Okinawa: Traditional Foods, Long Lives

February 5, 2013

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A friend of mine overheard a conversation the other day while she was out to eat. A man at a nearby table was telling his friend that his doctor had recently recommended two options to deal with his worsening heart condition: improved diet and exercise, or medication. The men laughed together at the absurdity of changing your diet, remarking, “the choice is obvious.”

It truly baffles me that this kind of thinking is still so prevalent in our culture. We spend more on healthcare per capita than any nation on earth, yet some of the poorest and least developed countries are almost entirely free of our most common diseases and disorders: heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, dementia, autism.

What are we missing?

I’m sure you know the answer as well as I do: food. Our bodies are machines, and the output depends on the input. As a business owner, I place a high value on staying healthy, not just as I age, but in my day-to-day life. I’m personally relied on every day and I need to stay sharp. Unfortunately, it can be tough in our busy culture to make healthy choices every day. Let’s take a look at another culture that seems to have it down.

Okinawa, Centenarian Capitol of the World

elderly Japanese manDid you know that Okinawa, a tiny island in the Japanese nation, has the highest number of centenarians (people over 100 years old) per capita in the world? The average Okinawan woman lives to the age of 86- longer than anywhere else. People in Japan have eaten a traditional diet of vegetables, rice, and fish for centuries, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve long been one of the healthiest countries in the world.

Unfortunately, that began to change when McDonald’s – and along with it, the American food culture – opened restaurants in Japan. But Okinawa, relatively isolated off the southern coast of Japan, has remained extremely traditional. Most Okinawans eat about 7 servings of fruits and veggies and 7 servings of whole grains per day, with fish making an appearance once or twice a week, and virtually no dairy or meat. Meals are prepared with care and consumed as families and communities. Most Okinawans rarely get sick and remain healthy and pain-free into their old age.

Being an American and Eating Like the Japanese

I’m not saying that sushi is the end-all, be-all answer for all of us, but there are some lessons we can take from Okinawa.

  • Eat with intention and thankfulness. I remember first learning about Okinawa in a National Geographic article, and I was struck by the ceremony and gratitude surrounding daily meals. I know it’s not realistic for many of us to prepare each meal from scratch and eat dinner together every night, but we can slow down enough to eat with purpose and listen to our body’s signals, even if we’re just eating a sandwich in front of our computer.
  • Eat less. Isn’t it amazing how much we can eat when we eat mindlessly? Slowing down and feeding ourselves with purpose helps us enjoy our food more fully and recognize when we’re satisfied.
  • Eat whole foods. Most Okinawans subsist on traditional whole foods like whole-grain rice, fresh vegetables, and fresh-caught fish. No chemicals, no GMOs, no processing. Just whole, local food.
  • Eat more plant-based foods. I don’t mind admitting that I love a good steak, but I think most of us could stand to eat more vegetables and healthy whole-grains.

Okinawa is just one example of what I consider a healthy food culture, but it’s certainly not the only one. There are many people groups that have healthy attitudes and habits surrounding food, and we could learn something from each of them. Tell us about the places you’ve heard of or visited!