Eat to Live Longer: Nutrition Secrets of Okinawa

By Lia Huber

Learn the nutrition secrets of the planet's oldest people with these 12 simple steps to a longer, healthier life.

Maintain Your Weight

The islands of Okinawa, a lush archipelago southwest of the main island of Japan, are home to the largest and healthiest population of centenarians on earth. They suffer significantly fewer heart attacks and 80 percent fewer incidences of breast cancer and prostate cancer, and have lower rates of diabetes and less than half of the ovarian and colon cancer cases that we do. Their secret? A nutrient-dense diet and stress-proof lifestyle.

Before you pack your bags and say sayonara to your on-the-go American fast-lane life, consider this: "It's the little tweaks to your everyday routines that can make the biggest difference in your lifelong wellness," says Peter Martin, PhD, director of the gerontology program at Iowa State University in Ames. Think of today as the first day of the rest of your long, healthy life. Get started with these 12 simple steps.

Maintain Your Weight

Okinawan centenarians tend to stay lean throughout their lives by eating fewer calories than they burn off during the day. But retaining a healthy body mass index (BMI) is just one piece of the longevity puzzle; maintaining a stable weight is every bit as important.

Research has linked yo-yo dieting to elevated risks of hypertension, endometrial cancer, and a preponderance of body fat in the upper body, a risk factor for heart disease. If you're a yo-yo dieter, take a long, hard look at your approach to weight loss. If your BMI is over 25, by all means take steps to reduce it by exercising more and eating less, but choose activities and foods you can live with for the long haul. "The most effective way to restrict your calorie intake is to gradually reduce the portion sizes of foods you already eat," says Lisa Young, RD, PhD, author of The Portion Teller (Doubleday, 2005).

The Fountain of Youth: Daily Exercise

Okinawan elders are surprisingly fit. Many of the physical activities they engage in -- gardening, practicing traditional dance and tai chi, or simply walking to a friend's house -- give them more energy and contribute to their sense of community. The regimen sticks because it's woven into their lives. Okinawans also tend to get their daily exercise in the evenings, which can help relieve the day's tension and prime the body for rest.

Enjoy Eating

Make Meals More Social

Unlike Okinawans, Americans tend to focus more on getting through a meal than on enjoying it, according to Bradley Willcox, MD, one of the authors of The Okinawa Diet Plan (Clarkson Potter, 2004) and coprincipal investigator of the Okinawan Centenarian Study. "Americans look for convenience in the foods they eat, while Okinawans look for meaning," explains Dr. Willcox.

Sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends and family can help you take the focus off food as a source of emotional gratification. "If you can train yourself to enjoy mealtimes as a social activity that involves interaction with people you care about, you will eat more slowly and will likely make more thoughtful food selections," agrees Young. But it's not just the sitting down to eat that's important, it's also the preparation of the food. "Taking the time to prepare a meal can give it meaning," explains Young.

Eat Seasonally

Thanks to the globalization of food resources, it's quite possible to buy tomatoes in December and winter squash in July. In water-locked Okinawa, however, people traditionally eat more locally grown foods, and that means constantly changing their dietary intake. As a result, their food choices are fresher, riper, and more flavorful. "That constant change-up of nutrients may explain their resistance to chronic illness," says Dr. Willcox.

In America, the best way to eat more seasonally is to shop at your local farmer's market or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. CSAs are local groups that allow you to buy a "share" in a local farm. In return, you'll get a weekly shipment of the farm's freshest offerings.

Don't Overindulge

Fill Up on 80 Percent

How many times have you put your fork down and thought, "Whew, I'm stuffed!" Well, you'd never hear that in Okinawa. But you would hear the saying hara hachi bu, which translates literally into: "80 percent full." "Hara hachi bu is sort of an insurance plan against feeling deprived," says Dr. Willcox. "It takes about 20 minutes for the body to signal the brain that there's no need for more food. Hara hachi bu gives the brain a chance to catch up."

To help her clients home in on when it's time to stop eating, Young advises using a hunger-rating system. At various times during a meal, rate your hunger on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 is famished and 5 is stuffed). "Just stopping eating to think about how you feel decreases the odds that you'll charge past the comfort zone of 3," she says.

