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Food is Medicine: The Okinawan Fountain of Youth

May 03, 2016

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.

Sweet Potatoes on Mars? How this Superfood Could Have Saved Matt Damon

April 25, 2016

My wife asked me to Netflix and Chill the other night. Now, before everyone gets ahead of themselves, for married folk that means debating about what to watch for an hour and falling asleep halfway through the movie. My wife loves Matt Damon. Luckily, my wife has never met him, and so we ended up watching The Martian. To give you a brief synopsis- he is an astronaut/botanist in the not so distant future who gets left on Mars and survives over a year by growing his own white potato crop. Since I am not entranced in Matt Damon’s looks I was able to let my mind wonder about how I could have improved his situation up there. Now, I am not advocating for putting a 30-year-old underachiever, like myself, on NASA’s team, but I bet I could have improved the astronaut’s life expectancy by replacing white potatoes with sweet potatoes. Here are 4 ways sweet potatoes could have saved Matt Damon’s life on Mars.

Matt Damon

1. Eating sweet potatoes increases your energy levels

Space causes the human body to produce fewer red blood cells, which leads to fatigue, dizziness, and overall low energy levels. Iron in food helps the body produce blood cells at a higher rate and sweet potatoes contain more iron than white potatoes. Substituting sweet potatoes would have contributed to higher energy levels and brain function, allowing Mr. Damon to avoid blowing up his decompression chamber. If he had not blown up his decompression chamber, he still would have had his potato crop, reducing the need for rationing his food supply.

2. Eating sweet potatoes Helps promote healthy skin.

In the movie, NASA’s public relations director wanted him to take a selfie, while he was on Mars. Matt Damon ended up taking an unflattering picture of himself that was not shown to the public.

Sweet Potatoes contain around 1,000 times more Vitamin A than regular potatoes. Vitamin A promotes healthy eyes and skin. Even though Mars is closer to the sun, the atmosphere does not allow for sun bathing, decreasing Matt Damon’s intake of vitamin A. Without a consistent source of Vitamin A, Mr. Damon’s character would have dry, rough skin as well as corneal inflation making him look less attractive. Eating sweet potatoes would have supplied him with enough Vitamin A to easily be portrayed as “attractive”. If he had a more attractive appearance, NASA would have shown his selfie to the public, which would have garnered more sympathy for his cause.

Side Note: Luckily the director didn’t realize that Vitamin A is essential for the reproductive process too or there could have been Alien Matt Damon babies.

3. Sweet potatoes heal wounds.

To the amazement of my wife, Matt Damon took off his shirt to reveal some pretty nasty wounds and of course a six pack. Vitamin C is crucial for healing wounds. Sweet potatoes contain more Vitamin C. If his diet consisted of sweet potatoes rather than regular potatoes, his wounds would have healed faster.

4. Sweet Potatoes boast morale.

There is a scene in the movie where Matt Damon runs out of ketchup and turns to dipping his potatoes in Vicodin. While I have never tried Vicodin dipped sweet potatoes, I know they cannot be good for you. Luckily sweet potatoes simply taste better than regular potatoes and can be mixed with other condiments. The versatility of the sweet potato would be a huge morale boost to someone stuck on Mars.

Men may be from Mars and it may have some pretty awesome candy bars, but I believe growing sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes on the red planet would have been the best option for Matt Damon’s character. If anyone from NASA is reading this please note that sweet potatoes have more iron, 1,000 x more Vitamin A, more Vitamin C, and simply taste better than regular white potatoes. Sorry white potatoes, it’s science.

3 New Ways to Eat Sweet Potatoes in 2016

April 18, 2016

If y ou ever venture down south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you will find that everyone loves their tea sweet and their potatoes the same way. F rom mashed, to pies, to baked, to fries, southerners really do love their sweet potatoes. Today this love has swept the nation and even the world, with the average American enjoying over 6 pounds of sweet potatoes a year. While most are attracted to the taste, others are attracted to the unrivaled health benefits. Sweet potatoes have fewer calories, carbs, starch and more than 1,000x the amount of vitamin A than regular potatoes. Super tasty, check. Super healthy, check. It is no wonder why the sweet potato is considered a ”Super Food”. So how can this super food get any better? One word- versatility. Many people do not realize how versatile the sweet potato can be. Was your 2016 New Year’s resolution to try new things and eat healthy? We’ve got you covered; here are three new ways to eat sweet potatoes in 2016.

1.Sweet Potato Flour- Alternative flours are predicted to be the biggest food trend of 2016. This is great news for those of you who are looking for a healthy alternative to grain based flour or have a gluten allergy or intolerance. Sweet potato flour is naturally gluten free, kosher, and can be used to replace flour in any recipe. Did I mention it tastes great too? Need a healthy, tasty breakfast recipe for your kids on the weekend? Try whipping up some sweet potato pancakes. So good you won’t even need syrup. Or gluten!

2. Grilled Sweet Potatoes- What is more American than a barbecue?.... Sweet potatoes of course. Whether you prefer beef or pork, tomato or good ole Eastern Carolina vinegar based, grilled sweet potatoes make a tasty and healthy side to any barbecue. Just cut into wedges or chips, place on the grill for 4-5 minutes, and dip into a sauce of your choice. The best part; since sweet potatoes are high in Vitamin A, C, and E they help with muscle recovery, which is perfect for the strenuous and often risky trips from the grill to the cooler and back.

3. Sweet Potato Cocktails – Don’ forget to focus on your metaphysical health in 2016 too. If you are like me, you tend to enjoy a nice adult beverage every now and again. Well, sweet potatoes are here to help you. Covington Vodka, made from southern grown sweet potatoes, goes perfect in almost every cocktail. Just mix a shot with your favorite Bloody Mary mix and garnish with a vegetable of your choice for the perfect fix to your metaphysical well being. If you are feeling guilty about cheating on your diet, keep reminding yourself you are drinking a super food. Just watched Steel Magnolias or Gone with the Wind? Mix a serving of Covington in a glass of sweet tea. Careful though, too many of these will cause you to start saying things like: “Bless your heart”, “Over yonder”, and “Fixin to”. While temporary, this condition may cause confusion.

The versatility of the sweet potato not only helps the end consumer, it also helps local farms. Before these new sweet potato products were introduced, many farms would have to discard blemished potatoes resulting in a loss of revenue. Currently, if a potato is not esthetically pleasing for super market shelves it can be sent to a processing plant to make one of the products described above. Now every time you take a bite or sip of a sweet potato product pat yourself on the back, as you are simultaneously improving your physical and metaphysical health, while supporting hard working local farmers.