What is the Okinawa Diet

The Okinawa diet comprises mainly vegetables and legumes, with minimal amounts of fish. Since the 70’s, scientists have, over the years, studied the Okinawa centenarians trying to understand the reasons behind the resident’s lifespans.[i] Most of the researchers have found that the Okinawa diet plays a major role in Okinawan health and longevity. The diet is high in fiber but low in fat and calories and includes complex carbs.

Features such as high antioxidant intake, low levels of saturated fat, and low glycemic load are most likely contributing to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and other chronic diseases.[ii]

However, the Okinawa diet might not be ideal for everyone. The diet’s restrictive nature avoids or limits otherwise healthy foods and could be challenging to comply with for the long term. Read on to learn more about the Okinawa diet.

What You Can Eat?

Typical foods you should eat in the Okinawa diet include a wide variety of shiitake mushrooms, bitter melon, soy, sweet potatoes, seaweed, jasmine tea, burdock, and a series of spices and herbs like turmeric and moringa.

Most of the carbs in the Okinawa diet come from veggies with tiny amounts from grains or seeds. The acerola fruit is abundant in the region. The fruit is fully packed with antioxidants and vitamins. The Okinawa lime, locally called shikwasa, is the citrus fruit rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.[iii] Although the fruits might be hard to find in the United States, Americans can look for antioxidants for longevity and vitamin c for anti-aging benefits.

The diet doesn’t contain refined sweets or added sugars but has the Okinawan sugarcane known as Uji that’s boiled down to make brown sugar. Uji is used to encourage bowel movement. Okinawans eat a small amount of dairy and a little pork. Fish is consumed in moderation, and the consumption of alcohol is limited to the occasional drink.

Because the Okinawans reside on islands, you may expect the residents to eat lots of seafood. Nevertheless, fish makes up for small parts of the diet, possibly as little as 1 percent as opposed to 90% plant-based foods. Okinawa diet includes root vegetables and dark, green leafy greens and large shiitake mushrooms that are nutritious and might have health benefits, including lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and improved immunity.

The Okinawan sweet potato known as beni imo is the primary staple for the Okinawa diet, with purple flesh and brownish skin, and japan sweet potato with a creamy tallow flesh and reddish skin when cooked. Introduced to the island over 400 years ago, the Okinawan purple sweet potatoes thrived in the temperate regions soils. Sweet potatoes are known to be amongst the healthiest foods on the planet.[iv]

Other commonly consumed foods are different kinds of seaweed, including mozuku, hujiki, and kombu. Seaweed is high in astaxanthin, magnesium, iron, folate, and iodine contains some calcium. The nutrients present in seaweed change based on the type.

Sweet Potatoes

Closely related to orange sweet potatoes, the Japanese sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins, fiber, potassium, vitamins E, C, and A, and many valuable nutrients. Purple sweet potatoes have many antioxidant properties and might be key to the long lifespan of the Okinawan people. Despite the fact that they are extra sweet, the purple sweet potato is a low glycemic index food.

Goya (Bitter melon)

Goya (bitter melon) is a gourd that is used in stir-fried meals and salads and can be made into tea or juice. The bitter melon contains high amounts of vitamin C, plus it has many beneficial phytochemicals.

Herbs And Spices

The seasonings in the diet offer some health benefits and add extra flavor with no additional calories. These includes, fennel seeds, Okinawan peppers, moringa, mugwort, and turmeric.

What You Can’t Eat?

Below are some of the foods you cannot eat while following the Okinawan diet.

Sweets

Like other ‘clean eating’ diets, the Okinawan diet keeps sweets and sweeteners to the minimum as the occasional treat.

Dairy Products

You will not be eating dairy products on the Okinawa diet unless occasionally, which means no ice cream, cows milk, and cheese. The creators of this diet believe cow’s milk largely contributes to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Grains

Okinawans shun nearly all grains. This means bulgur, barley, oats, wheat, and others will not appear on the Okinawa diet.

What to Eat?

  • Legumes – soybeans
  • Pork belly
  • Seaweed
  • Sweet potatoes (purple, yellow and orange)
  • Dark leafy vegetables
  • Small amounts of fish
  • Dashi
  • Shiitake mushrooms

What to Avoid?

