Weight loss will always be a popular topic. As such, we constantly keep hearing about different diet plans and whatnot. But some diet plans, such as the Okinawa diet, offer additional benefits that extend far beyond weight loss. Today, we are here to discuss the many benefits that the popular Okinawa diet has to offer. We will also cover all of the basics and discuss what foods you should and should not be eating.
What is the Okinawa diet?
Okinawa is the largest of the 55 Ryukyu Islands in the southernmost part of Japan (1). It is famous for being one of the “blue zones” where traditionally, people have had the longest lifespans on earth. People who live in the so-called “blue zones” are also less likely diagnosed with any age-related diseases. So far, there are only five “blue zones” around the world and Okinawa happens to be one of them (2). Here are a few statistics that we find interesting.
- There are 6-12 times fewer deaths due to heart disease in Okinawa as compared to the United States;
- Death due to colon cancer occurs 2-3 times less in Okinawa as compared to the United States;
- There have been 7 times less colon prostate cancer deaths in Okinawa as compared to the United States;
- The risk of dying due to breast cancer is 5.5 times lower in Okinawa as compared to the United States, etc. (3)
So, now, you are probably wondering what it is that influences the Okinawans’ longevity. The truth is that we are talking about a combination of different factors. But even so, their typically healthy diet may be the most important factor of them all. It is important to mention that, in the past few years, Western eating habits and fast food has reached Okinawa as well. As expected, this has caused a few changes in their quality of life and longevity.
Speaking of the Okinawa diet, this diet plan has gained quite a popularity in the last few years. This is not necessarily a weight loss diet plan. Instead, this eating style is meant to help improve one’s health and increase longevity. The Okinawa diet replicates the Okinawans’ traditional eating habits.
This diet plan is characteristically low in calories and fat while at the same time it is high in carbs. It focuses on eating veggies and soy products. Small amounts of noodles, rice, fish, and pork are allowed as well. With the modernization of the food production processes, the traditional Okinawa diet has shifted a bit. Nowadays, we see Okinawans eating more protein and fat as compared to a few years ago. The diet, however, maintains to exist as a high-carb, low-calorie diet plan. Here is a layout of the macronutrients of the Okinawa diet, both modern and traditional diet plans.
- Carbs – Modern: 58%, original: 85%;
- Protein – Modern: 15%, original: 5%;
- Fats – Modern: 28% of which 7% are saturated fats, original: 6% of which 2% are saturated fats (4).
Of course, you are free to choose whether you want to follow the modern or the traditional guidelines in terms of macronutrients. Another important segment of the Okinawa diet is the use of traditional Chinese medicine practices. Knowing that you are encouraged to use natural herbs and spices, such as turmeric and mugwort, to take advantage of their health benefits.
Physical activity, too, is an important aspect of this diet plan. It is no secret that daily exercise has multiple beneficial effects for both our physical and mental health. And so, you are encouraged to take part in the physical activity of your choosing, one that will keep you healthy and happy.
Pros and Cons
- It helps fight inflammation
- It has many scientifically backed-up health benefits
- It induces weight loss
- It improves multiple aspects of both physical and mental health
- It allows a wide range of foods to plan one’s meals around
- It is low-cost
- Some consider it to be quite restrictive;
- It is usually high in sodium.
Foods to Eat
As we mentioned earlier, the Okinawa diet focuses on eating low-calorie and usually high-carb foods. This diet plan emphasizes eating whole, nutrient-dense foods that help maintain good physical and mental health. Another important aspect of the Okinawa diet is eating antioxidant-rich foods.
As you may know, antioxidants are working towards eliminating free radicals and oxidative damage. Multiple scientific studies talk about free radicals and their negative impact on our health. In fact, many health issues have been linked to high oxidative stress levels. The list includes Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and many more (5, 6). The high antioxidant intake is believed to be one of the factors that extend the longevity of the people of Okinawa. Let’s have a look at what the Okinawa diet allows you to eat.
- Vegetables – Up to 60% of the Okinawa diet consists of eating veggies. But not all veggies are allowed. You will mostly see Okinawans eating sweet potatoes, dark leafy greens, seaweed, bamboo shoots, bitter melon, cabbage, and pumpkin. All of these veggies are incredibly nutrient-dense and so, a big part of the Okinawa diet.
- Whole grains – Make sure that your diet consists of up to 33% whole grains. This is a very important guideline for the Okinawa diet. Millet, rice, noodles, and wheat are the usual grains found in this diet plan.
- Soy products – To introduce the protein that you need, the Okinawa diet relies on soy products and some meat. The allowed 5% of soy products include eating tofu, edamame, miso, and natto.
- Meat – Okinawans are eating meat on very rare occasions. That is why their diet consists of only 1% meat and that is most usually pork. This includes all cuts of pork, plus the organs.
- Seafood – The rest 1% of the diet plan consists of eating seafood. You can alternate between eating white fish and actual seafood, as you see fit.
- Shiitake mushrooms – Shiitake mushrooms, too, are an important part of the Okinawa diet. Once again, we are talking about a nutrient-dense food that is versatile and easily added to several dishes.
