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September 29, 2022 — 9:01 AM
Just southwest of Japan’s mainland resides an island called Okinawa. It’s approximately 66 miles long, seven miles wide, and has a population of roughly 1.4 million people—and these folks are known for their impressive longevity. In fact, bestselling authors Héctor García and Francsesc Miralles dedicated an entire book to discovering how these individuals live, titled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life (Ikigai translates to one’s reason for being or one’s purpose in life.)
“As anthropologists, we traveled to Ōgimi, a little village north of Okinawa with the highest rate of centenarians,” Miralles says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. “[We took] a trip to interview the eldest people there and learn how they live, how they relate to each other, what they eat, how they move, and what are their Ikigais.” You’ll have to tune into the full episode to get the entire snapshot—but below, find a few of the most famous Okinawan diet staples.
“Green tea is magical,” says Miralles. “[It has potent] antioxidants that capture free radicals. There are a lot of studies on the effect of green tea [on] the aging process of cells.” Specifically, green tea’s main catechin EGCG has been found to be 100 times more potent than the antioxidant power of vitamin C, and 25 times more than vitamin E. Studies also suggest EGCG may help provide anti-inflammatory benefits, support brain function, promote healthy blood sugar levels, and reduce heart disease risks—so it’s no wonder the cultures that prioritize green tea wind up living the longest.
“In Okinawa, they are not drinking coffee. They are drinking green tea all day,” Miralles adds. (Specifically, they favor a blend of green and jasmine tea, called sanpin-cha.) “This can be a factor that is important [for longevity.]”
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When Okinawans eat dessert, there’s a good chance shikuwasa makes it onto the plate—this small, green fruit is native to the area and is especially rich in flavonoids. “It’s a citrus fruit that is very similar to an orange,” notes García. “It has something called nobiletin in much higher concentrations than any other citrus in the world.” Specifically, nobiletin is a citrus bioflavonoid associated with anti-inflammatory and healthy aging benefits; one 2020 in-vivo study found that nobiletin could increase lifespan and enhance resilience against various stressors.
Goya—also known as bitter melon—comes from the gourd family and is packed with phytonutrients and vitamins, namely vitamins C, A, and E, as well as B vitamins, including folate and B2. Plus, it contains specific compounds that can help balance blood sugar; these compounds (called chantarin, polypeptide-p, and vicine, in case you’re curious) have been shown to act similar to insulin when they’re ingested in the body. Given how important blood sugar balance is for metabolic health (which, in turn, is critical for longevity), we can consider goya one powerful longevity-supporting staple.
“This is my favorite Okinawan vegetable,” García says. “You can cook it in many, many ways and you find it in many recipes. [Okinawans] eat it with pork, they eat it with other vegetables…[It’s] very balanced.”
Says García, Okinawans eat “lots of seaweed.” Specifically umibudo, an Okinawan green seaweed that has a grape-like shape (“umibudo” actually translates to “sea grapes” in Japanese.)
Different types of seaweed (red, brown, green) boast slightly different nutrient profiles, but generally, seaweed contains flavonoids and carotenoids, which function to fight off free radicals within the body—which, as we know, is A+ for longevity. Seaweed is also a major source of iodine, which supports a healthy thyroid, and it’s an abundant source of folate, a natural form of vitamin B9 that promotes the production of healthy new red blood cells and supports heart function.
If you want to live like an Okinawan, consider adding these plant-based staples to your grocery cart. Of course, there are plenty of other tips you can learn from these centenarians (find them, here!), and diet is just the tip of the iceberg. But if García had to describe their overall nutrition philosophy, “the word we use in the book is ‘balance,’” he says. “There is no excess.”