What is the Okinawa Diet?
The Japanese people living in Okinawa, which is also a part of the Ryukyu Islands, are known to be among the people who live for longer periods of time than those in other regions of the world. The records held by these individuals exceed the 100-year mark, a number that is very challenging to reach for people in several other parts of the world. In contemporary societies, many people live up to ages of between 50-80 years old.
The fact that some individuals on the island of Okinawa live beyond 100 years is a phenomenon that calls for attention and has inspired research. This research usually revolves around lifestyles, diets, and overall demographics. After some study, it was discovered that the main component that dictates the lifespan of people on the island of Okinawa is, in fact, their diet.
In effect, the diet of these individuals is comprised of foods that are rich in minerals and other nutrients which strengthen their overall bodies and their defense systems, and result in extended living. It is important to explain that besides regarding the food as valuable for their overall livelihoods, the people from the island also look at food as medicinal.
The focus on food developed by these individuals compels them to tailor their diets in line with their medicinal value. As such, several foods that compose the diet of Okinawa are full of nutrients and contain little or no processed products. The nature of the food eaten by these people has led to the development of a new weight loss diet known as the Okinawan Diet Plan.
History and Origin
The Okinawa diet is traceable to the early 17th century when cooks from various islands within the Ryukyu Islands traveled and exchanged ideas. During that period, cooks traveled and learned how to cook medicinal food, which superseded the focus of hunger satisfaction in value. Over time, the cuisine extended to encompass the habits of people living in the region. The essence of the cuisine became practical after the Second World War when canned food became popular in many countries including the United States. Irrespective of the various changes which have taken place over time in some places where the food is consumed, the main components of the cuisine include vegetables, small amounts of meat, and legumes.
Therefore, it is evident that the history of the Okinawa diet has a close connection with the people of the Ryukyu Islands, which hosts Okinawa Island. The high regard for medicinal products associated with the individuals is presumed to have initiated the developments of foodstuffs that are more medicinal in nature. In addition, the benefits derived from the food could be another reason that instilled the need to have a medicinal element.
Fundamentally, the people from the island developed the diet using foods which are readily available. This leads to a reduction of costs associated with production and consumption of the foods that comprise the diet.
Rice and pork are among the food products that are readily available in the markets and farms there. The easy accessibility in the market is one of the factors which explain the high amount of pork and rice in several different types of diets in Japan. However, unlike a number of modern diets that have rice as the staple food, the Okinawa diet is a composition of a small amount of rice and meat. Whereas other societies of the world take foods that are full of starch, carbohydrates, and sugar, the Okinawa diet encourages consumption of foods that have less than 30% sugar and minimized carbohydrates.
In their quest to minimize the level of carbohydrates and sugars, the people of Okinawa developed their diet in a manner that facilitates consumption of very little starch. Furthermore, the level of protein intake is minimal in the Okinawa diet, a factor that explains the small percentage of animal meat in the foods. In effect, the people of the island consume as little as 1% meat in their diets. Although the food comprises little animal meat, the latter periods have witnessed the introduction of meat from several other animals and minimal usage of dairy products.
Dominance of the Okinawa Diet
The benefits associated with the Okinawa diet is one of the factors that make the diet very dominant in several parts of the island and the world at large. Since the diet helps with the management of health and weight problems, many people are gradually adopting the diet and its components. Several individuals on the island are known to follow the diet for almost all of their meal plans. In a normal day, many people living in Okinawa follow this diet for at least 2 meals. As such, it is evident that the diet is one of the dominant cuisines in the region and is squarely associated with the health benefits that the islanders enjoy.
Besides being the dominant diet on the Island, the diet is also consumed by other islanders in the region formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. After realizing the essence of the diet consumed by their neighbors, the islanders adjacent to Okinawan communities began learning how to prepare the food for themselves. The exchange of ideas has been rising and people are increasingly learning how to make the diet in a manner that is reflective of the original style. Although these regions have added a few adjustments according to their own preferences and tastes, they have retained the original components of the food. The need to retain the original components of the diet is because of the health benefits derived from those components directly.
It is important to explain that the diet is closely associated with the foods from Southeast Asian and Chinese communities. The association of the diet with Asian and Chinese communities transpires because of the interactions that took place during the early parts of the 17th century and continued to the 20th century. During this period, Chinese and Asian communities introduced foods such as sweet potatoes and the bitter melon known as Goya, which are both now prevalent in the diet. In effect, foods like sweet potatoes became the staple food in Okinawan communities as early as 1617.
Therefore, when individuals try to study the cuisine of Okinawa Island, it is very likely that they come across some elements of these Chinese and Asian cultures. Skip forward to present day, and the diet is becoming dominant in other parts of the world outside the islands of Ryukyu. Regions like the United States and the United Kingdom have become the most prevalent adopters of the diet. The rising demand emanates from its ability to help in the management of weight, cancer, and diabetic challenges common in contemporary societies.
