What Is the Okinawa Diet?

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Seaweed salad
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Okinawa is a region in the southernmost part of Japan where inhabitants have traditionally had the longest lifespans on earth. It's one of the "blue zones"—places in the world where residents live longer and have fewer age-related diseases.

While there are probably many reasons for Okinawans' longevity, there's a good chance their typically healthy diet plays some part. The Okinawa diet is made up mostly of vegetables and legumes, especially soy. It's low in calories and fat, and high in complex carbohydrates.

What Experts Say

"The Okinawa diet is comprised of mainly vegetables and soy, with small amounts of fish. While experts agree the emphasis on plant-based foods is smart, the lack of grains, meat, and dairy can make this diet difficult to follow and possibly lead to nutrient shortcomings."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

Starting in 1975 and continuing today, scientists have been researching the centenarians of Okinawa to try to understand the reasons behind their longevity. Many feel that the Okinawa diet plays a big role in the residents' health and long lifespans.

"Features such as the low levels of saturated fat, high antioxidant intake, and low glycemic load... are likely contributing to a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and other chronic diseases," one study reported.

How It Works

Most of the carbohydrates in the Okinawa diet come from vegetables, with only a small amount of grains or seeds and no sugar or refined sweets. There is only a little bit of red meat and a minimal amount of dairy. Fish is consumed in moderation, and alcohol consumption is limited to an occasional drink. Typical foods in this diet include sweet potatoes, soy, bitter melon, shiitake mushrooms, burdock, jasmine tea, seaweed, and an array of herbs and spices.

Compliant Foods

  • Vegetables, especially sweet potatoes

  • Legumes, especially soybeans

  • Seaweed

  • Herbs and spices

  • Fish (in small amounts)

  • Shiitake mushrooms

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Meat (except very occasionally)

  • Dairy products (except very occasionally)

  • Sugar

  • Refined carbohydrates

Vegetables

In the past, less affluent Okinawans ate sweet potatoes. Rice, especially white rice, was more expensive and therefore a bit of a status symbol; most ordinary Okinawans did not eat it. Sweet potatoes are nutrient-dense and rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, and potassium. They're also high in fiber and contain vitamin E.

Other common vegetables on this diet include dark, leafy greens and bitter melon. Bitter melon is a gourd that's used in salads and stir-fried meals and can be made into juice or tea. It's high in fiber and vitamin C, plus it has some beneficial phytochemicals.

Legumes

The traditional Okinawa diet includes soy in the form of miso paste and tofu. Soy is an excellent source of plant protein, and it provides the bulk of the protein in the diet. Soy also contains phytochemicals called flavonoids and phytoestrogens, which may have health-promoting qualities.

Seaweed

Kombu, hijiki, and mozuku are seaweeds commonly used in Okinawa. They're often served with noodles, in salads, in stir-fries, and with vegetables. Seaweed is high in iodine, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, and astaxanthin.

Herbs and Spices

Some of the seasonings used in this diet have a potential for health benefits and add flavor without adding any calories. They include turmeric, mugwort, Okinawan peppers, and fennel seeds.

Fish

Since Okinawa is an island, you might expect its residents to consume plenty of fish and seafood. However, fish only makes up a very small part of the diet (perhaps as little as one percent, compared to 90 percent plant-based foods).

Shiitake Mushrooms

Large shitake mushrooms are found in many types of Asian cooking. They're nutritious, and they might have some health benefits that could impact the immune system and help regulate cholesterol.

Meat and Dairy Products

These are both very rare in the traditional Okinawa diet, perhaps due to their cost or simply cultural preference.

Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates

The Okinawa diet includes almost no grains, unlike other Asian diets that incorporate a lot of rice. There is also little to no added sugar.

Recommended Timing

There is no particular timing associated with the Okinawa diet. Researchers have mainly studied the types of food on the diet, not the timing of meals.

Modifications

You don't have to follow the Okinawa diet religiously to see some benefit. Some of its components could be easily incorporated into your diet:

  • Eat more vegetables, preferably those that are deep green or brightly colored.
  • Choose soy and soy foods. Try adding tofu to a stir-fry or switch from dairy milk to soy milk.
  • Swap out your red meat for a serving of fish. Or better yet, up your intake of legumes.
  • Add mushrooms to your meals. Try different varieties like shiitake, oyster, and King trumpet mushrooms. They can take the place of meat as the focus of a meal.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Research-backed health benefits

  • Weight loss benefits

  • Fights inflammation

Cons

  • Restrictive

  • High in sodium

Pros

Health Benefits

A diet that is low in fat and calories and rich in fiber and antioxidants may be one of the main contributing factors to the Okinawan people's excellent health. They have a low risk of the diseases associated with age.