- Other foods – In this group we will include foods such as natural herbs and spices, but also alcohol, broth, and tea. Jasmine tea seems to play a crucial role in the Okinawa diet, being a rich antioxidant source as it is (7, 8).
Foods to Avoid
Compared to the modern, Western diet that we are used to, the Okinawa diet is quite different and restrictive. The main reason for that is the relative isolation that has taken part on the island many years ago. Okinawans had no access to many foods that we are used to eating daily until only a few years ago. However, as we mentioned before, lately there have been some changes, as little they may be. Little by little, these changes are transforming the traditional Okinawa diet as we know it. According to the traditional guidelines, here are the foods that you would need to avoid:
- Meat – Meat like poultry and beef are highly restricted and consumed only occasionally;
- Processed meats – Processed meats such as hot dogs, salami, bacon, sausages, and other cured meats are restricted with no exception;
- Legumes – All legumes, other than soybeans, are not allowed;
- Animal products – All animal products including milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and butter are restricted without any exceptions. Some people following the modern Okinawa guidelines do consume dairy products on rare occasions;
- Fruit – All fruits are restricted. The modern Okinawa diet, however, does allow eating some fruits that are low in calories;
- Nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds are not allowed;
- Refined carbs – White bread, white pasta, sweets, cakes, carb-rich drinks, etc. are highly restricted (9).
Health Benefits of the Okinawa diet
It’s A Highly Nutritious Diet Plan
The Okinawa diet plan consists of some highly nutritious foods (10). You would benefit from adding every single one of these foods. Because of the wide range of available foods, no nutrient deficit is expected to happen. This is also a great diet plan for any vegan and vegetarian. Even if you avoid eating meat and seafood, the Okinawa diet consists of enough soy products to introduce the protein that you need (11).
It Promotes Longer lifespan
Now the biggest benefit of them all has to be the longer lifespan. The Okinawa diet has made it possible for many people to live well after the age of 100 (12, 13). In fact, Okinawa is one of the places where the most centenarians live. Although it is clear that genetics and environmental factors play a certain role, the role of diet is not to be underestimated. It is believed that the secret lies in all of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods that this diet plan consists of.
It Reduces Risk of Several Health Issues
Not only does the Okinawa diet expand one’s lifespan, but it also works toward preventing common chronic diseases. Nowadays, chronic issues such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and neurological diseases are all around us. We all know at least one person that is affected by one or many chronic issues. It is these chronic diseases that often put an end to our lives.
That, however, is not the case with the Okinawans. As we discussed at the beginning of the article, the death rates due to chronic diseases among Okinawans are significantly lower as compared to those of the American population (14). Science suggests that it may all be linked to the high soy intake that the Okinawa diet is based on (15).
We also mentioned sweet potato being one of the staple foods in the diet plan. Did you know that scientists consider sweet potato as one of the healthiest foods in the world? Sweet potatoes and the other popular veggies in the Okinawa diet have strong anti-inflammatory properties (16). Some of them are also rich in carotenoids which are strong antioxidants and play a role in the prevention of diabetes type 2 and heart disease.
It Aids Weight Loss
The Okinawa diet is based on eating low-calorie, nutritious foods. At the same time, you are eliminating any processed foods and all kinds of unhealthy foods. By sticking to the basic, clean ingredients, it is highly possible to get rid of any extra body fat and weight and maintain a healthy weight. But we also mentioned the Okinawa diet and how it encourages daily physical activity. We know how big of a role physical activity has in the weight loss process. Maintaining a healthy weight is only one of the health benefits of physical exercise. Regular exercise also plays a big role in maintaining your good physical and mental health as well, apart from providing additional beneficial effects (17).
Is the Okinawa Diet Right For You?
In our opinion, the majority of people would benefit greatly from the Okinawa diet. This diet plan has more than enough beneficial effects that we could all use. In addition, it is also perfect for anyone trying to lose weight. By focusing on low-calorie foods and eliminating most processed foods and refined carbs, it is possible to achieve fast and sustainable weight loss results.
Speaking of how restrictive the diet is, it all depends on your personal opinion. Some say that the Okinawa diet is quite restrictive and avoid it because of that. We, on the other hand, consider that the Okinawa diet offers more than enough food choice not only to eat to survive but also to eat and enjoy your meals.
Because of all the guidelines that you need to remember, eating out is rarely an option. Instead, you will need to focus more on cooking at home. Because of that, we admit that the Okinawa diet can be quite time consuming, especially for those used to eating out a lot and buying frozen dinners that only take a few minutes to get them done.
The Okinawa diet can be quite high in sodium. This is mainly due to the high intake of tofu, soy sauce, and salted fish. Knowing that this diet plan may not be suitable for everybody. If your doctor has recommended a salt-restricted diet, please do consult them before committing to follow the Okinawa diet.
Many Okinawans have lived well past the age of 100. This is not a common occurrence that we see everyday, especially not when we are speaking of the American and European populations. It seems that the diet differences between us and the Okinawans are one of the deciding factors. It is the Okinawan diet, in combination with their good genetics and environmental factors, that make it less likely for Okinawans to struggle with chronic diseases that end their lives sooner than expected. Nowadays, we too can benefit from following the famous Okinawan diet.