Plant-based eating may seem like just another hot new fad. It’s easy to see why, since according to Google Trends, the search term “plant-based” skyrocketed in 2011 and has continued to soar ever since. But the truth is, plant-based living has been the norm for centuries in certain communities around the globe.
The Okinawa islands, located roughly 400 miles south of Japan, are one such community … and like other traditionally plant-based communities, these islands are home to some of the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. In fact, scientists say Okinawans have found the secret recipe for living to be more than 100 years old and staying in good health until the end.
Not only do Okinawans tend to live longer than average, but they tend to be far healthier, too. According to scientist Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, rates of heart disease, cancer, and dementia in Okinawa are all mere fractions of those seen in the United States.
Lifestyle is the Key to Living Long and Well
Scientists now agree unequivocally that lifestyle is the most important factor when it comes to how long you live and the quality of your health throughout life. Scientists for the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Japan’s Ministry of Health have been following Okinawans who are older than 100 since 1976 to determine the reasons for their long, healthy lives. They’ve learned that those who maintain such vibrant health for 100 years and more share some crucial traits, and it starts with eating plants.
Vegetables make up the vast majority of the traditional Okinawan diet. An analysis of the traditional diet of over 2,000 Okinawans shows that fish, meat, diary, and eggs each make up less than 1% each of their daily intake. That means more than 96% of a traditional Okinawan diet is plant-based! Not only that, but upward of 90% of their diet is whole-food, as well, meaning they ate very few processed foods.
Sadly and ironically, just as plant-based living is catching on worldwide, fast food is infiltrating Okinawa. The eating habits of the younger generations have shifted the most and the fastest, so that now, parents with their healthy traditional diets are outliving their children who have adopted Western habits. Over a dozen Kentucky Fried Chicken outposts can be found on the islands, and the average saturated fat and sodium intake for Okinawans has tripled. These changes have public health officials striving to find ways to reignite younger Okinawans’ interest in the traditional, plant-based Okinawa diet.
Eat Like an Okinawan
If you’re interested in trying the Okinawan diet for yourself, look for these key staples at your local grocery store:
- Sweet potatoes: Okinawans often eat sweet potatoes as a side dish, rather than rice as is common in mainland Japan. Sweet potatoes contain high quantities of fiber, magnesium, potassium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.
- Tofu: Okinawa tofu contains less water and more healthy fats. When choosing tofu, keep in mind that the firmer the tofu, the less water and the more protein it has per serving.
- Shiitake mushrooms: in addition to delicious flavor, shitake mushrooms are a rich source of protein, fiber, and vitamins A, B3 (niacin), B12, C, and D.
- Turmeric: Okinawans frequently use turmeric to flavor not only food dishes, but also tea. They also take it as a pill to prevent hangovers.
Some other staples of the Okinawan diet can be trickier to locate, but worth the effort if you do. That list includes:
- Konnyaku: this jelly, made from the stems of the starchy Konjac tuber, is low in fat and high in fiber and calcium. You might be able to find it at a specialty Japanese grocer.
- Hechima: you may know this gourd, also called luffa luffa, as a “loofah,” but in Okinawa, these small, tender gourds are used for cooking. Their sweet taste is reminiscent of zucchini or yellow squash.
- Gobo: this high-fiber root vegetable is superb for digestion. You may see it sold as burdock, great burdock, or beggar’s button. If you’re unable to locate gobo, asparagus and artichoke hearts have similar properties.