If somebody could give you a pill to make you live until you’re 100 years old, would you take it?
I don’t mean like lying on your deathbed with Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 100; I mean like happy as hell, fully mobile and functioning old timer.
I would totally do it.
Well, according to a few research studies, there’s no pill to do this, but there is a group of people in the world that have abnormally long life expectancies. They’re basically ranked up there as the healthiest people in the world.
These are the people of Okinawa, Japan.
The average life expectancy for women in Japan is 90 and for men, 84. Compare this to America where the average life expectancy for women is 81 years old and 76 years old for American men.
The answer for why these people in Okinawa live the longest?
Most evidence is pointing towards their diet and their lifestyle:
They consume high amounts of fish, tofu, pork, sweet potatoes, green veggies such as seaweed, watermelon, and tomatoes. So, high-ish protein and more vegetables are the keys to note here.
There is less stress due to lower income combined with less cost of living. Meaning, they aren’t very strung up on making tons of money.
They have very strong kinship networks. Both towards their ancestors, the current citizens, and their family members. This creates a sense of belonging and community amongst the people who live there.
To recap: their diet, their lower stress levels, and their strong kinship networks are the main factors in why they are known as the healthiest people in the world.
Next up, I’ll show you how you can incorporate these, practically, in your own life.
And no, you won’t have to move to Japan.
#1 - Diet Strategy: The “Inclusive” vs. “Exclusive” Approach
The people of Okinawa consume a diet that is mostly plant-based along with some healthy sources of protein.
So, we know what we need to do to mimic them - simply eat more veggies and protein.
The real question, however, is HOW you’re supposed to do that.
I have the answer, but I first want you to think about a time when someone has told you you can’t do something.
For example, when someone tells you you can’t have anymore bread if you want to lose weight (which is ridiculous), what do you immediately crave every single time you think about eating?
Delicious, fluffy, carbz-galore, BREAD.
Another great example, non-fitness related, is with relationships.
Have you or someone you know ever experienced the effect of wanting someone way worse when you know you CAN’T have them anymore?
Happens every time. This is just a part of being human. We want things we can’t have.
When people decide to diet, they usually think about the “exclusive” approach that involves not being able to eat certain foods such as carbs, fats, sugar, gluten, etc.
For some, this may work for a short period of time, but as soon as they slip-up that one time and enjoy a food that is “off limits”, they end up eating it and waaay much more in a binging frenzy.
There is a better way, my friend.
The “Inclusive” Approach to Dieting
For most who are aspiring to lose weight, their diets are filled with mostly energy-dense foods and are lacking in nutrient-dense foods.
Energy-dense foods: Foods that have a high calorie amount per bite, low in micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) and fiber content, are usually bad at making us feel full, and they are very easy to consume large amounts of them. Think about all delicious foods, ever - donuts, cakes, cookies, pizza, casseroles, ice cream, etc. It’s much easier to eat 6 donuts than it is to eat 6 salads.
Nutrient-dense foods: Foods that have a low calorie amount per bite, high in micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) and fiber content, are usually good at making us feel full, and it’s much harder to consume large amounts of them. These are your typical “healthy” foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, etc.
Okay, so now you know the difference between nutrient-dense foods and energy-dense foods. Next comes the important part that makes inclusive dieting different than exclusive:
Inclusive dieting is simply adding in more nutrient dense foods as opposed to the exclusive dieting mindset where you’re constantly thinking about foods you can’t have.
This mindset of adding healthier foods in your diet instead of subtracting the unhealthy foods makes the psychology part much easier.
The reason why this works is if you make an effort to add in 1-2 more servings of protein and fruits and vegetables each day, you’re probably going to be eating less of the energy dense foods as a result.
More nutrient dense foods (lower calorie) + Less energy dense foods (higher calorie) = less overall daily calories + consistency = weight loss and a healthier, happier you.
If you want to find out more key points I've used to optimize my training and my nutrition, click this.
#2 - Lower Cost of Living and Why Less is More
This part was super fun for me to read up on because it just goes to show how more money does not automatically equal more happiness.
There was a study conducted on the Okinawans to try to explain why they are the poorest prefecture in all of Japan, yet they still rank with the highest average life expectancy over the other 47 prefectures (subdivisions) of Japan.
Via the study,
“Tokyo, with the highest per capita income, has traditionally been among the top 20 prefectures in male life expectancy (Tokyo ranked 20th in 1995) and in the top 35 for women (33rd in 1995).
