Want to live to be 100 and thrive every single day?  Take note of the habits of some of the world’s longest-lived people: the Okinawans.

Age-defying foods: A plant-based diet rich in seaweed, spices, and jasmine tea is just one part of living better longer.

The tiny Japanese islands between mainland Japan and Taiwan have been the subject of study since the 1970’s, when researchers discovered remarkable details about the health and habits of the population there: The number of these islanders who reach age 100 is four to five times that of Americans, and those centenarians are physically and mentally agile.  Despite living a modern lifestyle, Okinawans don’t suffer from heart disease, cancer, or other debilitating conditions at the high rates found in the United States.  Scientific markers of biological age, such as artery function and hormones levels, suggest that they have bodies much younger than their calendar years.

What’s their secret?  Okinawans haven’t sipped from the fountain of youth or hit the genetics lottery.  Rather, their low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet, combined with a low-key attitude and upbeat outlook, are responsible for their long, healthy lives. 

Unlike any other cuisine in the world, the diet combines influences from European countries, like France and Spain, with traditional Asian elements from Japan, China, and Korea—a blend that’s referred to as champuru.  Infused with Japanese flavors such as miso and curry, meals are as zesty as they are healthy.  A typical main course, such as eggplant with miso sauce or fish in broth with ginger, greens, and soba noodles, might be followed by sweet potato custard.  Although the islands have been Westernized, and fast food is available, it’s hardly mainstream: the culture’s healthy culinary traditions still dominate.  On average, islanders consume six vegetables, one fruit, and six or more servings of grains per day.  Meat isn’t the centerpiece and when Okinawans do have it, they tend to opt for lean pork or poultry.  What is plentiful is a variety of dark leafy green and yellow-orange vegetables.  Omega-3 fish is a staple protein, and the overall sodium and fat intake is low; fat comprises about 26 percent of total calories, most of it unsaturated.  Refined carbs such as white rice are less common than they are in other Asian cuisines.  Instead, Okinawans rely on whole grains like millet, and fiber-rich sweet potatoes, which are chock-full of antioxidants called carotenoids.

Most important to warding off age-related illnesses, though, is the high intake of “flavs”: flavonols, flavones, isoflavones, and bioflavonoids.  These powerful compounds—which help prevent cancer by blocking the hormones that can lead to abnormal cell growth—are delivered via daily servings of soy, vegetables and jasmine tea.

Perhaps even more significant than what the islanders eat is how much—and how.  Serving sizes are little portions—half the jumbo sizes typical in the United States.  If Americans were to adopt any Okinawan habit, the most important may be the practice of pushing away from the table while there is still a little room in your stomach.

These customs combined with their dietary mainstays mean the islanders take in 20 to 30 percent fewer calories than Americans; an amount that studies suggest slows aging.  But they rarely feel deprived.  Despite being low calorie, the foods are filling.  Take sweet potatoes: A cup has about 180 calories and 7 grams of fiber, while a cup of white rice packs 340 calories and no fiber.   Okinawan meals are cause for celebration—you eat mindfully with others, rather than gobbling up food alone at your desk.  Presentation adds to the pleasure—combos are colorful (often a blend of five different shades) and beautifully arranged. 

Some of the staples may be unfamiliar, but it’s possible to tweak your habits to reap the benefits.  Americans on the diet living on Okinawan bases lowered their blood pressure and lost weight.  This helps to show that, to a large extent, you can reverse the damage of a Western diet.  And the opposite is also true.  When Okinawans eat like Americans, they get sick at the same rate.   Take a look at the Eight Okinawan Essentials, and see if you can add some of them to your regular diet.

Eight Okinawan Essentials

Bitter Melon: This vitamin-C rich cucumber relative (also known as goya, and sold in Asian markets) can be used raw or cooked.  Try it in a stir-fry of tofu, eggs, and canola oil, in sandwiches, or in vegetable sushi.

Carrots: Okinawans don’t just eat the sweet roots, they also use the antioxidant-rich carrot leaves.  Chop and sauté the tops and mix them with brown rice, or add them to scrambled eggs or vegetable soup.

Hechima: This gourd can sometimes be found at Asian markets (if not, swap in zucchini).  It has a spongy texture (think: eggplant) and is often served with tofu in a miso-sake sauce.  Use it the same way you’d use zucchini.

Healing Herbs: Try inflammation-fighting turmeric to perk up chicken.  Bottles of heart-healthy chili are found in Okinawan noodle shops for spicing soup.  Digestion-aiding fennel seeds can complement vegetable sautés.

Seaweed: (kombu, nori, hijiki, wakame): Rich in folate, iron, and magnesium, seaweed also contains lignan, a cancer-fighting phytoestrogen.  Cut strips of dried seaweed and toss them into soups or salads.  Wrap sheets of dried nori around balls of rice.

Sweet Potatoes:  What if street vendors sold baked sweet potatoes (imos) from trucks instead of hot dogs?  They do in Okinawa.  For an antioxidant-rich snack, toss 1-inch pieces with olive oil and roast at 450 degrees for 30 minutes.

Whole Grains: Okinawan lore says the gods brought rice, barley, and three types of millet to an area of the island believed to be a place of spiritual energy (shiji).  Fiber-packed millet can be used as a stuffing, or combined with brown rice for a pilaf.

Soy: tofu, miso, and edamame are high in protein and flavonoids.  Go beyond vegetable stir-fries and miso soup and experiment using miso and tofu in salad dressings, or tofu in chees-cake, like the Okinawans do.

With few exceptions, genetics play a relatively small role in determining health.  Disease isn’t just the result of the genes you’re born with, but of the impact behaviors or experiences have on those genes.  Lifestyle factors like diet and exercise either turn genes on or off.  Or have effects all their own!

Source: Daryn Eller

Also, for more information, read: The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner