’s hard to shake off the idea that, somewhere, there is an elixir of youth -- you can even buy exotic foods such as Hunza apricots in UK health food shops.

"It just isn’t true or possible," says Bradley Willcox, who has conducted research into oriental eating patterns and ageing, and is co-author of two bestsellers on the diet and lifestyle of elderly people in Okinawa. In this corner of Japan, a new truth is emerging about what keeps you going longer and in better shape.

The Japanese experience of ageing is unique. Okinawa officially has the world’s highest number of people aged over 100, with three times the global average per 100,000 of population. "There were only 20 centenarians in Okinawa in 1976," Willcox says. "Now there are more than 800 and, until the age of 95, only a third of those show any real signs of mental degradation."

The reasons for this are only just emerging. "They have a remarkably high consumption of sweet potato that gives them high levels of a particular flavonoid," Willcox says. "That and a high soy intake." The flavonoids in sweet potato and traditional soy foods such as tempeh stimulate what Willcox calls "the sirtuin pathway", a way of producing a protein that puts the body into preservation mode rather than the usual reproductive mode.

Some Western scientists, however, are sceptical of the effect of nutrition on age. Aubrey de Gray, a specialist on ageing at Cambridge University, argues: "I don’t think that any of the more exotic supplements becoming fashionable will add more than a couple of years (if anything) to life-span and I’m also pessimistic about caloric restriction (eating substantially less for extending life). Living and eating the way your mother told you to is pretty much all there is right now."

This may sound surprising to those who believe that eating to Western conventions and wisdom is a barrier to health. Even in Ecuador and Kashmir, where they may not reach extreme old age they reach old age in great shape. None as impressively as Okinawans, though, whose older citizens have an 80 per cent lower chance of heart disease, an extremely low risk of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancer, and about 60 per cent fewer hip fractures than Westerners.

Dr David Wikenheiser, a Canadian expert on ageing, pitches the attainable healthy age for us at about 80 years. "Ageing is accelerated by chemical, electrical, and emotional insults to our bodies in general, and specifically our genetic code," he says. "We’re on the verge of a new era of optimal ageing because people are starting to believe that their lifestyle choices affect their health."

Okinawans look after their health by eating green vegetables, oily fish, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and soy. The sweet potato is the surprise. Bradley Willcox says that what is new is our understanding of the hormesis effect of sweet potatoes and soy products: the sweet potato grows in conditions of stress and seems to communicate that stress to people who eat it, encouraging their bodies to anticipate famine or scarcity.

The reason that a third of Okinawan centenarians are physiologically nearer to 70 years is that their bodies have switched from a preoccupation with reproduction to a requirement to preserve, stimulated by the illusion of scarcity. So the Okinawa diet is, in essence, the opposite of an aphrodisiac. It’s not sexy, but it works.


Oat and cracked flax seed with mango

Serves 2

In Okinawa people consume flax seed as well as fish, two great sources of omega-3, and fruit of all kinds. This recipe provides the flax seed and the fruit. Mango is a great digestive aid. Cottage cheese speeds the uptake of omega-3.

2 cups jumbo oats (soak overnight, just covering with the water)
1 mango
Half cup flax seed
2 tbsp cottage cheese


Drain the oats without squeezing the liquid out. They should be soft to the point of almost melting on the tongue. Peel, slice and dice the mango. Grind the flax seeds in a coffee mill for two or three seconds. Combine with cottage cheese in a breakfast bowl.


Soba noodle and wild smoked salmon carbonara

Serves 2

This Western-style pasta dish is made up of mainly Japanese ingredients. The pasta is buckwheat, part of the rhubarb family. To purists it’s heresy to cook a wild smoked salmon, but the cooking is less than 30 seconds. It helps to firm up the texture and draw out the saltiness so that it can be a substitute for ham or bacon.

2 garlic cloves
2 cups chopped parsley
2 eggs (raw if you trust your supplier)
250g soba noodles
150g wild smoked salmon
Lots of black pepper


Heat a large pan full of water to take the pasta. Soba takes about seven minutes to cook. It will need washing twice once cooked. In a bowl break two eggs (or scramble them if raw eggs worry you). Add the chopped parsley and black pepper. In a frying pan, using coconut oil or clarified butter, heat the two cloves of garlic. Before they have a chance to brown add the smoked salmon. Cook for 30 seconds. Combine the salmon and garlic with the eggs, parsley and black pepper, toss in the pasta. A little brown rice vinegar will help bring up the taste.


Sweet potato mousse with green tea sauce

Serves 4

A ceremonial dessert from Okinawa

400g sweet potato (cut into inch-thick rounds)
1 cup plain soya milk
2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp agar-agar
1 tsp white rum
Sauce: 20g water-packed silken tofu
Half tsp tahini paste
Half tsp green tea powder
1 tsp honey


Steam the sweet potato until soft. Warm the soya milk without boiling. Stir in sugar, rum and agar-agar.

Blend sweet potatoes and soya milk in a food processor. Transfer the sweet potato mixture into four ramekins and refrigerate for one hour or until set. Blend the sauce ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Serve mousse chilled and garnish with the sauce.

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