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Benefits For Longevity, Risks, Foods To Eat

Benefits For Longevity, Risks, Foods To Eat

If you recently binge-watched Live To 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones on Netflix, you were probably left with some questions. The first episode of the docu-series follows author and explorer Dan Buettner on a trip to Okinawa, Japan where viewers learn about the Okinawa diet and why traditional Japanese cuisine may play a role in longevity. Clearly, something is working since Japan has the highest number of centenarians—people who live to be 100 or older—in the world.

During his exploration of the world’s “Blue Zones” (regions where people live longer than average), Buettner discovered that the centenarians in Okinawa seemed to prioritize nourishing foods along with healthy relationships, consistent physical activity, and less negativity, says New York-based dietitian Asako Miyashita, RDN. When combined with these healthy lifestyle habits, the Okinawa diet may help lower rates of chronic illness and obesity, Miyashita says.

There is no single diet plan that will work for everyone, and you should always consult a doctor and/or dietitian before starting a new eating routine. That said, if you’re curious to know about the Okinawa diet, its supposed benefits, and whether it can really help you live as long as centenarians in the world’s Blue Zones, here’s what experts want you to know.

Meet the experts: Asako Miyashita, RDN, is a dietitian nutritionist based in New York. Kylie Sakaida, RD, is a dietitian at Nutrition By Kylie in Los Angeles. Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, is a dietitian, women’s health coach, and founder of BZ Nutrition.

What is the Okinawa diet?

The Okinawa diet is a traditional dietary pattern originating from the Japanese island of Okinawa known for its association with longevity, low body mass index, and low rates of chronic diseases, according to Live To 100. “The Okinawa diet dates back several centuries and was developed because of its unique geography and cultural practices, which are influenced by local agriculture and fishing,” says Kylie Sakaida, RD, a dietitian and founder of Nutrition by Kylie.

“Okinawans consumed fewer calories, less sugar, more legumes, less meat and poultry, fewer eggs, less rice, and more sweet potatoes than the Japanese, which was believed to support their longevity,” Sakaida says. Today, the Okinawa region upholds many of the same core values when it comes to food and nourishment, says Miyashita, who was born and raised in Japan.

The diet is low in calories and centers on whole, fresh, plant-based foods, says dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, the founder of BZ Nutrition, who has studied the diet. The majority of the diet comes from vegetables (especially sweet potatoes), followed by legumes and grains, she says. A small percentage comes from animal protein like seafood, fish, and occasionally pork, she adds.

Another unique element of the diet is that the Okinawan people embrace the Japanese concept of “Hara Hachi Bu,” where you eat until you feel eighty percent full—basically a holistic take on portion control, Zeitlin says. It’s a common practice to recite the Japanese phrase before meals as a blessing, according to the official Blue Zones website.

Foods To Eat

The Okinawa diet generally includes a combination of:

  • Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, taro, bittermelon, seaweed (kombu, wakame, nori), green onions, daikon, kabocha
  • Soy foods: Tofu, miso, edamame
  • Grains: Rice, barley (mugi), buckwheat (soba)
  • Seafood: Mackerel, tuna, salmon
  • Drinks: Jasmine tea, dashi (broth)
  • Legumes: soybeans, lima beans

If you’ve ever been vegan or vegetarian, you’ll likely have no problem adjusting to the Okinawa diet given its lack of emphasis on eating meat, Zeitlin says. Although seafood is generally prioritized over meat, pork is sometimes included.

Foods To Avoid

Due to Okinawa’s geography, its communities have historically relied on foods that grew easily and were readily available to them (like sweet potatoes, for example). This is a trait that is reflected in their traditional diet, says Miyashita. To that end, the following foods typically aren’t included in a traditional Okinawan diet:

  • Animal products: eggs, milk, butter, yogurt, cheese
  • Meat: beef, bacon, ham, sausage, poultry
  • Processed foods: refined sugars and grains, processed cooking oils, cereals

Benefits Of The Okinawa Diet

It could help you live longer.

Given the high number of centenarians living in Okinawa, there’s reason to believe the traditional diet pattern there could be contributing to longevity. “Most people on this island live into their 100s,” Zeitlin says. “Studies show that the low-calorie, high-antioxidant (from plants) factor is one of the main reasons for the long life,” she adds, referencing a 2023 study in Experimental Gerontology.

It may help lower the risk of chronic diseases.

In the documentary, Buettner spoke with Okinawan people about their decreased health complications and what may be the cause of such high success rates. He gathered there are far fewer age-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer in the Okinawa community—a phenomenon reflected in a 2024 study on longevity in Okinawa. This pattern may be in part attributed to the diet’s high fiber, which has many benefits especially for gut health, says Zeitlin.