  • Sugar
  • Grains – white rice
  • Dairy products
  • Meat

Does It Aid Weight Loss?

You can quickly lose weight while following the Okinawa diet, particularly with the elimination of any array of high caloric items such as processed foods and sweets. While there is currently no research with regards to the effectiveness of the Okinawa diet specifically, a few components of this diet might be helpful for weight loss. The diet focuses on eliminating processed foods, including fast foods, refined carbs, cookies, dairy products, and sugar.

These foods are lower in fats and calories and high in valuable nutrients like minerals, vitamins, and fiber, and research shows that these might be linked to increased belly fat and body weight. Also, the plan limits sugar-sweetened beverages and sugars. This strategy might also help aid weight loss. Moreover, the Okinawa diet encourages consumption of a wide range of high protein foods, including fish, pork, and seeds.

Research shows increased protein intake might increase feelings of fullness and reduced ghrelin levels, which is the hormone responsible for rousing feelings of hunger. The Okinawa diet might also help improve your metabolism, enabling the body to burn calories the entire day. Fiber, a valuable nutrient found in many vegetables and fruits included in the Okinawa diet, can also help make you feel full for longer and reduce risks of weight gain.

What are the Rules of the Okinawa Diet?

Most of the Okinawa diet benefits can be largely attributed to the rich supply of nutrient-dense, whole, high antioxidant foods. Valuable nutrients are essential for the proper functioning of the body, whereas antioxidants protect the body against cell damage. Following are some of the rules you should follow while on the Okinawa diet. Staple foods in this diet include:

  • Seafood and meat (1-2%) – mostly seafood, pork, and whitefish
  • Soy foods (5%)– edamame, natto, miso, and tofu
  • Grains (33%) – noodles, rice, wheat, and millet
  • Vegetables (60%) –pumpkin, green papaya, carrots, Chinese okra, cabbage, daikon radish, bamboo shoots, bitter melon, kelp, seaweed, sweet potato (purple and orange).

Drink alcohol in moderation

People following the Okinawa diet should completely avoid processed foods such as breakfast cereals, processed cooking oils, grains, snacks, refined sugars, and animal products (butter, yogurt, cheese, milk and dairy).

Potential Health Benefits

Besides promoting weight loss, the Okinawa diet has many health benefits that are attributed to its high quality and high antioxidant content, nutritious foods.

Reduced Risks Of Chronic Disease

A low calorie, low fat, and a high fiber-rich diet rich in antioxidants is possibly the primary contributing factor to the great health and long lifespan of the Okinawan people. Nonetheless, the Okinawan diet might also help lose weight and boost healthy weight management that’s important for avoiding chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer.[v]

Might Reduce Inflammation

Okinawa diets anti-inflammatory properties might help reduce risks of chronic diseases for different reasons. This diet is:

  • High in phytochemicals, vitamins A, E, and C – The nutrients work similarly to antioxidants to protect the body cells from free radical damage (such as oils, rancid fats, pollution, smoke, and so on.)
  • Low in refined carbs such as sugar – This means it does not profoundly impact the blood sugar levels. Blood sugar spikes might contribute to the pro-inflammatory state in the body that increases risks of inflammation and chronic disease.[vi]
  • Low fat but contains omega-3 that helps minimize inflammation.

Sample Shopping List

The Okinawa diet comprises soy, sweet potatoes, and leafy vegetables. The shopping list below provides recommendations for following the Okinawa diet. Keep in mind that this isn’t an exclusive Okinawa diet-shopping list. This is because you might also find other types of food which work for you. Whether you’re exclusively following this Okinawa diet or just incorporating some of the foods from the region into your lifestyle, try to fill your shopping cart with the following items.

  • Dashi (soup stock)
  • Moringa (dried or fresh)
  • Turmeric (ground or root powder)
  • Miso paste
  • Pork belly (tiny amounts when fresh)
  • Canned sardines, trout, mackerel
  • Frozen and fresh fish (in tiny amounts)
  • Firm tofu
  • Dried seaweed (kombu, hijiki, wakame, etc.)
  • Burdock root
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Dark leafy greens such as bok choy
  • Purple and orange sweet potatoes

Sample Meal Plan

The Okinawa diet restricts grains such as noodles and white rice and instead primarily emphasizes plenty of legumes and vegetables, especially sweet potatoes. Because it seems inappropriate to eat sweet potatoes in every meal, you can incorporate other types of foods such as sautéed greens, miso soup, edamame, and of course, lots of seafood. Served with noodles in stir-fries and salads, seaweed is a versatile sea vegetable that could add additional flavor to your dishes on this Okinawa diet.

