Wouldn’t it be great if we had some really healthy role models?
People who live the healthiest, happiest lives so that we can look at them with soft focus and say “I want to be like that too?”
Well we can! There are lists of the healthiest nations in the world…
Japan usually tops these lists but actually, above Japan is the little island of Okinawa. It’s only a teeny dot on the world map…
The healthiest people in the world?
Okinawa is a lush subtropical island in the Pacific Ocean, made famous — at least in my mind — as the home of Mr. Myagi in The Karate Kid :-)
It has more people over a hundred years old than anywhere else on Earth — as a percentage of the population. Well, no-one wants to live to be a centenarian if the last thirty years of their life is spent in miserable declining health…
But the elderly Okinawans aren’t. They’re actually incredibly healthy.
What’s fascinating about the elderly Okinawans (the younger ones are not all following in their parents’ footsteps, it seems) is that they’re living the lifestyle that we all know we should be living. And they’re rewarded with the health benefits that we’re told we’ll get if we do the right things.
So, what exactly are they doing? There’s an avoidance of smoking, they’re very active into old age, eat a healthy, low calorie diet based on whole natural foods and plenty of fruit and veg.
They get plenty of fresh air and sunshine and don’t drink too much alcohol. No big surprises there then. Living in the tropics probably does no harm either :-)
The diet contains a lot of the “essential fatty acids” as well, from plenty of sea food. Nutritionists have really only quite recently become aware of just how important these fats are to our health.
Eat until 80% full
Of all the healthy factors in the Okinawan way of life, I’m pretty sure that it’s the low calorie intake that’s the primary reason for their health into old age. Interestingly, the elders practice a cultural control called “hari hachi bu”, which basically means “eat until 80% full”.
Incredible longevity benefits of calorie restriction have been shown in studies using lab mice. So it seems as though these benefits hold true for us humans too. Come to think of it, how many overweight eighty year olds do you know?
Longevity is a great health indicator of course because the lifestyle factors which mean we live to a grand old age are surely the ones that will give us the best chance of experiencing health from moment to moment.
The Okinawan way of life is protective against the big killers in Western society: heart disease, cancer and strokes. The Okinawans’ arteries stay in great shape as they age.
They have low levels of an amino acid that damages artery walls called “homocysteine.” Low levels are found in people whose diets are high in folate, for example from green leafy vegetables.
It’s now thought that these low homocysteine levels are protective against heart disease. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to a decline in mental function in the elderly. So eat up your greens!
A laid-back lifestyle and good social support systems are other significant factors in the Okinawan success story. Again, no big surprise that these should be beneficial but it’s great to see all these factors at work in one culture.
Curiously, the women of Okinawa have much less trouble when it comes to the menopause and don’t rely on HRT or other western methods. The soy in their diet is thought to help there, although the question of whether soy is a suitable human food is controversial.
As you’d expect, the Okinawan diet is extremely healthy — although I believe that if they eat less grain and make a couple of other tweaks, they’ll live to a hundred and twenty! :-) The Asian countries in general are non-dairy consumers and the Okinawans naturally benefit from that.
Maximize quality of life
So there you have it. If we get the simple basics right, as the Okinawans do, we give ourselves the best chance of a long, happy and healthy life. And more importantly perhaps, we can maximize the quality of our lives from moment to moment.