Think Calorie Density

Okinawans may eat fewer calories, but they also eat more food. Confused? The foods that are paramount in the Okinawan diet are less calorically dense, explains Young. "They have more nutrients, greater bulk, and fewer calories per gram." Vegetables are the least calorically dense foods you can eat. Fruits are runners-up, then whole grains. After that come lean proteins like skinless white-meat chicken, pork tenderloin, extra-lean beef, and seafood, then fatty proteins like dark-meat chicken with the skin on and fattier cuts of beef and pork. The most calorically dense foods include fats, oils, and sugars. If this sounds like a new food pyramid, it is. To lower the caloric density of your diet to more closely match the Okinawan diet, you need to eat fewer fats, oils, sugars, and fatty protein sources while you increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins, says Dr. Willcox. Vegetables and fish make up the bulk of the Okinawan diet.

Besides helping you feel fuller on fewer calories, eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits and low in saturated fat from animal proteins has been shown to significantly cut your risk of chronic disease. Consuming 25 grams of whole grains daily may help reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 15 percent. These foods are loaded with antioxidants, which help reduce the cellular damage caused by free radicals.

Try a Meat-Free Diet

Go Meatless

A large part of the Okinawan diet is made up of antioxidant-rich proteins like soy. Another major protein is seafood, which provides omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are superstars when it comes to protecting against heart disease, depression, and Alzheimer's, because they reduce arterial inflammation. "Each type of protein consumed by the Okinawans offers an additional benefit. Soy offers phytochemicals; legumes, which include soybeans and lentils, provide fiber and antioxidants; seafood supplies healthy fats. These beneficial by-products help them live longer and with fewer diseases. They simply get more bang for their protein buck than we do," says Young.

Instead of your usual beef burger, slip a salmon patty or veggie burger on a whole-wheat bun once in a while. Order the shrimp chow mein instead of the pork. Find a whole soy food you enjoy and include it in your diet at least once or twice a week. (Our pick: steamed edamame pods sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.)

5 Secrets to a Longer Life

Get to Sleep Earlier

A 2002 study published in the journal Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences revealed that Okinawan elders suffer very few sleep problems compared with Japanese living in urban areas. Okinawans tended to go to bed earlier, leading researchers to conclude that staying up late and then waking too early could be hazardous to physical and mental health.

Occasionally burning the midnight oil isn't going to cut your life short, but you might consider what you could be giving up. Studies show that lack of sleep can lead to overeating, reduced cognitive function, and even depression. Developing a nightly wind-down may help you get into bed earlier and relax faster. Turn off the television and treat yourself to a relaxing bedtime ritual that allows you to focus on drifting into dreamland. If daytime worries keep your mind racing, try meditation, write in a journal or read a book. Okinawans also take short naps throughout the day. How much sleep you need is personal, but if you're struggling to wake each morning, rest assured: You need more.

Cultivate a Sense of Control

Okinawan elders often refer to themselves as being gujah, or having a strong-willed character. "Centenarians tend to be very dominant, to want to have their way," explains Leonard W. Poon, director of the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia in Athens. Having a strong will means doing everything in your power to achieve what you want. To do that, you must hold yourself accountable for your own success and failure. In other words, whatever your goal, whether it's to lose weight or love your job or raise productive, accomplished, sensitive children, go after that goal with the full knowledge that you (and no one else) are responsible for reaching it. Such determination will help you succeed.

Nurture a Sense of Community

Healthy centenarians the world over are usually very socially involved, says Poon. "They go to church and senior centers more often. Although they sometimes live independently, it's within a strong community." Ironically, many centenarians outlive their children, so neighbors, friends and other acquaintances become extremely important.

Learn to Worry Less

Despite being gujah, older Okinawans are also highly adaptable, which gives them resilience when things don’t happen to go their way. “Challenges and setbacks can keep you cognitively aware and mentally strong,” says Poon. “They exercise your mind. But when you encounter a setback, resilience is your most important friend.” If you do suffer a defeat, focus less on what caused you to stumble and ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Then use that knowledge to try again.

Embrace Spirituality

Spirituality also plays a major role in Okinawa, and may explain why centenarians are better than most at letting go of daily problems. "Religion and faith in general are often what keeps many centenarians feeling balanced and protected from life's troubles," says Martin. If you don't subscribe to a particular faith, seek out other group activities with like-minded people -- a membership in a local theater club or lecture series, for instance.

Originally published in Fitness magazine, April 2006.