The three-day meal plan below is inspired by this diet, but it isn’t exclusive. As a result, if you opt to follow the Okinawan diet, there might be other foods that suit your preferences and tastes. You can accompany the meals with jasmine tea, water, or an occasional red wine with dinner.

1st day

  • Breakfast – one cup of miso soup with Kombu and dashi; mushroom and tofu.
  • Lunch – the baked sweet potato (purple, yellow, or orange), half a cup of edamame, and a half cup of white rice.
  • Dinner – oyster mushroom stir-fry, ½ cup bok choy, and oven-baked salmon

2nd day

  • Breakfast – sweet potato hash and kale with fried eggs
  • Lunch – one cup of seaweed salad with ½ cup natto, one onigiri rice triangle, and pickled burdock root.
  • Dinner – one cup of broccoli stir-fry, 4 ounces of simmered pork belly, and half a cup of pan-seared tofu.

3rd day

  • Breakfast – one cup of miso soup with hijiki and dashi; one soft boiled egg
  • Lunch – one cup kinpira gobo, half a cup of roasted sweet potatoes (purple)
  • Dinner – 1 ¼ cup of peanut noddle’s with vegetables and tofu

Pros and cons of Okinawa diet

As with many low calories and low-fat diets, the Okinawa diet has many benefits and downsides. Review the pros and cons below to determine if this is the right plan for you.

Pros

Plenty Of Vegetable And Fruits
The Low Glycemic Index (GI)
Focuses On Sustainability
Weight Loss
Somewhat Less Restrictive

Cons

Potential Nutrient Deficiencies
Challenging In Social Situations
Cost

Pros

Plenty Of Vegetable And Fruits

It’s widely known that healthy diets comprise plenty of vegetables and fruits – yet research shows most Americans are still lacking in this diet. The Okinawa diet will, without a doubt, help fill the gaps in your 5-day target, providing you with the much-needed micronutrients and fiber.

The Low Glycemic Index (GI)

A glycemic index is a system, which measures exactly how some foods raise blood glucose levels. The Okinawa diet inspires followers to learn more about the types of food to help stabilize blood sugar levels. This might be positive, particularly for those with pre-diabetes, diabetes, and other insulin-related illness.

Focuses On Sustainability

The Okinawa diet regularly receives lots of criticism for the negative environmental impact. If all people consumed sweet potatoes in every meal, the planet would undoubtedly result in water overuse, air pollution, and land degradation. The Okinawa diet helps to mitigate the impact by encouraging users to purchase raised meat.

Somewhat Less Restrictive

Let’s deal with it: committing to veganism or paleo diet. Because the Okinawa diet is in the middle ground between these two, it offers more flexibility and balance.

Weight Loss

One of the many benefits of the Okinawa diet is weight loss. The Okinawa diet gives you an insight into the foreign culture. Therefore, this will be a great plan for those looking to lose weight.
Since the diet excludes sugar, alcohol, and other sugar sweeteners, you take very few calories in a day, which will ultimately reduce weight gain.

Cons

Potential Nutrient Deficiencies

Like other low-calorie diets, there is a risk of becoming deficient in specific key nutrients when you cut back on all major blood groups. Based on exactly how you follow the Okinawa diet, you may not take insufficient calcium, iron, or vitamin B12.

Challenging In Social Situations

Although the Okinawa diet might be less restrictive than completely committing to veganism or paleo, this plan comes with many major provisions regarding what you can or can’t eat. If you choose not to eat grains and dairy products, you might find yourself unable to enjoy different foods offered at family or social gatherings. Also, it might require you to become creative to prevent burnout or boredom.

Cost

The Okinawa diet does not require you to buy any specific costly products, but following this diet to the letter by buying vegetables at farmer’s markets and high-end meats can add up financially. Although eating locally sourced kale or sustainably raised ostrich sounds great hypothetically, it might not fit everyone’s resources or budget.

Is The Okinawa Diet A Healthy Choice For You?

