Okinawa Diet for Longevity: Foods, Benefits, Downsides, More - Dr. Axe

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The Okinawa Diet: Foods and Habits that Boost Longevity


Okinawa diet - Dr. Axe

Between the Mediterranean diet, ketogenic diet and a host of other diet plans to lose weight, there’s no shortage of suggested ways to eat but there’s one diet that modern researchers keep coming back to when they study health and longevity: the Okinawa diet.

The Okinawa diet is considered a longevity diet, which should come as little surprise given Okinawa, Japan is one of the blue zones where people regularly live past 100 years old.

What Is the Okinawa Diet?

The Okinawa diet is named after the largest island in the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. History buffs might recognize the name from the Battle of Okinawa, fought during World War II, but these days, there’s another reason it’s in history books: Okinawa’s people live a really, really long time.

While the average life expectancy in the United States is 76.4 years, it’s 84 years old in Japan – and five times as many people from Okinawa live to be 100 years as their peers in the rest of the country. Researchers have studied Okinawa’s residents for years, and the answer lies both in the typical Okinawan diet and the island’s attitude toward eating.

The Okinawa diet gets back to basics. It emphasizes a diet rich in yellow, orange and green vegetables. While rice is ubiquitous with mealtime in Japan, people skimp on the grains and focus instead on the purple potato. Meat (including pork), dairy and seafood are eaten in small amounts, and there’s an emphasis on soy and legumes.


It’s very similar to a macrobiotic diet, though that diet is only plant-based.

The entire Okinawa diet is quite low in sugar and grains – Okinawans consume about 30 percent less sugar and 15 percent fewer grains than folks in the rest of Japan.

Hara Hachi Bu — the Key to Not Overeating

You can’t talk about the Okinawan diet without mentioning hara hachi bu. Hara hachi bu is based on a Confucian teaching that reminds people to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. In English, the phrase translates to “eat until you are eight parts out of 10 full.”

Eating mindfully and slowly in this way means that Okinawans take the time to think about what and how they’re consuming their food. By checking in with themselves to decide if they have achieved satiety before continuing to eat, they give their bellies time to signal their brains and let them know they’re full.

This strategy pays off. Okinawans typically eat about 1,200 calories a day, a lot fewer than the average 2,000 recommended in the U.S. Yet because the foods they consume are so nutrient-rich and Okinawans are used to caloric restriction (not starvation mode!), they’re able to stay healthy and live longer on less.

Foods to Eat

The Okinawa diet is based on the traditional eating patterns of the people of Okinawa, a Japanese island known for having one of the highest life expectancies in the world. The diet emphasizes a balance of nutrient-dense foods and a focus on plant-based options.

Here are some foods commonly included in the Okinawa diet:

  • Sweet Potatoes: A staple in the Okinawan diet, sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and various nutrients.
  • Vegetables: Okinawans consume a variety of colorful vegetables, including leafy greens, carrots, radishes and other locally grown produce.
  • Tofu and Soy Products: Tofu, miso and other soy-based products provide plant-based protein and are key components of the Okinawan diet.
  • Seaweed: Seaweed is a common ingredient in Okinawan cuisine, providing essential minerals and vitamins.
  • Legumes: Beans, especially soybeans, are a good source of protein and are frequently consumed in the form of natto (fermented soybeans).
  • Fish: Okinawans traditionally include fish in their diets, providing omega-3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients.
  • Lean Meat: Small amounts of lean meat, such as pork, are consumed in moderation.
  • Whole Grains: Brown rice and other whole grains are preferred over refined grains in the Okinawan diet.
  • Fruits: Okinawans enjoy a variety of fruits, such as citrus fruits, papaya and pineapple, providing vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Green Tea: Green tea is a popular beverage in Okinawa, known for its health-promoting properties.
  • Herbs and Spices: Okinawan cuisine incorporates various herbs and spices, such as turmeric, which may contribute to the health benefits of the diet.
  • Minimal Processed Foods: Traditional Okinawan meals are minimally processed, with an emphasis on whole, natural foods.