Weight Loss

The Okinawa diet is low in calories and high in fiber, so it can help you lose or maintain weight, which is essential for avoiding chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Anti-Inflammation

An anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce the risk of those chronic diseases for a number of reasons:

  • Low fat (especially saturated fat), but still high in omega-3 fatty acids. At least some forms of saturated fats can increase inflammation and omega-3's tend to reduce inflammation.
  • Low in refined carbohydrates (like sugar), so it doesn't have a big impact on your blood sugar levels. Blood sugar spikes can contribute to a pro-inflammatory state in your body that increases the risk of chronic disease and inflammation.
  • High in vitamins C, E, and A and phytochemicals. These nutrients work as antioxidants to protect your cells from free radical damage (things like smoke, pollution, rancid fats and oils and so on). These nutrients might also help to reduce inflammation.

Cons

Restrictive

This diet is very low in red meat, eggs, and poultry. That's OK because you can still get enough protein from soy and fish. But it also has very few grains, even whole grains, and it's very low in dairy products. You can get enough nutrition without those food groups, but it's difficult to follow a diet that's so restrictive.

High in Sodium

If you're on a salt-restricted diet, speak to your doctor before adding in some of the sodium-rich foods on this diet, like miso, salted fish, or soy sauce (even reduced-sodium soy sauce is high in sodium). It's possible that the abundance of fruits and vegetables high in potassium and calcium could counteract the sodium, but you shouldn't risk it.

How It Compares

The Okinawa diet is similar to other diets that doctors believe may promote good health, disease prevention, and a healthy weight. All are rich in nutritious vegetables, but the Okinawa diet is more restricted in other food groups.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

While the USDA MyPlate guidelines would support the Okinawa diet's emphasis on nutrient-dense vegetables, the guidelines also recommend consuming (in moderation) meat or fish, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. All of those are rare on the Okinawa diet.

Calories

There is no particular calorie count associated with the Okinawa diet, but it consists of mostly low-calorie foods (vegetables, soy). It could be a challenge to meet the USDA's recommendation of about 2000 daily calories for weight maintenance (this number varies based on age, sex, weight, and activity level). To find your individual calorie needs, use this calculator.

Similar Diets

Researchers have studied some other diets associated with longevity along with the Okinawa diet. These include the Mediterranean diet—also a diet based in a geographic region—and the DASH diet (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

Okinawa Diet

  • General nutrition: The Okinawa diet includes lots of healthy antioxidants and fiber, but it lacks meat, dairy, and grains. That could mean missing out on some important nutrients.
  • Flexibility: This is not a formal diet plan designed and promoted for weight loss. It uses the traditional Okinawa diet as a resource for those outside of Okinawa who would like to reap some health benefits. As such, it could be modified to make it easier to follow.
  • Sustainability: With its limited number of foods and calories, this diet could be challenging to sustain for the long term. Of course, that is what the Okinawans do in order to live to 100 years old!

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: The Mediterranean diet also includes a lot of vegetables and legumes (although not soy), along with fish, eggs, whole grains, and some dairy products. As such, it covers more nutritional ground than the Okinawa diet.
  • Flexibility: This is also not a rigid diet with lots of rules about what to eat and avoid. Instead, it is about emphasizing certain foods and de-emphasizing others, so it has a lot of flexibility built in.
  • Sustainability: As long as you are not a huge meat-eater, this diet could easily be followed for life.

DASH Diet

  • General nutrition: The DASH diet, like the Mediterranean diet, is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. It covers all the major food groups while reducing salt, sugar, and fat.
  • Flexibility: This diet does have rules, as it is designed to lower high blood pressure. You can eat the foods that you prefer from those that are recommended on the plan, but you need to keep fat to 27 percent of calories, protein to 18 percent, and carbohydrates to 55 percent. Instead of analyzing each bite, though, you can follow the diet's recommended daily servings of each kind of food (six to eight grain servings, two to three dairy servings, and so on).
  • Sustainability: This diet is meant to be followed for the long term for the most health benefits.

Vegan Diet

  • General nutrition: Like the Okinawa diet, vegan diets are plant-based. The main differences are that vegans completely avoid all animal products, and that vegans eat more grains than people on the Okinawa diet.
  • Flexibility: This is also not a formal, specific diet plan but a philosophy of eating. While animal products are out, everything plant-based is in and within that parameter, there is freedom as to what, when, and how foods are consumed.
  • Sustainability: For many people, this is a lifelong dietary change. But it can be hard to avoid all animal-based products.

A Word From Verywell

If your goal is to live to 100, you might try adopting an Okinawa diet to get there. Better yet, discuss your needs with a physician or nutritionist so that you can craft a diet that works for you, your body, and your lifestyle. It may very well include some of the principles of the Okinawa diet. After all, you can't go wrong by incorporating lots of vegetables into your meals. But you may also need more variety, fats, and/or carbohydrates than this diet offers.

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