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Food is Medicine: The Okinawan Fountain of Youth

Jiroemon Kimura 010

Nearly half of the top ten oldest people living today are from Japan. In fact, Japanese men and women are more likely to reach 100 years old than any other demographic in the world today. For years, researchers have tried to figure out their secret and finally data is starting to point heavily in one direction. Most of this research is centered on an island 400 miles off the coast of Japan. Okinawa has a steady population of 1.3 million people mostly because of their extended life expectancy. Not only do the people in Okinawa live longer, but they actually age incredibly well too. Take a look at these facts;

  • More people live to 100 in Okinawa than anywhere else in the world
  • Okinawa has the lowest death rates from cancer, heart disease and stroke- the top 3 killers in the U.S.
  • Okinawa has the highest life expectancy for males and females over 65

So what’s their secret? Researchers have studied many factors that may contribute to this longevity trend. These studies tend to focus heavily on the Nature vs. Nurture discussion. Meaning, some findings suggest that the Okinawans have a natural ability to live longer and others suggest it is a product of environmental factors.

The nature debate tends to focus on their genetic makeup. They found that Okinawans have a genetic makeup that helps prevent inflammatory and autoimmune disease. I am not trying to argue that this is not a factor, but when Okinawans move to new environments they have a propensity to lose their longevity. This makes me believe that the Nurture side of the debate may have more of a positive correlation than their genetic makeup.

The Okinawa lifestyle and diet are the two main environmental factors that researchers focus on. In terms of lifestyle factors, Okinawans tend to be happier than the rest of the world. When tested, researchers found that they were generally stress-free and maintained a positive outlook on life. They also generally have strong coping skills and a deep sense of purpose. These factors have been correlated to a decrease in dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as a longer life.

Recent unearthed evidence credits their diet as the major factor in this longevity trend. American Gerontologist Dr. Craig Willcox outlines the benefits of the Okinawan diet in his book The Okinawa Program;

"The Okinawans have a low risk of arteriosclerosis and stomach cancer, a very low risk of hormone dependent cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer. They eat three servings of fish a week, on average….. plenty of whole grains, vegetables and soy products too, more tofu and more konbu seaweed than anyone else in the world as well as squid and octopus, which are rich in taurine – that could lower cholesterol and blood pressure."

Don’t like squid, octopus, or seaweed? Well there is good news for you. One of Okinawa’s main indigenous vegetables is the sweet potato. Their indigenous sweet potatoes are rich in flavenoids, carotenoids, vitamin E and lycopene.

Flavenoids- Have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, reducing the risk of heart disease especially atherosclerosis.
Carotenoids- Offer protection against certain cancers, macular degeneration, cataracts, and other free radical damaging conditions.
Vitamin E- Plays a strong role in developing a strong immunity as well as healthy skin and eyes.
Lycopene- Prevents heart disease and cancer, especially cancer of the prostate, breast, lung, bladder, ovaries, colon and pancreas.

As a result of the makeup of the sweet potato, many scientists, like Dr. Willcox, point to the sweet potato as the dietary factor that contributes heavily to longevity. Okinawans, on average, eat over a pound of sweet potatoes each week. In fact Dr. Willcox pointed out that on Okinawa, “It’s not an ice cream truck that visits your street, it’s the sweet potato truck….. and Okinawans love purple sweet potato ice cream.”

Unfortunately, there is no fountain of youth or magic medicine that makes you live longer. Food is medicine and Okinawans have mastered the longevity diet. I find it very interesting that the genetic component of the debate corresponds directly to the benefits of eating sweet potatoes. Studies have proven that Okinawans’ ability to combat heart disease, stroke, and cancer can be attributed both to their genetic makeup, as well as, their diet consisting heavily of sweet potatoes. However, when a native Okinawan moves to a new environment this advantage diminishes or disappears altogether. This fact makes me believe that their diet plays a bigger role in their longevity than their genetics. Luckily, here in North Carolina we have plenty of sweet potatoes, so if you want to live a long healthy life, eat up.

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