While not a specific food, caloric restriction is a key aspect of the Okinawan lifestyle, and Okinawans traditionally consume fewer calories than many other populations.

It’s important to note that the Okinawa diet is not only about the specific foods, but also about the overall dietary pattern and lifestyle. Portion control, mindful eating and an active lifestyle are integral components of the Okinawan approach to health and longevity.

Foods to Avoid

The Okinawa diet focuses on a balanced and nutrient-dense approach to eating, emphasizing whole, unprocessed foods. While there isn’t a strict list of foods to avoid, the traditional Okinawan diet tends to limit certain items that are associated with less favorable health outcomes.

Here are some foods that may be consumed in moderation or avoided on the Okinawa diet:

  • Processed Foods: Highly processed and refined foods, such as sugary snacks, fast food and pre-packaged meals, are generally avoided.
  • Added Sugars: Foods and beverages high in added sugars are limited in the Okinawa diet. This includes sugary drinks, candies and desserts.
  • Saturated Fats: While small amounts of lean meat, particularly pork, are consumed, excessive intake of saturated fats is avoided. Fried and fatty foods may be limited.
  • Excessive Red Meat: While lean meat is included in small amounts, excessive consumption of red meat is generally discouraged.
  • Dairy Products: Traditional Okinawan cuisine is not centered around dairy products, so their intake is typically limited.
  • Refined Grains: The Okinawa diet emphasizes whole grains like brown rice over refined grains like white rice.
  • Excessive Alcohol: While some moderate alcohol intake, particularly in the form of local beverages like Awamori, may be included, excessive alcohol consumption is discouraged.

The Okinawa diet traditionally emphasizes moderation and portion control. Overeating, even of healthy foods, may be avoided to maintain a balance.

Health Benefits

The Okinawa diet is often associated with several health benefits, and researchers attribute the longevity and good health of the Okinawan people to their traditional dietary and lifestyle practices. While individual responses may vary, here are some potential health benefits associated with the Okinawa diet.

1. Longevity

Okinawa is known for having one of the highest life expectancies in the world. The diet’s focus on nutrient-dense, plant-based foods and caloric restriction is believed to contribute to increased life span.

2. Heart Health

The Okinawa diet is low in saturated fats, and the consumption of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to cardiovascular health by reducing the risk of heart disease. In addition, the vegetables Okinawans consume are high in folate and fiber, “which are inversely associated with higher homocysteine concentration, a potential risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke,” according to research published in the Journal of Epidemiology.


3. Weight Management

The Okinawa diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods and caloric restriction, which may help in weight management and reducing the risk of obesity-related diseases.

4. Improved Blood Sugar Control

The diet’s focus on low-glycemic, whole foods may contribute to better blood sugar control and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

5. Anti-Inflammatory Properties

The Okinawa diet includes foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, such as turmeric, which may contribute to reducing inflammation in the body.

6. Bone Health

The traditional Okinawan diet includes foods rich in calcium, such as tofu and leafy greens, which can contribute to better bone health.

7. Cancer Prevention

Some studies suggest that the Okinawa diet, with its emphasis on a variety of plant-based foods, may contribute to a lower risk of certain cancers.

8. Improved Gut Health

The diet includes fiber-rich foods like vegetables and legumes, promoting a healthy gut microbiota and potentially reducing the risk of gastrointestinal issues.

9. Brain Health

The consumption of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidant-rich foods may contribute to cognitive health and a lower risk of age-related cognitive decline. A 2020 study even noted that, along with the Mediterranean diet, the Okinawa diet “could represent a feasible nutritional approach to reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment and age-related neurodegenerative disorders like [Alzheimer’s disease] by stimulating mitophagy and ensuring a balanced redox state of brain cells.”

10. Reduced Risk of Metabolic Syndrome

The Okinawa diet’s focus on whole foods and caloric restriction may help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

It’s important to note that while the Okinawa diet has been associated with these potential health benefits, other factors such as genetics, overall lifestyle and environmental influences also play a significant role in health outcomes. Before making significant changes to your diet, it’s advisable to consult with a health care professional or a registered dietitian for personalized advice based on your individual health status and goals.

