What Is the Okinawa Diet?

Okinawa Diet

 Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Okinawa is a prefecture southwest of mainland Japan comprised of 160 islands, 48 of which are home to the highest rates of centenarians in the world, with as many as 40–50 people per every 100,000 living to be 100 years old or more. The majority of Okinawans reside on Okinawa Island, but the entire region is known as a "blue zone," a place where people not only live longer but also healthier, with fewer age-related diseases.

Since 1975, scientists have been researching the centenarians of Okinawa to understand the reasons behind their long lifespans. Many have observed that the traditional Okinawa diet plays a significant role in Okinawan health and longevity. The regional diet consists of mostly vegetables and legumes, especially soy. It's low in calories and fat, high in fiber, and includes complex carbohydrates.

"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.

Still, the Okinawa diet may not be for everyone. Its restrictive nature limits or avoids otherwise healthy food groups and could be difficult to adhere to for the long term. Learn more about the traditional foods in Okinawan culture and the pros and cons associated with the diet.

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

What Can You Eat?

Typical foods in the Okinawa diet include a variety of sweet potatoes, soy, bitter melon (goya), shiitake mushrooms, burdock, jasmine tea, seaweed, and an array of herbs and spices like moringa and turmeric.

Most of the carbohydrates in the Okinawa diet come from vegetables, with a smaller amount from fruits, grains, or seeds. Abundant in the region is the acerola fruit (which is packed with vitamin C and antioxidants) and the Okinawa lime known as shikwasa, a citrus fruit rich in polyphenols and antioxidants. While these fruits may be hard to come by in the U.S., Americans can look to the anti-aging benefits of vitamin C and antioxidants for longevity.

The diet does not contain added sugars or refined sweets, with the exception of uji, Okinawan sugarcane, which is boiled down to make brown sugar and is also used to encourage healthy digestion. Okinawans eat a little pork and a minimal amount of dairy. Fish is consumed in moderation, and alcohol consumption is limited to an occasional drink.

What You Need to Know

Since Okinawans live on islands, you might expect the residents to consume plenty of seafood. However, fish only makes up a very small part of the diet, perhaps as little as 1% compared to 90% plant-based foods. The Okinawa diet includes lots of dark, leafy greens and root vegetables as well as large shitake mushrooms, which are nutritious and may have health benefits including improved immunity and lowered bad (LDL) cholesterol.

A main staple of the Okinawa diet is the Okinawan sweet potato (beni imo) with brownish skin and purple flesh, and the Japanese sweet potato (satsuma imo) with reddish skin and a creamy yellow flesh when cooked. Okinawan purple sweet potatoes were brought to the islands about 400 years ago and thrived in the region's soil. They are known to be among the healthiest foods on Earth.

Also commonly consumed are different types of seaweed, including kombu, hijiki, and mozuku. Seaweed is high in iodine, folate, iron, magnesium, and astaxanthin and contains some calcium. Nutrients in seaweed can vary depending on the type.

Meat and dairy products are minimal in the traditional Okinawa diet, as are grains with the exception of an occasional serving of rice or noodles. There is also little to no added sugar.

There is no particular meal timing associated with the Okinawa diet as researchers have mainly studied the types of food included in the diet. You don't have to follow the Okinawa diet strictly to benefit, as some of its components can easily be incorporated into your regular diet:

  • Eat more vegetables. Fill your plate with plenty of deep green or brightly colored veggies.
  • Choose soy and soy foods. Try adding tofu to a stir-fry or switch from dairy milk to soy milk. Or experiment with natto, a fermented soybean dish.
  • Swap out red meat for pork or fish. Choose healthy fats like pork belly, fish, and other types of seafood.
  • 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.
What to Eat
  • Dark leafy vegetables

  • Sweet potatoes (orange, yellow, and purple)

  • Seaweed

  • Fish (in small amounts)

  • Pork belly (in small amounts)

  • Bitter melon (goya)

  • Legumes, especially soybeans

  • Burdock root

  • Shiitake mushrooms

  • Herbs and spices

  • Dashi (soup stock)

What Not to Eat
  • Meat (except occasionally)

  • Dairy products (except occasionally)

  • Grains (white rice and noodles on occasion)

  • Sugar

Sweet Potatoes

As a close cousin to the orange sweet potato, Japanese sweet potatoes are also nutrient-dense and rich in vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, potassium, and fiber. Purple sweet potatoes are an antioxidant powerhouse and could be key to the longevity of the Okinawan people. Despite being extra sweet, purple sweet potatoes are a low glycemic index (GI) food.

Bitter Melon (Goya)

Bitter melon or goya is a gourd that's used in salads and stir-fried meals and can be made into juice or tea. It's high in vitamin C, plus it has some beneficial phytochemicals.

