Wouldn’t you want to live a long life, as long as you knew you were healthy enough to do the things you love? The Japanese have one of the highest life expectancies in the world with women living an average of 87 years and the average man living to see his 80th birthday. Experts believe the Japanese diet may explain the superior longevity that the Japanese people enjoy.
What evidence is there that diet accounts for the longevity of the Japanese? In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers followed more than 78,000 Japanese people, both men, and women, over a 15-year period. Most of the men and women were middle-aged and older. The researchers were interested in how closely these adults followed the dietary guidelines recommended by the Japanese government. What they discovered was those who adhered to the suggested dietary guidelines were 22% less likely to be waylaid by a stroke, 16% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and 15% less likely to die from all causes.
From this data, it seems the Japanese government is on to something when it comes to dietary practices. You might wonder what their recommendations are. The Japanese government advocates eating an average of 6 servings of grains a day. Many Japanese men and women fulfill these criteria by eating noodles. The Japanese diet also emphasizes vegetables – an average of 6 servings daily. Another 3 or 4 servings of protein, including meat, fish and soy, 2 servings of fruit, and 2 servings of dairy products. In terms of protein, the Japanese diet is rich in fish and soy-based foods.
What’s notable about the Japanese diet is the lack of processed foods. Although it’s high in carbs, most of them are unrefined, unlike in Western countries. The noodles they eat most frequently are soba noodles and shirataki noodles. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat while shirataki is made from root vegetables. These noodles have a low glycemic index unlike those we eat in Western countries. Thus, they’re less likely to cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and contribute to metabolic syndrome.
On to Okinawa
Interestingly, Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan, enjoys one of the highest life expectancies in the world. In fact, they have more men and women who reach the age of 100 than any other area of the world. Like the Japanese, their diet is carbohydrate-rich but the carbs they consume are nutritionally dense ones with an abundance of sweet potatoes, root vegetables, and greens. These foods are also notable for their high levels of antioxidants.
The Okinawans also partake of a diet that’s low in meat, dairy, refined foods, and sugar. The residents get much of their protein from fish and soy foods such as tofu, miso, and natto. Most Western countries aren’t familiar with natto, a fermented soy product that’s one of the best sources of vitamin K2, a vitamin linked with cardiovascular and bone health. Unfortunately, natto has a rather distinctive taste that most Westerners don’t like.
A Love Affair with the Sea?
According to Life Extension Magazine, the Okinawans also eat a substantial quantity of seaweed. In fact, according to the United Nations, the Japanese consume more than 100,000 tons of seaweed each year. Sea vegetables are rich in compounds called fucoidans. In laboratory and animal studies, these compounds reduce inflammation and may offer protection against some health problems, including cancer and metabolic syndrome, although more research is needed. In addition, components in sea vegetables help to regulate the sex hormone estrogen. This may partially explain why the rate of breast cancer is lower in Japan.
The Japanese drink differently than Westerners do. Rather than sipping a soft drink or a cup of coffee loaded up with cream and sugar, they’re more likely to start the day with a cup of hot green tea. The green tea they sip is typically unsweetened. As you know, green tea is abundant in antioxidant compounds called catechins, compounds that may have health benefits. Green tea catechins appear to suppress oxidative damage and inflammation and may have favorable effects on blood glucose and blood lipids.
The Japanese enjoy a variety of fermented foods, including the fermented soy paste called miso that they use to make the miso soup they’re best known for. Other fermented foods they eat in far greater amounts than Western countries include tempeh and natto. Fermented foods, being good sources of probiotic bacteria, help maintain digestive and immune health. As you probably know, research now suggests that gut bacteria play a role in metabolic health as well. The Japanese, due to their penchant for fermented foods, naturally infuse their guts with healthful, probiotic bacteria.
Other Factors that May Explain the Longevity of the Japanese
While the composition of the Japanese diet likely accounts for their longevity and resistance to disease, at least to some degree, they also eat fewer calories, as many as 200 calories per day less than the average person in Western countries. Plus, the Japanese are more physically active than Americans as a general rule. They’re less likely to own a car and more likely to bike, walk, or take public transportation.
The Bottom Line
Whether the diet the Japanese eat explains why they live longer is unclear, but we can still learn from the way they eat. Here are some take-home pointers:
. Eat a variety of unprocessed foods.
. Eat our fruits and vegetables.
. Get some of your protein from sources other than meat and dairy. Choose more plant-based proteins and fish.
. Enjoy more fermented foods.
. Experiment with seaweed and sea vegetables.
. Stay physically active. If you can, walk more places instead of driving.
Discover recipes made with whole foods that you love. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring – make it an adventure instead.
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Life Extension Magazine. “The Little-Known Longevity Factor in the Japanese Diet”
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Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 15 No. 6 P. 54. June 2013.
Am J Clin Nutr January 2005. Vol. 81 no. 1 122-129.
Huffington Post Healthy Living. “7 Things Japan Can Teach You About Living a Long, Healthy Life”
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