Potential Downsides

While the Okinawan diet is certainly healthy, some of the nutritional choices don’t “translate” well in America. For instance, soy makes up a hefty portion of this Japanese way of eating. The probiotic-rich miso is soy-based and loaded with nutrients.

Unfortunately, the soy that’s sold in the U.S. is mainly the soy to avoid. Ninety percent of the soy that’s available in the States is genetically modified. Aside from the fact that they kill healthy bacteria in your gut, we still don’t know the long-term effects of GMO foods.

Additionally, U.S. soy is full of phytoestrogens, which mimic the hormone estrogen in your body. Too much estrogen has been linked to certain types of breast cancer, cervical cancer and other hormone-related disorders. So while the Okinawan people have access to healthier soy like natto (which is fermented), its’ best to steer clear of regular soy.

Pork also has its place in the Okinawan diet. While it’s not eaten super often, it is a part of staple Okinawan dishes, particularly around holidays and festivals. Okinawans are famed for using nearly every part of the pig in their cooking. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons why you should avoid pork, from the amount of parasites the meat carries to the other toxins found in it.

Finally, as the Western diet of processed and fast foods reaches Okinawa’s shores, the health repercussions are already visible, with the younger residents dealing with obesity. As Okinawans struggle to stick to their own diet, obesity-related diseases are taking their toll.

The Okinawan diet isn’t a magic cure, but taking some cues from island’s eating habits — particularly eating a variety of produce, sticking to quality meats over quantity, and reducing grains and dairy — is sure to have a positive impact on your health. Hopefully, the Okinawans are able to do the same.

It’s also a fairly restrictive diet and can be high in sodium if you don’t watch your intake of sodium foods.

How to Eat the Okinawan Way

So you want to live to 100 years old? It might be time to incorporate the Okinawa way of eating and its staple foods into your diet.

1. Pile on colorful foods

Eating a variety of fruits and veggies is good for us no matter what they are, but how often do you mix up what’s on your plate? Instead of sticking to a handful of vegetables, Okinawans spice things up by eating a variety, especially brightly colored ones. It’s no surprise, then, that their diet is loaded with antioxidants and nutrients.

In particular, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are bursting with carotenoids. These nutrients help lower inflammation, boost growth and development, and can improve immune system function, all critical parts of staying healthy as we age.

If you’re not sure how to get more variety into your diet, one great way to incorporate new-to-you vegetables is by visiting your local farmers market. You’ll be able to find fresh, in-season produce you might not regularly purchase, and farmers are usually happy to share their tips on how best to prepare them.

2. Stick to a limited amount of high-quality meats and seafood

Though the Okinawa diet does allow for meat and seafood, it does so in small, limited quantities. Barring festivals or special occasions, stick to a mostly plant-based diet.

You can replicate this at home by eating high-quality meats and seafood, like grass-fed beef, bison meat and wild-caught seafood like salmon. If you stick to just seafood, you’d be eating a pescatarian diet.

Enjoying these foods just a few times a week or on special occasions means you’ll enjoy the benefits of healthy fats, like reducing inflammation, controlling cholesterol and reducing your risk for heart disease, while keeping calories in check.

Additionally, reducing your family’s meat and seafood intake lessens the load on your wallet, making products that might normally be a stretch more budget-friendly.

3. Limit grains and dairy

We can’t ignore the fact that the Okinawa diet has nearly no dairy or grains in it. Gluten, which is found in grains, is a danger food that’s found in wheat-based products. The wheat we buy today contains nearly double the amount of gluten as grains of the past.

Too much gluten can cause digestive problems, inflammation, leaky gut and allergic reactions. Even people who think they can tolerate gluten often find that when they reduce or eliminate the protein from their diets, their health and seemingly unrelated problems, like acne or bloating, are reduced.

Okinawans – and most Asian cultures – consume very little dairy.

The dangers of low-fat dairy include the fact that it’s often full of sugar, and the pasteurization process kills a lot of the beneficial nutrients and vitamins. Choose raw milk and raw dairy products when possible. Plant-based alternatives, like coconut or almond milks, are also great options.

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