It may help lower obesity risk.

Because of its focus on eating until you’re 80% full, the Okinawa diet may help you maintain a healthy and consistent weight, per Cleveland Clinic. “We eat a variety of foods in small portions at each meal, which helps keep a healthy weight,” Miyashita says of her home region. It’s also worth noting that in recent years, as the diet has been embraced by other countries, Western eating habits have infiltrated the traditional Okinawa diet, which may be the cause of increasing obesity rates over time. Okinawa has a higher prevalence of obesity and higher mortality rates among 40 to 65-year-olds than mainland Japan, according to a 2020 study.

Risks Of The Okinawa Diet

It may be high in sodium.

Depending on how much miso and dashi broth is incorporated, the traditional Okinawa diet may be high in sodium. “If you already have high blood pressure or heart disease, you will want to discuss with your doctor first before starting down this path,” says Zeitlin. Too much sodium can lead to increased blood pressure and a greater risk of stroke and heart-related disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The diet may be somewhat restrictive.

For some, the traditional Okinawa diet may be difficult to adhere to because it cuts out many processed meats, animal products, and more, Zeitlin says. “If it doesn’t seem easily attainable, you can take bits and pieces of this diet—like eating more plant-based foods and reducing your animal proteins and alcohol—and gain some benefits without committing full-on,” she says.

Another thing to consider before starting any restrictive diet, especially the Okinawa plan, is your relationship with food. “If you have a history of an eating disorder or food or calorie-obsessive thoughts, then this diet (and any restrictive diet) may not be the best fit for you from a mental health perspective,” Zeitlin says. Before committing to the Okinawa diet, be sure to talk to your doctor or mental health provider first.

How To Try The Okinawa Diet Safely

The Okinawa diet can benefit all ages, especially if you’re interested in reducing your risk of chronic disease or increasing plant-based eating, Sakaida says. Because the plan is all-encompassing, it’s better to add its traits into your current routine gradually, she adds. For example, start by eating less processed foods and more vegetables. Once you accomplish that for two weeks, cut out beef, and if that goes well, avoid poultry, Sakaida says.

If you’re an athlete who needs to follow a high-calorie diet or you have unique or strict nutritional requirements, the Okinawa plan may not be your best bet, Sakaida says. Also, it’s not necessarily the healthiest course of action to approach the Okinawa diet with an “all-or-nothing” mindset, Sakaida says. To be safe, always consult with your doctor before making any major changes to your diet.

The bottom line? Your diet plan should be personalized to you. “Nutrition has to be personal and is nuanced to you—meaning your lifestyle, goals, and health history—so you can take principles of this approach to improve your health even if you don’t go full-out,” Zeitlin says.

Tips For Longevity

Like most Blue Zones around the world, the Okinawa lifestyle isn’t solely diet-related. To achieve the maximum amount of benefits from the plan, you also must consider your overall approach to wellness.

Prioritize daily movement.

“In Okinawa, activities like farming, traditional dance, and even light physical exercise are integral parts of daily life,” Sakaida says. Adding even ten minutes of exercise to your daily routine can result in a longer life, per a 2022 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. You could use these ten minutes to take your dog on a walk, try that pilates tutorial you saved, or even jump rope outside.

Build a strong community.

“You have to internalize the concept of ‘moai’—a social support group that provides financial and emotional support—which contributes to improved mental health and stress reduction,” Sakaida says. Stronger friendships are associated with better outcomes on some indicators of health including reduced risk of mortality, per a 2023 study in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Services. That’s right—getting together with your squad this weekend can actually benefit your mental and physical well-being. Having that steadfast camaraderie and sharing your true self with other people can even result in a longer life, according to the aforementioned 2023 study.

Develop a sense of purpose.

“Okinawans often have a strong sense of purpose, which is tied to their roles in family and community, and can contribute to a positive outlook on life,” Sakaida says. In the Okinawa diet and lifestyle, mental and physical wellness are equally important and one cannot be achieved without the other.

Headshot of Meguire Hennes

Meguire Hennes is a freelance lifestyle journalist specializing in fashion news, celebrity style, dating, and wellness (her Libra moon won’t let her settle on one beat). She received a B.A. in fashion studies from Montclair State University, and her words can be found in Bustle, The Zoe Report, Elite Daily, Byrdie, and more. When she’s not debunking a new TikTok wellness trend or praising Zendaya’s latest red carpet look, you can find her in yoga class, reading a cutesy romance novel, or playing Scrabble with her puppy in her lap. 

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