Research has revealed that people who follow the Okinawa diet are less likely to contract diseases and challenges like cancer, diabetes, weight challenges, or heart complications. Moreover, consumption of the foods that make up the diet prolongs one’s life. As a result, by embracing the Okinawa diet one gets all but an assurance of a long, healthy, and active life.
Foods Consumed In the Okinawa Diet
A huge portion of the diet is comprised of vegetables, sweet potato, and goya. Soy products, fish, and whole grains are also prevalent. They also eat more tofu and konbu seaweed than any other group in the world. Seafood such as squid and octopus are also included, which is a good source of taurine to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Okinawa Food Pyramid
If you were to imagine the image of a food pyramid adjusted for the Okinawa diet, at the bottom of the triangle you would find green and yellow vegetables.
Instead of rice, which is a staple in the traditional Japanese diet, the Okinawa staple is the Okinawan sweet potato. 30% of the islander’s diet is comprised of vegetables, and so this comprises the bulk of the food pyramid.
Next on the pyramid is fish, ideally those which are rich in Omega-3, such as salmon and tuna. In the next row up you will find the fruits, and 2-4 servings of these are recommended every day. Meat, poultry, and eggs are second to last for moderate weekly consumption. There is a high consumption of pork compared to other meats in the Okinawa diet, and all parts of the pig are eaten including the internal organs.
Lastly, at the top of the pyramid, for foods reserved for moderate to rare consumption, we have sweets and alcohol.
Ingredients for the Preparation of Okinawa Foods
Vegetables and Grains
This is the major ingredient of many Okinawa foods, and it has gained its popularity because of this food group. Freshness and quality are both vital for these items. Some of the vegetables and grains found prevalently in the diet include cabbages, onions, carrots, garlic, spinach, sweet potato, bitter melon, yams, tomatoes, peppers, capsicum, brown rice, noodles, and nuts.
Concerning this class of ingredients, you must be able to limit yourself to the right quantities. Remember that the Okinawa diet does not have high amounts of meat. Some of the meat and fish varieties that should be included in your diet are the following: pork, fish rich in Omega-3 (like sardines, salmon, and tuna), chicken, and protein-rich food sources such as eggs.
Fruits are very important to supplement the vitamins and the texture of the meal. They also lend to the uniqueness of the Okinawan diet. Have you ever heard of a main meal served with raw fruits? Now you have – from the Okinawa diet. The following are some of the fruits that are known to be associated with Okinawan meals: bananas, pineapples, apples, avocados, kiwi, watermelon, mangoes.
Cooking The Okinawa Way
We already know one of the major ways in which the Okinawa diet is different from that of the rest of Japan: it limits rice. Instead of rice, the Okinawans has to find another way to fill their meals which made them unique and often more flavorful than those found in other parts of Japan.
Quite often, purple Okinawa potatoes replace rice as the main staple for their meals. The traditional meal contains very small amounts of sugar and whatever grains were readily available in Japan.
You can prepare an Okinawan meal using different methods, but the most preferred is boiling or stir-frying. You won’t find deep frying or roasting as part of their cooking process. When cooking vegetables, boiling or parboiling is usually done first before stir-frying due to the high content of fiber. The Okinawa diet as we have seen contains a high amount of vitamins, so the amount of heat should be moderate and easily controllable. This will help in maintaining the flavor and nutrients. Too much heat will destroy the important elements and nutrients in the greens. Low quantities of meat will be added to the meal once it is done cooking, or if may be separately cooked and served from different pots to one plate.
Okinawan Dishes and Recipes
We have listed 3 of the most popular Okinawan dishes below. They are simple to prepare, very healthy, and filling. These are all traditional Okinawan meals that can be easily replicated at home and are very popular with those following the Okinawa diet. For hard to find ingredients, take a trip to your local Japanese grocery store where you will easily be able to find them.
Our first traditional Okinawan dish is called Goya Chanpuru which is translated to stir-fried bitter melon with pork, tofu, and egg.
- 80 grams pork
- 250 grams firm tofu
- 1 bitter melon
- 1 large egg
- Small amount of dashi stock granules
- 1 teaspoon Miso
- 2 teaspoons of cooking sake
- 1-2 tablespoons of soy sauce
- Bonito flakes to taste
- Start by cutting the bitter melon in half lengthwise and scraping out the pit with a spoon. Cut the two halves into crescent-moon slices about 4-5 mm thick. Boil in water and parboil the sliced veggies.
- Drain the boiled bitter melon. Heat some oil in a pan and stir-fry the pork. When it’s half cooked, add the vegetables and stir-fry.
- When you see that the bitter melon has cooked (it will start to wilt), add the miso, cooking sake, and tofu. Mix everything together.