Osaka, the second most affluent prefecture, was ranked 46th [out of 47, so, almost last] in 1990 and 45th in 1995 in male life expectancy and 47th and 45th, respectively, for females during the same period.
Consequently, per capita incomes for prefectures do not correspond to levels of longevity.”
Two of the most affluent prefectures are associated with some of the lowest levels of life expectancy.
The researchers further discussed why this was the case and the explanation was contributed to crowded living conditions, stress from overwork, and the high rates of smoking and heavy alcohol use that characterize the lifestyle of many Japanese males, especially the so-called ‘salaryman’ who dedicates most of his waking hours to his employer.
This all makes perfect sense because even though the Okinawans are the poorest prefecture out of them all, they live the longest because they have less stress along with healthier diets.
You have to understand the body is highly adaptive and is constantly trying to reach equilibrium and homeostasis.
When you are constantly stressed, like these people of Tokyo or Osaka, you are constantly in a state of “fight-or-flight”. Your body doesn’t necessarily know the difference between stressors from work or stressors from someone pointing a gun at your head.
The body copes with these stressors by releasing a “stress hormone” called cortisol, which can wreck havoc on your body if it is constantly being released into your system over time. It literally can speed up your death by accelerating the shortening of these cool little tips of our chromosomes called telomeres that already shorten naturally as we get older.
Stress is a very complex issue and is obviously contextual to each individual, so I’m not here to tell you how to handle your stress.
Eliminating stress completely is not ideal nor possible, but you NEED to learn how to manage it.
Like, you need to, or you’ll die sooner. So it’s probably something you should actively work towards improving on a daily basis.
I do it through gratitude and perspective because most shit is really not that important and someone will always have it worse. It was actually my first ever blog post, called 400 Trillion : 1, you can read it here.
So, if the Okinawans are so poor, why are they less stressed?
I thought you’d never ask. ;)
#3 - Human Connection is Underrated
The people of Okinawa are actually seen as “minorities” in Japan for not being completely Japanese due to their differences in speech, dress, and diet compared to the rest of the country.
They are ranked towards the bottom of the social hierarchy, which is based off political power, economic privilege, and social prestige.
Ironically enough, this isolation of their subdivision has actually made them much stronger as a whole. It has made them very proud of who they are by identifying as “Pacific Islanders”.
The Okinawans put a major emphasis on ancestor worship, which not only provides a sense of belonging and continuity of the past, but also considerable social support as a family activity. They have a holiday known as Umachi and a yearly sacred festival called Obon, which consists of family gatherings of feasting, drinking, and ceremonies honoring their ancestors spirits returning from the dead.
While the Okinawans are ranked low socially amongst the other subdivisions of Japan, they have a very strong connection to both their past and present families. This explains much of their longevity success because numerous studies have shown that a strong sense of social support (feelings of being loved, cared for and valued by family and friends) is important in reducing the effects of stress on individuals.
I find this so interesting because it goes hand-in-hand with the complete opposite of connecting with other people.
Think about one of the worst possible punishments our justice system can give a criminal - solitary confinement.
No one to talk to. No one to spread ideas with. No one to connect with. No one to help. No one to hurt, even, besides themselves.
We are brought into this world by two people, a man and a woman.
We are literally brought into this world by “connecting” with our mother’s for 9 months.
Social media has taken over the entire Internet and we spend endless hours each day connecting with others, even if it’s only passively.
We need human connection in some way.
The Okinawans have figured this out and I think it’d be very useful for you and I to take note of this because it can be very easy to forget.
Call/text/message an old friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while and see how good it makes you feel after it’s done.
Create something that is useful to others and gives you a sense of responsibility amongst the world and watch your happiness and fulfillment increase.
Diet can have much more of an impact than just your body composition. An easier way to start eating better is to try to add more nutrient dense foods. This will lead to eating less energy dense foods as a result and therefore less calories overall and will aid fat loss and better health markers.
Don’t associate making more money with being happier. It can definitely help, but it should not be at the top of your list of values because this can result in chronic stress and shortening your life. Literally.
Connect with others, understand what truly matters to you, and be useful to the world in a way that holds you responsible for the advancement of society in some way.
I geuinely hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. Cross off part of number 3 on this list and share this article with someone who may need it. ;)
- Sho, H. (2001), History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 10: 159–164. doi:10.1111/j.1440-6047.2001.00235.x
Okinawa: an exception to the social gradient of life expectancy in Japan
WILLIAM C COCKERHAM AND YUKIO YAMORI Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2001;10(2):154-158.
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