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Okinawan Longevity – A Combination of Diet and Attitude?

Date Posted: 2000-08-04

The country with the world’s longest living population is Japan and the Japanese prefecture with highest life expectancy is Okinawa. For every 100,000 people on the mainland, 8.97% reach the age of 100. In Okinawa the figure is 28.86%, which means there are 365 centenarians out of a population of 1.3 million.

The statistics are starting to attract international attention. Some academics have already taken up residence to write their research papers and next year a big conference on longevity will take place here, with 250 doctors and professors from all over the world taking part.

There seem to be two main lines of thinking as to why Okinawans are the longest living people in the world. One theory holds that a carefree attitude and a relaxed life style on the islands means less stress, which in turns means a decreased tendency to succumb to debilitating diseases.

The other theory is that longer lives are linked to the traditional diet on the islands, which has many features not found in other places. These differences can be quantified and measured scientifically. What can probably never be measured in the laboratory is if the phenomenon should be a combination of the two factors.

What are the special features of the diet here? One difference between here and the mainland is the intake of salt. Okinawans don’t eat salted pickles, as they do in Northern Japan, because the warm climate makes fresh vegetables available all year round. The same is true of dried fish, which is preserved with a large amount of salt. Instead of using salt or soy sauce islanders often flavor their dishes with a thick soup made from dried bonito chips or water used in boiling pork.

Pork is a big element of the Okinawan diet, probably originating with the islands’ centuries long ties with China. To this day Chinese cooking is famous for its reliance on pork. Okinawa most likely began importing pigs from China in the late 14th century. Today almost every part of the animal’s anatomy is used in the cooking pot. Tebichi or pigs’ trotters are rich in collagen and are made into a nutritious soup, served with kelp. The face and ears are also eaten, garnished with vinegar and peanut butter. The blood is also used for frying.

In other places with high pork consumption there are often health problems of the type associated with eating any type of meat – too much fat. This is not a problem with Okinawan pork dishes because the meat is boiled for hours before it is eaten and the fat drained off.

Another delicacy often cited as a health enhancing feature of the local diet is the goya, a bitter tasting green vegetable that looks like a knobbly cucumber. It is rich in vitamins B, C and E, antioxidants which help combat free radicals, destructive chemicals which are a cause of the body’s aging process. Originally from India, it is believed to have made its way through China before arriving in Okinawa. Medicinal uses were found for the goya apart from its nutritional qualities. The vine was found to be an effective treatment for diarrhea, the flower worked as a painkiller, the fruit soothed burns and the seeds encouraged fertility. Research from the 1970s indicates in addition, that goya helps lower blood sugar levels and cholesterol among diabetics.

Okinawans also eat a lot of tofu and by some estimates the prefecture has the highest tofu consumption in the country. The soybean product is well known as a healthy food. But Okinawan tofu is bigger and more solid than the mainland variety. It is particularly rich in protein containing phytoestrogen. This hormone from the female soybean plant is believed to strengthen the immune system, helping prevent prostate, breast and intestinal cancers.

Tofu and goya are often eaten together in a stir fried dish called champuru, essential for surviving the hot summers, say the locals. A champuru often contains other healthy vegetables and a dish of it can be an easy way to take in two thirds of the recommended daily vegetable diet.

The dish evolved to include pork and after the American occupation, Spam or processed ham. Japanese mainland taste also contributed to the champuru recipe, which now often includes tinned tuna. The dish is a metaphor for Okinawan adaptability and openness to outside influences, which might be additional factors in the islanders’ famed longevity.

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