“The Okinawa Diet: Living to 100” The dietary guidelines recommend
that we try to choose meals or snacks that are high in nutrients
but lower in calories to reduce the risk
of chronic disease. By this measure, the healthiest foods
on the planet, the most nutrient dense, are vegetables, containing the most
nutrient bang for our caloric buck. So what would happen
if a population centered their entire diet around vegetables? They might end up living among
the longest lives in the world. Of course any time you hear
about long-living populations you have to make sure it’s validated,
as it may be hard to find birth certificates from the 1890s. But validation studies suggest that
indeed they really do live that long. The traditional diet
in Okinawa is based on vegetables, beans,
and other plants. I’m used to seeing the Okinawan
diet represented like this, the base being vegetables,
beans, and grains, but a substantial contribution
from fish and other meat. But a more accurate
representation would be this, if you look at their
actual dietary intake. We know what they were eating
from the U.S. National Archives, because the U.S. military
ran Okinawa until it was given
back to Japan in 1972. And if you look at the traditional
diets of more than 2,000 Okinawans, this is how it breaks down. Only 1% of their diet was fish;
less than 1% of their diet was meat, and same with eggs and dairy. So it was more than
96% plant-based, and more than 90% whole food plant
based—very few processed foods either. And not just whole food plant-based,
but most of their diet was vegetables, and one vegetable in
particular: sweet potatoes. The Okinawan diet was centered around
purple and orange sweet potatoes. How delicious is that? It could have been
bitter gourd, or soursop? But no, sweet potatoes. So 90 plus percent
whole food plant-based makes it a highly
anti-inflammatory diet, makes it a highly
antioxidant diet. If you measure the level of
oxidized fat within their system, there is compelling evidence
of less free radical damage. Maybe they just genetically have better
antioxidant enzymes or something? No, their antioxidant
enzyme activity is the same. It’s all the extra antioxidants
that they’re getting from their diet that may be making the difference. Most of their diet is vegetables! So 8 to 12 times fewer heart
disease deaths than the U.S. You can see they ran out of room
for the graph for our death rate. Two to three times fewer
colon cancer deaths, seven times fewer
prostate cancer deaths, and five and a half times lower
risk of dying from breast cancer. Some of this protection may be
because they were only eating about 1800 calories a day, but they
were actually eating a greater mass of food, but the whole plant foods
are just calorically dilute. There’s also a cultural
norm not to stuff oneself. The plant-based
nature of the diet may trump the caloric
restriction though, since the one population that lives
even longer than the Okinawa Japanese don’t just eat a 98% meat-free diet,
they eat 100% meat-free. The Adventist vegetarians in California, with perhaps the highest life expectancy
of any formally described population. Adventist vegetarian men and
women live to be about 83 and 86, comparable to Okinawan women,
but better than Okinawan men. The best of the best
were Adventist vegetarians who had healthy lifestyles, too,
like being exercising nonsmokers, 87 and nearly 90, on average. That’s like 10 to 14 years longer
than the general population. Ten to 14 years extra years on this
Earth from simple lifestyle choices. And this is happening
now, in modern times, whereas Okinawan longevity
is now a thing of the past. Okinawa now hosts more
than a dozen KFCs . Their saturated fat tripled. They went from eating essentially no
cholesterol to a few Big Mac’s worth, tripled their sodium, and are
now just as potassium deficient as Americans, getting less than half of the recommended minimum
daily intake of 4700 mg a day. In two generations,
Okinawans have gone from the leanest
Japanese to the fattest. As a consequence, there has
been a resurgence of interest from public health professionals in getting Okinawans to
eat the Okinawan diet, too.