The Okinawan diet

Okinawa is the name of a Japanese prefecture, a particular island, and sometimes also referred to as a group of subtropical islands in the Japanese south. (However, some of these islands should correctly and more specifically be labelled the Ryukyu Islands.)

Besides from being beautiful, the Okinawa region is known for its density of centenarians, i.e. those who have lived 100 years or more, and this palpable phenomenon’s interrelationship to a healthy diet and lifestyle. Hence, the Okinawan diet, a term that has become quite well-known in the Western world as well.

In this post, I will briefly examine this particular diet, and describe the extent to which it might be followed strictly or at least significantly influence one’s own particular dietary habits. Moreover, I will explain how it can be modified in order to correspond more optimally to a fitness and bodybuilding lifestyle and diet. I will have the research article “The Okinawan Diet: Health Implications of a Low-Calorie, Nutrient-Dense, Antioxidant-Rich Dietary Pattern Low in Glycemic Load” as a point of departure and reference.

The article’s abstract tells us:

Residents of Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, are known for their long average life expectancy, high numbers of centenarians, and accompanying low risk of age-associated diseases. Much of the longevity advantage in Okinawa is thought to be related to a healthy lifestyle, particularly the traditional diet, which is low in calories yet nutritionally dense, especially with regard to phytonutrients in the form of antioxidants and flavonoids. Research suggests that diets associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases are similar to the traditional Okinawan diet, that is, vegetable and fruit heavy (therefore phytonutrient and antioxidant rich) but reduced in meat, refined grains, saturated fat, sugar, salt, and full-fat dairy products. Many of the characteristics of the diet in Okinawa are shared with other healthy dietary patterns, such as the traditional Mediterranean diet or the modern DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Features such as the low levels of saturated fat, high antioxidant intake, and low glycemic load in these diets are likely contributing to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and other chronic diseases through multiple mechanisms, including reduced oxidative stress.

It is notable that contemporary Okinawans in general – much like many other populations in the industrialized world – have started to eat more Western-style and thus consume more salt, sugar, meat and processed fats. Thus it is the traditional Okinawan diet that has health benefits, since it consists of nutrients – (particularly potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and carotenoids) and fiber – that seem to be what the sweet potato in particular contains in abundance. Other important nutrients from the sweet potato are vitamin A, B, B6 and E.

Westerners in general and Americans in particular ought to be influenced by the Okinawan diet at the expense of typical American/Western foodstuffs such as red meat, sugar, high-GI carbohydrates and processed and saturated fats. The dietary habits of humans are more or less linked to cardiovascular diseases and certain forms of cancer, and to eat more properly is one important dimension in that respect:

Based on dietary intake data or evidence of public health problems the USDA indicates that many adults lack sufficient amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and the antioxidant vitamins A (as carotenoids), C, and E [2]. At the same time, the USDA reports that in general, Americans consume too many calories and too much saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sugar, and salt [2]. Moreover, overconsumption of foods that are calorie-dense, nutritionally poor, highly processed, and rapidly absorbable can lead to systemic inflammation, reduced insulin sensitivity, and a cluster of metabolic abnormalities, including obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and glucose intolerance (commonly known as metabolic syndrome), affecting about one third of Americans and an increasingly serious problem in virtually all developed nations.

Besides from low calories and sweet potato consumption, other ingredients and foodstuffs, such as mugwort, seaweed and fennel, have health benefits, and thus blurr the distinction between food and medicine:

The distinction between food and medicine blurs in Okinawa, with commonly consumed ‘‘herbs’’ such as fuchiba (mugwort), kandaba (sweet potato leaves), ichoba (fennel), aasa (green seaweed), ngana (bitter leaf), and others utilized as both foods and medicine. All contain powerful antioxidants, with high amounts of carotene and other antioxidant properties (aasa seaweed has close to 9000 mg of carotene per 100 g)

Overall, the Okinawan diet is more related to wellness than fitness. However, with a combination of typical traditional Okinawan foodstuffs, and more calories from eggs, fish, chicken and low fat dairy products (quark and cottage cheese), it is possible to synthesize a fitness diet that has both physiological and aesthetic benefits.