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 health care 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 try to understand the reasons behind their long lifespans. Many have observed that the 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, or "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, or "beni imo," with brownish skin and purple flesh, and the Japanese sweet potato, or "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 by Okinawans are different types of seaweed, including kombu, hijiki, and mozuku. One cup of seaweed is high in iodine, folate, iron, magnesium, and astaxanthin, and also 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 timing associated with the Okinawa diet. Researchers have mainly studied the types of food on the diet, not the timing of meals. You don't have to follow the Okinawa diet strictly in order to experience some of the benefits, 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. But purple sweet potatoes are a superfood and an antioxidant powerhouse and could be key to the longevity of the Okinawan people. Despite being extra sweet, however, 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 have the potential for 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
  • Bok choy
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Burdock root
  • Dried seaweed (wakame, hijiki, kombu, etc.)
  • Firm tofu
  • Fresh fish (in small amounts)
  • Frozen seafood
  • 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 and is not all-inclusive. If you do choose to follow the Okinawan lifestyle, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for 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

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Research-backed health benefits

  • Weight loss benefits

  • Fights inflammation

Cons
  • Restrictive

  • High in sodium

Is the Okinawa Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate guidelines supports the Okinawa diet's emphasis on nutrient-dense vegetables. But federal guidelines also recommend consuming (in moderation) meat or fish, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains 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 advises limiting foods and beverages with higher amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and also 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 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:

  • 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's 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 high in potassium and calcium could counteract the sodium, but it's better not to risk it.

Similar Diets

The Okinawa diet is similar to other diets that health experts 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.

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). Here's how they compare:

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 who live 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, sustaining the diet for the long term may very well explain why Okinawans live to be 100.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: The Mediterranean diet 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 rules about what to eat and avoid. Instead, it is about emphasizing certain foods and places less emphasis on 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 help lower high blood pressure. You can eat the foods you prefer from those that are recommended on the plan, but you need to keep fat to 27% of calories, protein to 18%, and carbohydrates to 55%. 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 main principle of the Okinawa diet, a vegan diet is plant-based. The key differences are that vegans completely avoid all animal products and that vegans eat more grains than those who follow the Okinawa diet.
  • Flexibility: This is also not a formal, specific diet plan but an eating philosophy and lifestyle. While animal products are avoided, everything plant-based is encouraged. Within that parameter, there is more 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 for some people to avoid all animal-based products for life.

A Word From Verywell

If your goal is to live to 100, you might try adopting an Okinawa diet—or at least certain aspects of it—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, and 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.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan. Okinawa Prefecture.

  2. Willcox DC, Willcox BJ, Hsueh W-C, Suzuki M. Genetic determinants of exceptional human longevity: insights from the Okinawa Centenarian StudyAge (Dordr). 2006;28(4):313-332. doi:10.1007/s11357-006-9020-x

  3. Visit Okinawa Japan. Blue Zone Okinawa, the secret of longevity.

  4. Willcox BJ, Willcox DC, Suzuki M. Demographic, phenotypic, and genetic characteristics of centenarians in Okinawa and Japan: Part 1-centenarians in OkinawaMech Ageing Dev. 2017;165(Pt B):75-79. doi:10.1016/j.mad.2016.11.001

  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.

  6. Schagen SK, Zampeli VA, Makrantonaki E, Zouboulis CC. Discovering the link between nutrition and skin agingDermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):298-307. doi:10.4161/derm.22876

  7. Blue Zones. The Okinawa Diet: Eating and Living to 100.

  8. Buettner D. Blue Zones. Why Japan’s longest-lived women hold the key to better health. April 7, 2015.

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

    2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Ninth Edition. December 2020.

  10. Allison RL. Back to basics: the effect of healthy diet and exercise on chronic disease managementS D Med. 2017;Spec No:10-18.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Role of Potassium and Sodium in Your Diet. June 29, 2018.

Additional Reading