- Beat the egg separately and pour it in the pan. Add the dashi granules and some soy sauce. Add a dash of bonito flakes to the pan.
Papaya and Carrot Stir-Fry
- ½ papaya
- 1 carrot
- 1 can of tuna
- 50-100 ml of Dashi stock
- 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of sake
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil
- Cut the papaya in half and remove the skin. Slice the papaya into small strips and soak in water.
- Cut the carrot into the same sized strips as the papaya.
- Heat the sesame oil in a pan. Add the carrot and papaya and slowly stir-fry. Once tender, you can add the tuna.
- Add the remaining ingredients and leave on slow fire until the liquid evaporates
- Once it has turned slightly dry, you can turn off the fire and it’s now ready to eat.
Hira Yachi (Okinawa Style Pancakes)
- 200 grams all-purpose flour
- 200 ml water
- 150 ml Dashi stock
- 1 can tuna
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons Bonito flakes
- A small amount of salt
- 2 Chinese garlic chives
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- Add the water, flour, Dashi stock, tuna, egg, Bonito flakes, and salt to a bowl. Mix well.
- Chop the garlic chives into 1 -1.5 cm length.
- Mix the garlic chives into the batter mixture. Add some water if necessary to adjust the consistency.
- Heat the sesame oil in a pan and pour the batter into a pan like a pancake mixture.
- As soon as it starts slightly cooking, flatten the mixture with the back of your spatula and start rolling it to one side of the pan like a tube.
- Cook on low heat.
- When done, remove from pan and cut into portions.
- Serve with a dash of Japanese Worcestershire sauce or okonomiyaki sauce.
Nutritional Benefits of the Okinawan Diet
The benefits for someone who enjoys the Okinawa diet are many and will last for a long time. Looking at the foods that are associated with this diet, you can easily deduce the health value and the general nutritional benefits of the diet. From the history of the diet, the Okinawans who started decades ago to embrace this as their traditional food, serve as living examples. Most of them live for a very long time and illnesses and diseases that beset them are at a very low rate compared to most other societies.
Some of the known benefits of this diet are as follows:
Boosts Your Immunity
Most of the ingredients in Okinawan foods are greens that supply vitamins. They are known for the protection of the body from diseases and other major ailments. Vitamins are essential elements in the body that help boost immunity and fight off infection. The Okinawa Diet has been a hit with people trying to lose weight and who have issues of overeating, as eating too many vegetables does not necessarily lead to increased weight gain, but can still leave you feeling full and satisfied.
Reduction of Mortality Rate
The people from this island are known to live for a very long time. According to the United Nations, people from the island of Okinawa have the highest rate of centenarians, people who live to 100 years or more, in the world! Typically, when a person lives for a long time, the theory is that it is due to the kind of food that they eat or have been eating for a long period, as an adopted part of their lifestyle. The Okinawan foods are a whole diet that contains the most important foods for the replication of cells. This chemical process plays a big role in the longevity of life. As such, mortality rates are always very low in the islands compared to other parts of Japan.
High Levels of Antioxidants
The Okinawan diet is comprised of a variety of foods high in vitamin C and vitamin A. These vitamins are found mostly in the green and yellow vegetables, root-based crops like sweet potatoes, carrots, and arrowroots. Consumption of these foods is essential since they have minerals like carotene, calcium, and zinc, which are vital in facilitating the anti-oxidation process.
Hara Hachi Bu
Hara Hachi Bu is an Okinawan dinner time mantra which means to eat until you are 80% full. It is a Confucian teaching which the people from this island have self-imposed unto themselves as part of calorie restriction. Okinawans consume about 1,800-1,900 calories per day and have an average BMI (Body Mass Index) of about 18 to 22, while adults over 60 in the United States have an average BMI of about 26 to 27. Their practice of eating until they are 80% full has done wonders for their health and lifespan, and would do wonders for many people around the world.
It takes around 20 minutes for the stomach to communicate with the brain how full it is, and this is why so many people overeat and end up sleepy after a meal. So how do you know when you’re full? It’s all about being mindful. While eating, focus on how your stomach feels throughout the meal. As you ingest food, the empty feeling will be substituted with a mild pressure. As soon as you feel the pressure, that’s when you should stop eating. And that’s how to know that you’re 80% full. The key is: instead of eating until you are full, eat until you are no longer hungry.
Okinawa Diet Plan Review Summary
The Okinawa diet is not only one of the most popular diets in Japan but is also gaining attention as one of the healthiest and antioxidant-rich diets in the world. Over recent years, the popularity of the diet has crossed borders, and thus, people from America and Europe have been using recipes and dishes from Okinawa in their diet plans. The rising popularity of the diet has also been studied and proven in its ability to manage weight, reduce the risk of heart complications, and help control diseases like cancer and diabetes.
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