Soybean Products

The traditional Okinawa diet includes soy in the form of miso paste and tofu. Soy is an excellent source of plant-based 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.

Herbs and Spices

Some of the seasonings used in this diet offer health benefits and add flavor without the extra calories. These include turmeric, mugwort, moringa, Okinawan peppers, and fennel seeds.

Sample Shopping List

The Okinawa diet encourages the consumption of dark, leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, seaweed, and soy. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started with the Okinawa diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list, and you may find other foods that work better for you. Whether you're following the Okinawa diet or simply incorporating some of the region's foods into your lifestyle, try filling your cart with these items:

  • Orange and purple sweet potatoes
  • Dark leafy greens like bok choy
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Burdock root
  • Dried seaweed (wakame, hijiki, kombu, etc.)
  • Firm tofu
  • Fresh and frozen fish (in small amounts)
  • Canned sardines, mackerel, trout
  • Pork belly (small amounts if fresh)
  • Miso paste
  • Turmeric (root or ground powder)
  • Moringa (fresh or dried)
  • Dashi (soup stock)

Sample Meal Plan

The Okinawa diet limits grains like white rice and noodles and instead emphasizes plenty of vegetables and legumes, especially sweet potatoes. Since it may not seem ideal to eat a sweet potato at every meal, you can incorporate other foods like edamame, miso soup, sauteed greens, and of course, plenty of seaweed. Served on top of noodles, in salads and stir-fries, and with vegetables, seaweed is a versatile sea vegetable that can add more flavor to your dishes on the Okinawa diet.

The following three-day meal plan is inspired by the Okinawa diet but is not all-inclusive. If you choose to follow an Okinawan-inspired diet, there may be other meals that better suit your tastes and preferences. You can accompany these meals with water, jasmine tea, or the occasional low-alcohol beverage with dinner.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

  • Breakfast: 1 cup of miso soup with dashi and hijiki; 1 soft-boiled egg
  • Lunch: 1 cup kinpira gobo (burdock root and carrot stir-fry); 1/2 cup of roasted purple sweet potatoes
  • Dinner: 1 1/4 cup serving of peanut noodles with tofu and vegetables

Pros and Cons

  • Research-backed health benefits

  • Weight loss benefits

  • Fights inflammation

  • Restrictive

  • High in sodium

Is the Okinawa Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines support the Okinawa diet's emphasis on nutrient-dense vegetables. But federal guidelines also recommend consuming meat or fish, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains (in moderation) as part of a balanced diet. Though meat, seafood, dairy, and grains are not consumed regularly on the Okinawa diet, they're not eliminated entirely, either.

The USDA 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also advise limiting foods and beverages with higher amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium and limiting the consumption of alcohol. According to federal guidelines, the following "core elements" meet the requirements for a healthy eating pattern:

  • Vegetables of all types
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Dairy including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt
  • Protein foods including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils found in seafood and nuts

The USDA recommends consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages while staying within the recommended limit of 2,000 calories a day for weight management or 1,500 calories a day for weight loss, though this number varies based on age, sex, weight, and activity level.

There is no particular calorie count associated with the Okinawa diet, but it consists of mostly low-calorie foods, which could make it difficult to meet the USDA's recommendations. To determine your individual calorie needs, use this calculator.

The Okinawa diet adheres to some aspects of USDA guidelines and eating more dark, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and seaweed could support a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.

Health Benefits

Lower Risk for Chronic Disease

A low-fat, low-calorie, and high-fiber diet rich in antioxidants is quite possibly a main contributing factor to the excellent health of the Okinawan people. The Okinawa diet could also help you lose weight and promote healthy weight management, which is essential for avoiding chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

May Reduce Inflammation

The anti-inflammatory properties of the Okinawa diet can help reduce the risk of those chronic diseases for a number of reasons. The diet is:

  • 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 help 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 may also help to reduce inflammation.

Health Risks

Very Restrictive

Though there are no common health risks associated with the Okinawa diet, restricting food groups like complex carbs, dairy, and animal products could result in nutrient deficiencies and even an unhealthy obsession with clean eating.

The Okinawa diet is very low in red meat, eggs, and poultry, but you may still be able to get enough protein from soy, fish, and the occasional pork. You may also be able to get enough nutrition without whole grains and dairy, but it can be difficult to follow a diet that's this restrictive for the long term.

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 the abundance of fruits and vegetables also included in the diet that are high in potassium and calcium could counteract the sodium, but it's better not to risk it.

A Word From Verywell

If your goal is to live a healthy 100 years or more, you might try adopting an Okinawa-inspired diet to help you 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 more vegetables into your meals. But you may also need more variety, fats, and/or carbohydrates than this diet offers.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

11 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. 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.

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Additional Reading

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.