Life and Longevity Tips from the Centenarian Women of Okinawa

"Naha City, Okinawa - October 30, 2011: Traditional dance performers make their way down ""Kokusai St."" (International St.) during a local festival."

Picture this, a beautiful tropical island off the southern coast of Japan, warm salty air, sandy beaches, tropical fruit hanging from the trees, a laid back culture, and the eldest ladies with a low cancer rate. Okinawa, Japan has the highest concentration of centenarian women in the world.  How do they live for so long? More importantly, how can we do it?  While we may not be wizards with potions of immortality at our disposal, we can learn some longevity tips from the women of Okinawa might be our next best option. 

A Brief History

Okinawa wasn’t always part of Japan.  Culturally, they hardly view themselves as Japanese, and until 1879 they weren’t.  Up until then, the Okinawans viewed themselves proudly as their own country, and largely operated as such. They farmed and fished for themselves with little aid from the main island of Japan, which is why their way of life and diet is different from their mainland counterparts.  

Bitter melon is a staple within the Okinawa diet

What do they eat?

Okinawa’s main dietary staple is their purple sweet potatoes, which are super high in fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants (though less healthy when we get it in the form of ube ice cream).  Okinawans also eat bitter melon, which looks something like an acne-prone cucumber- it’s high in vitamin A, vitamin B-6, and vitamin C. Soy products are also very commonly consumed in Okinawa, with tofu and soy milk eaten almost daily.  Seaweed and fish, plentiful around the island and high in Omega-3s, are also very common foods to consume.  Overall, the Okinawan people eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, and are primarily plant-based people.

What they do NOT eat

Sorry keto/paleo friends, the people of Okinawa don’t eat a lot of meat.  Okinawa being an island nation means that they eat plenty of fish, but they consume very little meat of any other sort in their diet.  They also don’t consume a lot of refined carbohydrates or sugar.  Their meals almost entirely consist of whole fruits and vegetables, as well as tubers and legumes. Okinawans also eat smaller portions and consume fewer calories on average than other populations.  

How they eat

Confucius, a major eastern philosopher had a well-known teaching regarding food: eat until you are almost full.  The people of Okinawa naturally subscribe to this method. In practical terms for our Western diet, we should follow an 80/20 rule; eat until we are 80% full and stop.  The reasoning behind this, is that it takes a while for our bodies to digest, so often times we have eaten enough but our mind hasn’t caught up with our stomach.  Okinawan people eat socially, sitting at the table and eating as a family. It’s understandable if we don’t want to get into politics at the table with dad again, and none of us want mom to witness us turning our noses up at her beloved (but terrible) recipe, but it’s healthier for us to eat together and is shown to relieve stress.

Aharen Beach on Tokashiki Island in Okinawa, Japan.

How do they exercise?

First and foremost, we should mention that they never stop exercising.  We can’t  live past 100 without continuing to be active our entire lives (we knew there was a catch!) Most Okinawans maintain a farm, and garden the entirety of their lives! Gardening also encourages Okinawans to eat healthier, since they grow most of their own food. They also almost exclusively walk everywhere.  Walking is a great exercise for those with bad knees and joints.  

How to mimic the lifestyle of the Okinawa people

Okinawans are hearty, stalwart people, who have been largely independent, and because of this, they’ve fostered a sense of resilience and independence in their people that is rarely seen in other cultures.  They grow their own incredibly healthy food and live off the land. They keep going at 100% right up until the day they die. They eat whole foods, largely plant-based diet, with each ingredient being extremely nutrient-dense, and when they do eat meat it’s primarily omega 3 rich fish.  They hardly eat any refined carbohydrates. Every calorie counts, each calorie is made up of extremely nutritious food. They take the time to savor each and every bite that goes into them, and appreciate the work and effort it took to get that food onto their plate, and they don’t overindulge. We could learn a lot from them.  

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