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The Okinawan Diet

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Updated February 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Okinawa is a region in the southernmost part of Japan where inhabitants have traditionally had the longest lifespans on earth. The Okinawan diet is made up mostly of vegetables and legumes, especially soy. It's low in calories and fat, and high in complex carbohydrates.

Most of those carbohydrates come from vegetables, with only a small amount of grains or seeds, and no sugar or refined sweets. There is only a little red meat and a minimal amount of dairy. Fish is consumed in moderation, and alcohol consumption is limited to an occasional drink.

Common foods in this diet include sweet potatoes, soy, bitter melon, shiitake mushrooms, burdock, jasmine tea, seaweed, and an interesting array of herbs and spices. Here's a few that you should be able to buy in most grocery stores or Asian markets:

Sweet Potatoes

In the past, less affluent Okinawans ate sweet potatoes. Lots and lots of sweet potatoes. Rice, especially white rice, was more expensive and was a bit of a status symbol: it was something consumed only by the wealthier folks. The cool thing is that sweet potatoes are nutrient-dense and rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and potassium. They're also high in fiber and contain vitamin E.

Soy

The traditional Okinawan diet includes soy in the form of miso paste and tofu. Soy is an excellent source of plant protein, and it provides the bulk of the protein in the Okinawa diet. Soy also contains phytochemicals called flavonoids and phytoestrogens, which may have health promoting qualities.

Bitter Melon

Bitter melon is a gourd that's also known as goya, goo-fa or ku gua. It's used in salads, stir-fried meals and can be made into a juice or tea. It's high in fiber and vitamin C, plus it has a number of beneficial phytochemicals. It may be difficult to find bitter melon in your local grocery store, but Asian food markets probably carry it.

Shiitake Mushrooms

These large mushrooms are found in many types of Asian cooking. They're nutritious, and they might have some health benefits that could impact your immune system and help regulate cholesterol. You can find these mushrooms in the produce section of most grocery stores, or they may be found with the canned vegetables.

Seaweed

Kombu, hijiki, mozuku, and katsuobushi are three types of seaweed commonly used in Okinawa. They're often served with noodles, in salads, in stir fries, and with vegetables. Seaweed is high in iodine, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium and astaxanthin. It's not easy to find these types of seaweed in a typical grocery store, but you may be able to find nori, which is sold in thin sheets, and sometimes used when preparing sushi.

Herbs and Spices

Some of the seasonings used in this diet have potential for health benefits and add flavor without adding any calories. They include turmeric, mugwort, Okinawan peppers, and fennel seeds.

Why the Diet May Work

The Okinawan diet is low in calories and high in fiber, so it can help you lose or maintain weight, which is important for avoiding chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

You could say the Okinawan diet is an anti-inflammatory diet, which can help to reduce the risk of those chronic diseases for a number of reasons:

Low fat (especially saturated fat), but still high in omega-3 fatty acids. At least some forms of saturated fats can increase inflammation and omega-3's tend to reduce inflammation.

Low in refined carbohydrates (like sugar), so it doesn't have a big impact on your blood sugar levels. That's good because blood sugar spikes could contribute to a pro-inflammatory state in your body that increases the risk of chronic disease and inflammation.

High in vitamins C, E and A, and phytochemicals. These nutrients work as antioxidants to protect your cells from free radical damage (things like smoke, pollution, rancid fats and oils and so on). These nutrients might help to reduce inflammation.

Is the Okinawan Diet for You?

The main negative I can see with this diet is that it tends to be high in sodium. If you're on a salt-restricted diet, please speak to your doctor before adding in some of the sodium-rich foods like miso, salted fish or soy sauce (even reduced sodium soy sauce is high in sodium). It's possible that the abundance of fruits and vegetables high in potassium and calcium counteracts the sodium, but I wouldn't risk it.

This diet is very low in red meat, eggs and poultry. That's okay because you can still get enough protein from soy and fish. But it also has very few grains -- even whole grains -- and it's very low in dairy products. You can get enough nutrition without those food groups, but it's difficult to follow a diet that's so restrictive.

You don't have to follow the Okinawan diet religiously to see some benefit: Some of these components could be incorporated into your diet:

  • Eat more vegetables, preferably the ones that are deep green or brightly colored. The star of the Okinawa diet is the sweet potato. They're easy to find in any grocery store (although they may be mislabeled as yams).
  • Choose soy and soy foods. Try adding tofu to a stir fry or switch from dairy milk to soy milk.
  • Swap out your red meat for a serving of fish. Or better yet, up your intake of legumes.
  • Add mushrooms to your meals -- try different varieties like shiitake, oyster and King trumpet mushrooms. They're delicious and can be used in place of meat as the focus of a meal.

Source:

Willcox DC, Willcox BJ, Todoriki H, Suzuki M. "The Okinawan diet: health implications of a low-calorie, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich dietary pattern low in glycemic load." J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Aug;28 Suppl:500S-516S.

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