The USDA (United states department of agriculture) guidelines support this diet’s emphasis on different nutrient-dense veggies. Moreover, federal guidelines also recommend eating fish or meat, whole grains, and low-fat dairy as part of a healthy and balanced diet. Although grains, dairy, seafood, and meat aren’t regularly consumed on this Okinawa diet, they are not eliminated.

The USDA 2020 to 2025 guidelines for American people also advise limiting beverages and foods with high amounts of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars and limiting alcohol consumption.
According to the USDA recommendations, the core elements below meet the requirements of a healthy eating plan.[vii]

  • Oils including oils found in nuts, seafood and vegetable.
  • Protein foods including eggs, poultry, lean meats, seafood, lentils, peas, soy products, seeds, and nuts.
  • Dairy including low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified soy beverages, and lactose-free versions.
  • Grains
  • Whole fruits
  • All types of vegetables

The United States department of agriculture recommends eating a wide variety of foods with valuable nutrients and beverages while staying within the recommended limit of just 2000 calories every day for weight management and 1,500 calories per day for those looking to lose weight. However, this number varies on activity level, weight, sex, and age.

The Okinawa diet doesn’t have any strict calorie limit but mainly comprises low-calorie foods that might make it hard for you to meet the USDA guidelines. Overall, the Okinawa diet complies with a few aspects of the USDA recommendations and eating more leafy greens, seaweed, soybeans, and sweet potatoes to support a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle.

How Much Does The Okinawa Diet Cost?

The Okinawa diet does not require you to buy any expensive food products, but following this diet to the letter might require purchasing high-end farmers’ market vegetables and high-end meats, which can be costly. Although eating locally sourced vegetables and sustainably raised chickens sounds incredible in theory, it might not fit well on everyone’s resources or budget.

FAQs

What is the Main Benefit of Taking Vitamin E?

Besides cell protection, vitamin E is essential for the optimal functioning of the immune system. As a valuable antioxidant, vitamin E helps protect the body against infections. 

What Food is High in Vitamin E?

Avocados contain many valuable nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin C, omega-3s, and potassium. Half an avocado contains 20% of vitamin E RDA (daily recommended intake). Kiwis and mangoes are also rich in vitamin E.

What Do Okinawan People Eat for Breakfast?

The traditional Okinawan breakfast comprises grains such as fermented soybeans and rice. Also, miso soup is a popular breakfast meal that’s accompanied by red meat or sometimes seafood.

What Does the Okinawa Diet Comprise?

The Okinawa diet is low in fat and calories while high in complex carbohydrates. It emphasizes soy products and vegetables and occasional amounts of fish, pork, rice, and noodles.

How Much Meat Do Okinawan People Eat?

People strictly following the Okinawan diet eat about 100 grams of fish and pork every day.

What Do Okinawan People Eat Every Day?

Unlike other Japanese, the Okinawans eat very little rice. Sweet potatoes are the primary source of calories in the Okinawa diet, closely followed by fiber-rich vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

What is the Okinawa Diet?

For starters, 90% of foods in the Okinawa diet are plant-based foods. Less than 1% of the diet comprises fish, and a tiny percentage of the food is meat. You can check our article to find a list of foods you should eat and what you cannot eat while following the Okinawa diet.

 

Sources

  1. [i] Willcox BJ, Willcox DC, Suzuki M. Demographic, phenotypic, and genetic characteristics of centenarians in Okinawa and Japan: Part 1-centenarians in Okinawa. Mech Ageing Dev. 2017;165(Pt B):75-79. doi:10.1016/j.mad.2016.11.001
  2. [ii] Willcox DC, Willcox BJ, Todoriki H, Suzuki M. The Okinawan diet: Health implications of a low-calorie, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich dietary pattern low in glycemic load. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009;28 Suppl:500S-516S.
  3. [iii] Visit Okinawa Japan. Blue Zone Okinawa, the secret of longevity.
  4. [iv] Buettner D. Blue Zones. Why Japan’s longest-lived women hold the key to better health. April 7, 2015.
  5. [v] Allison RL. Back to basics: the effect of healthy diet and exercise on chronic disease management. S D Med. 2017;Spec No:10-18.
  6. [vi] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Role of Potassium and Sodium in Your Diet. June 29, 2018.
  7. [vii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Ninth Edition. December 2020.