Imagine a small archipelago where people regularly live to be 100, look half their age, work and play hard all their lives, and disease is shockingly rare. No, this isn't a sequel to "Tuck Everlasting." It's Okinawa. These tiny Japanese islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan have been the subject of study since the 1970s, when researchers discovered remarkable details about the health and habits of the population there: The number of these islanders who reach 100 is four to five times that of Americans, and those centenarians are physically and mentally agile. Despite living a modern lifestyle, Okinawans don't suffer from heart disease, cancer, or other debilitating conditions at the high rates found in the United States. Scientific markers of biological age, such as artery function and hormone levels, suggest that they have bodies much younger than their calendar years.
What's their secret? Okinawans haven't sipped from the fountain of youth or hit the genetics lottery. Rather, their low-calorie but nutrient-dense diet, combined with a low-key attitude and an upbeat outlook, are responsible for their long, healthy lives. The formula has influenced D. Craig Willcox, Ph.D., one of the principal investigators of the ongoing Okinawan Centenarian Study, who moved from Canada to Okinawa in 1996. "I eat more frugally now," he says, "and I follow the "nan kuru nai sai" -- or, don't worry, be happy -- approach that's prevalent on the islands."
Unlike any other cuisine in the world, the diet combines influences from European countries, like France and Spain, with traditional Asian elements from Japan, China, and Korea -- a blend that's referred to as "champuru." Infused with Japanese flavors such as miso and curry, meals are as zesty as they are healthy. A typical main course, such as eggplant with miso sauce or fish in broth with ginger, greens, and soba noodles, might be followed by sweet potato custard. Although the islands have been Westernized, and fast food is available, it's hardly mainstream; the culture's healthy culinary traditions still dominate. On average, islanders consume six vegetables, one fruit, and six or more servings of grains a day. "Meat isn't the centerpiece and when Okinawans do have it, they tend to opt for lean pork or poultry," Willcox says. "What are plentiful are a variety of dark leafy greens and yellow-orange vegetables." Omega-3-rich fish is a staple protein, and the overall sodium and fat intake is low; fat comprises about 26 percent of total calories, most of it unsaturated. Refined carbs such as white rice are less common than they are in other Asian cuisines. Instead, Okinawans rely on whole grains like millet, and fiber-rich sweet potatoes, which are chock-full of antioxidants called carotenoids.
Most important to warding off age-related illnesses, though, is the high intake of what Willcox calls "flavs" -- flavonols, flavones, isoflavones, bioflavonoids. These powerful compounds -- which help prevent cancer by blocking the hormones that can lead to abnormal cell growth -- are delivered via daily servings of soy, vegetables, and jasmine tea.
Perhaps even more significant than what the islanders eat is how much -- and how. Serving sizes are "kuten-gwa," or "little portions" -- half the jumbo sizes typical in the United States. "If Americans were to adopt any Okinawan habit, the most important may be the practice of 'hara hachi-bu,'" says Willcox, who has embraced it himself. "That's pushing away from the table while there is still a little room in your stomach."
These customs combined with their dietary mainstays mean the islanders take in 20 to 30 percent fewer calories than Americans, an amount that studies suggest slows aging. But they rarely feel deprived. Despite being low-cal, the foods are filling. (Take sweet potatoes: a cup has about 180 calories and 7 grams of fiber, while a cup of white rice packs 340 calories and no fiber.) Okinawan meals are cause for celebration -- you eat mindfully and with others, rather than gobbling up food alone at your desk. Presentation adds to pleasure -- combos are colorful (often a blend of five different shades) and beautifully arranged.
Some of the staples may be unfamiliar, but it's possible to adjust your habits to reap the benefits. "We put Americans living on Okinawan military bases on the diet and they lowered their blood pressure and lost weight," Willcox says. "This shows that to a large extent, you can reverse the damage of a Western diet." And the opposite is also true. "When Okinawans eat like Americans they get sick at the same rate," says Daphne Miller, M.D., a San Francisco physician who spent time on the islands while researching "The Jungle Effect," her book on the world’s healthiest diets.
Low Stress, Low-Risk Living
The evidence suggests that nurture may trump nature in the case of the Okinawans. "With some exceptions, genetics play a relatively small role in determining health," Miller says, referring to the notion that disease isn't just the result of the genes you're born with, but of the impact behaviors or experiences have on those genes. "Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise either turn genes on or off." Or have effects all their own. For instance, the Centenarian Study has linked Okinawans' active lifestyle to stronger bones, which allow them to continue to exercise (and burn calories) well into old age. They walk and garden, and many perform the traditional dances they learned as children all their lives. Martial arts, both the hard (karate) and the soft (tai chi), are also popular. In addition, exercise has a strong spiritual component that enhances the physical benefits.
Willcox points out that Okinawans' easygoing manner -- referred to as "taygay" -- also plays a role in their long life spans. When he and his colleagues tested personality characteristics, centenarians scored low in time urgency and tension -- the absence of type-A traits (long linked to heart disease) reinforced the theory that taygay promotes health. And combined with this laid-back attitude is a strong sense of generosity. "Yuimaru," the practice of sharing and helping, is a cultural legacy from the days when they lived as remote, rural villagers who depended on one another. It's natural for them to offer assistance and keep friendly tabs on community members. Because studies show that strong social ties are linked to low rates of just about everything bad, like heart disease, cancer, or stroke, Willcox believes that yuimaru is another part of the life-lengthening "stew." Longevity, it seems, is not just about eating mass quantities of sweet potatoes; it's about taking time to be sweet, too.
A plant-based diet rich in seaweed, spices, and jasmine tea is just one part of living better longer.
This vitamin C-rich cucumber relative (also known as "goya," and sold in Asian markets) can be used raw or cooked. Try it in a stir-fry of tofu, eggs, and canola oil, in sandwiches, or in vegetable sushi.
Okinawans don't just eat the sweet roots, they also use the antioxidant-rich green carrot leaves. Chop and saute the tops and mix them with brown rice, or add them to scrambled eggs or vegetable soup.
Try inflammation-fighting turmeric to perk up chicken. Bottles of heart-healthy chili are found in Okinawan noodle shops for spicing soup. Digestion-aiding fennel seeds can complement vegetable sautes.
Rich in folate, iron, and magnesium, seaweed (such as (kombu, nori, hijiki, and wakame) also contains lignan, a cancer-fighting phytoestrogen. Cut strips of dried seaweed and toss them into soups or salads. Wrap sheets of dried nori around balls of rice.
What if street vendors sold baked sweet potatoes ("imo") from trucks instead of selling hot dogs? They do in Okinawa. For an antioxidant-rich snack, toss 1-inch pieces with olive oil and roast at 450 degrees for 30 minutes.
Okinawan lore says the gods brought rice, barley, and three types of millet to an area of the island believed to be a place of spiritual energy ("shoji"). Fiber-packed millet can be used as a stuffing, or combined with brown rice for a pilaf.
Tofu, miso, and edamame are high in protein and flavonoids. Go beyond vegetable stir-fries and miso soup: Experiment using miso and tofu in salad dressings, or tofu in cheesecake, like the Okinawans do.