What Is the Okinawa Diet? Food and Diet plan
Okinawa is one of the largest islands in Japan. (Fun fact: Its nickname is Churashima, which means beautiful islands.) It’s also well-known as being one of the Blue Zones-a name for areas of the world where people are considered the healthiest because of low rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity and the highest life expectancy rates.
In fact, Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world: 90 for women and 84 for men. Okinawa, specifically, has the largest number of centenarians (people who are 100 years old or older) per 100,000 population in the world, according to the Okninawa Research center for Longevity science (ORCLS). They’ve been studying centenarians for decades, so it’s clear the region is doing something right-starting with their diet.
Additionally, Okinawan culture treats food as medicine and utilizes many practices from traditional Chinese medicine. As such, the diet includes herbs and spices known for having health benefits, such as turmeric and mugwort.
Okinawan lifestyle also emphasizes daily physical activity and mindful eating practices.
How It Works?
Most of the carbohydrates in the Okinawa diet come from vegetables, with only a small amount of grains or seeds and no sugar or refined sweets. There is only a little bit of red meat and a minimal amount of dairy. Fish is consumed in moderation, and alcohol consumption is limited to an occasional drink. Typical foods in this diet include sweet potatoes, soy, bitter melon, shiitake mushrooms, burdock, jasmine tea, seaweed, and an array of herbs and spices.
- Vegetables, especially sweet potatoes
- Legumes, especially soybeans
- Herbs and spices
- Fish (in small amounts)
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Meat (except very occasionally)
- Dairy products (except very occasionally)
- Refined carbohydrates
Hara Hachi Bu — the Key to Not Overeating
You can’t talk about the Okinawan diet without mentioning hara hachi bu. Hara hachi bu is based on a Confucian teaching that reminds them to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. In English, the phrase translates to “eat until you are eight parts out of ten full.”
Eating mindfully and slowly in this way means that Okinawans take the time to think about what and how they’re consuming their food. By checking in with themselves to decide if they have achieved satiety before continuing to eat, they give their bellies time to signal the brain and let them know they’re full.
Foods to eat
Many of the Okinawa diet’s benefits may be attributed to its rich supply of whole, nutrient-dense, high-antioxidant foods.
Essential nutrients are important for the proper function of your body, while antioxidants protect your body against cellular damage.
Unlike other Japanese, Okinawans consume very little rice. Instead, their main source of calories is the sweet potato, followed by whole grains, legumes, and fiber-rich vegetables.
The staple foods in a traditional Okinawan diet are :
- Vegetables (58–60%): sweet potato (orange and purple), seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, daikon radish, bitter melon, cabbage, carrots, Chinese okra, pumpkin, and green papaya
- Grains (33%): millet, wheat, rice, and noodles
- Soy foods (5%): tofu, miso, natto, and edamame
- Meat and seafood (1–2%): mostly white fish, seafood, and occasional pork — all cuts, including organs.
- Other (1%): alcohol, tea, spices, and dashi (broth)
What’s more, Jasmine tea is consumed liberally on this diet, and antioxidant-rich spices like turmeric are common.
Health benefits of the Okinawa diet
The Okinawa diet has a number of health benefits, which are often attributed to its high antioxidant content and high-quality, nutritious foods.
The most notable benefit of the traditional Okinawa diet is its apparent impact on lifespan. Okinawa is home to more centenarians — or people who live to be at least 100 years old — than anywhere else in the world.
Proponents of the mainstream version of the diet claim that it also promotes longevity, but no substantial research is available to validate these claims.
Many factors influence longevity, including genetics and environment — but lifestyle choices also play a significant role.
High levels of free radicals — or reactive particles that cause stress and cellular damage in your body — may accelerate aging.
Research suggests that antioxidant-rich foods may help slow the aging process by protecting your cells from free radical damage and reducing inflammation.
The traditional Okinawa diet is comprised primarily of plant-based foods that offer potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities, which possibly promote a longer lifespan.
The diet’s low-calorie, low-protein, and high-carb foods may also promote longevity.
Animal studies suggest that a calorie-restricted diet made up of more carbs and less protein tends to support a longer lifespan, compared to high-protein Western diets.
More research is needed to better understand how the Okinawa diet may contribute to longevity in humans.
Reduced risk of chronic diseases
Okinawans not only live long lives but also experience fewer chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Diet likely plays a role, as Okinawan foods boast essential nutrients, fiber, and anti-inflammatory compounds while being low in calories, refined sugar, and saturated fats.
In the traditional diet, most calories come from sweet potatoes. Some experts even claim that the sweet potato is one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Sweet potatoes provide a healthy dose of fiber and have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that they don’t contribute to sharp rises in blood sugar. They also offer essential nutrients like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A and C.
What’s more, sweet potatoes and other colorful vegetables frequently consumed on Okinawa contain powerful plant compounds called carotenoids.
Carotenoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and may play a role in preventing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The Okinawa diet also supplies relatively high levels of soy.
Research suggests that particular soy-based foods are associated with a reduced risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Is the Okinawa diet right for you?
Although the Okinawa diet has many positive health effects, some people may prefer a less restrictive or less carb-heavy diet.
Although its benefits may include a longer lifespan, it can be restrictive and high in sodium.
If you’re unsure whether the Okinawa diet fits your dietary goals, consider talking to your dietitian or healthcare provider to create a plan tailored to your needs.
Also read: How to increase your iron absorption?