Hello Dearly Beloved Reader! After the tantalising appeal of the Okinawa diet from the prior article (yet to read it? Then jet back to it and prepare to be completely converted), it is only right that there is some substance placed behind this style and the foundations and philosophy behind the Okinawa diet is exposed in all its glory.
The Okinawan diet differs from the traditional Japanese diet in that the staple carbohydrate is the sweet potato, rather than polished white rice; a result of Okinawa’s geographic location. Consisting of a band of subtropical islands, moderately severe tropical storms are common and as a consequence the number of growing seasons for rice is compromised and rice does not grow well. As a result, the robust nature of the humble sweet potato means it survives and thrives and is the main energy source of the island and their staple carb. A happy accident you might say as the sweet potato has actually been named the “The healthiest of all vegetables” by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), due to the vegetable’s high content of dietary fibre, naturally occurring sugars, slow digesting low glycaemic index carbohydrates, protein content, vitamin A and C, potassium, iron and calcium, and low levels of fat (particularly saturated fat), sodium and cholesterol (yes, and breath). For well, it is these desirable traits of such a humble purple potato which have linked it to decreasing a person’s risk of developing chronic age associated diseases, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. All in all, they’re pretty sweet potatoes.
Another staple component of the Okinawan diet is goya, also known as bitter melon. As threatening or unappealing as it may sound, it is a very commonly consumed vegetable within tropical countries, conveniently having a low calorific density, as well as being high in fibre and vitamin C. Eaten as veg, it is actually proven to lower blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes mellitus, containing ‘anti- diabetic’ compounds (which sound slightly intimidating) such as harantin, vicine, and polypeptide-p.
Now, on to weed. A bit of an Okinawan staple you might think when you see the diversity of the different species of weed they consume. Bewildered as you may feel that there is actually more than one type of seaweed than the number 45, crispy variety which you order from the Chinese takeaway. Be prepared, here is a fleeting coverage of Okinawan seaweed. Whether it be kombu, wakame, mozuku, hijiki or aasa, what these aquatic plants all have in common is an abundance of dietary nutrients, such as Fucoidan, a polysaccharide which can induce apoptosis (essentially programmed cell death) in human lymphoma cell lines- in turn reducing tumour risk and size. In addition to potentially cancer preventative qualities, seaweeds have a very low calorific density and are nutrient dense, high in protein, iodine, folate, magnesium, iron, calcium, and carotenoids (all the good stuff). In fact, if seaweeds couldn’t sound any more appealing, in animal studies they have been linked with positive effects on gastric metabolism, significantly reducing blood glucose levels. As hero like seaweeds may sound, they are humbly consumed in the Okinawan diet in the form of soups, soba noodle dishes, salads and rice or stir fry dishes.
Continuing on the theme of classic Japanese dietary components comes tofu, somewhat of a taboo marmite, loved and hated but undoubtedly incredibly good for you. Uniquely, the tofu in Okinawa is lower in water content compared to typical mainland Japan versions and higher in unsaturated fat and protein, making the tofu more pleasant tasting- perhaps a contributing factor to the exceptionally high consumption in Okinawa. Beneficially large consumption of soy in Okinawa may be related to the low rates of breast and prostate cancer observed in the older Okinawan population. In support, a JPHC Study found an inverse correlation between dietary isoflavones (in soy products) and post-menopausal breast cancer and localised prostate cancer. These isoflavones don’t stop there though, in addition they have been shown to have strong anti-inflammatory effects, linking to reduced risk in developing certain chronic diseases.
Alas no, the Okinawan diet does stop there, even down to the seasoning within Okinawan cooking lies a gold mine of potential health enhancers, with the consumption of Fuchiba (Mugwort),
Hihatsu (Okinawan pepper) and Ucchin (Turmeric) to name a few; boasting a multitude of health benefits. For example, turmeric is linked to antimicrobial ability and significant antioxidant capacities, holding promise in treating chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Now onto meat, a somewhat contentious issue at the moment with the mounting scientific evidence proving the once benign looking rasher of bacon may in fact induce some gastric cancers. The Okinawan diet may just be the way forward however in that respect, as it is almost wholly vegetarian (but also wholly delicious), something which is purely circumstantial of the socio- economic conditions on the island, as well as its geographical location. Following similar trends to the majority of Asian populations in the early 20th century, meat was not affordable (similar to the importation of polished white rice, sugar, salt or cooking oil). Being an island meant that access to fish, seafood and marine produce, however was plentiful. Regarding meat, pork is the most commonly consumed, the difference between Okinawan pork to pork we consume is that the livestock are ‘free range’ to a greater extent and fed mostly throw-away vegetables. The result producing pork meat containing relatively higher level of beneficial n-3 fatty acids and reduced saturated. The actual amount of animal product consumed within Okinawa is minimal, which is a big contributor to the fact that the typical Okinawan only consumes 7% of their calories from saturated fat. Pretty impressive considering the USDA recommends a total fat intake of less than 30% of energy intake with 10% or less from saturated fats).
As if it couldn’t get better, I am delighted to inform you, the reader, that you can get on the Okinawan diet band wagon with a bit of help from IM magazine, with our brand-spanking new recipe section which gives you exclusive access to 2 new Okinawan recipes every week. This section documents traditional and authentic recipes from Okinawa, alongside contemporary takes on classics, which are packed with produce and processes, extensively researched and proven to increase lifespan, whilst being adapted so that you can recreate them at home using a hybrid of ingredients from your local supermarket and oriental food stockist and all without breaking the bank and digging into that student overdraft. From preventing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis and cancer to reducing age related inflammation and therefore risk of developing life limiting diseases such as coronary heart disease and dementia, as well as producing balanced, delicious and healthy meals, it’s no wonder the rest of the world is joining in on the consumption of the life elongating diet which is, The Okinawan Diet.
Images from Telegraph