Another day, another diet… but more important than how we metabolize food, is how we metabolize stress. There really is no magic diet for healthy longevity, nor one miracle diet or pill either—but, how we digest stress is key.
Japan boasts the highest life expectancy and health expectancy in the world. While studies have shown that genetic factors are important to the renowned longevity of Okinawans, it is the non-genetic lifestyle factors that contribute to a remarkably healthy longevity. Okinawans leading traditional lifestyles have high estrogen and testosterone levels as they age, low rates of dementia and osteoporosis and clean arteries that contribute to low rates of heart disease. In fact, Okinawans have 80 percent fewer heart attacks than North Americans; and when they do suffer a heart attack, they are twice as likely to recover. They have 80 percent fewer cases of breast cancer and prostate cancer, and less than half the ovarian and colon cancer of North Americans.
There are four aspects of the Okinawa Program study that enable this healthy longevity: physical health, mental health, social health and spiritual health. Okinawan centenarians typically maintain a low glycemic diet that is calorically low and nutritionally high. They eat low-fat, cholesterol-busting foods including unrefined complex carbohydrates, whole grains, legumes, fruits, high-fibre plants and vegetables. At lunch in Ogimi Village, I am told, “There is no life without vegetables.” The U.S. National Cancer Institute recommends we eat five vegetables per day. Okinawans eat seven.
They also consume 40 percent fewer calories than Westerners and practice a custom of hara hachi bu, eating until 80 percent full. Low caloric intake improves blood sugar control and lowers production of free radicals. The more calories we consume, the more calories we need to burn, the more free radical molecules are created that attack our cells, damaging body tissue, thereby contributing to aging and disease. Does this mean we should eat less food? No. It means we should eat less “calorie-dense” food. According to medical anthropologist and gerontologist Dr. Craig Wilcox, this Okinawan practice of caloric restriction can prolong life and vitality. We must eat consciously rather than the devalued experience of rushing or gorging. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to message the brain. If we eat until we’re full, we are already over capacity. Our nervous system that manages our reaction to stress, also regulates our digestion, and therefore impacts how well we digest and metabolize our food. How do we manage our stress? Chances are, if we do it well, we will live longer—it’s that simple. So many of the issues we have of weight and body image have to do with the emotional sphere in which we reside. Okinawans are not concerned with “tension” and “time urgency” as much as with developing “self-confidence” and “self will.” They place high value on behaviour, attitude and coping skills that lead to stress reduction—because it’s not the stressors themselves that are harmful, but our reaction to them.
Okinawans emphasize positivity, laughter, optimism, flexibility and adaptability. Exercise helps eliminate byproducts of stress by releasing endorphins. Meditation quiets the mind and is heart-healthy, because in slowing ourselves down we reduce the bio-chemical effects of stress. Stress related diseases are often associated with aging—but stress also causes aging. The elderly in Okinawa choose to focus on positive social connections for physical and psycho-spiritual well-being. They maintain moai, social support networks, and yuimaru, the practice of sharing and helping others and looking out for each other. Their customs of mutual-help encourage strong relationships within their community, as well as individual independence. For cardiologist and geriatrician Dr. Makoto Suzuki, these “environmental factors are more important than hereditary factors” in affecting the strength and resiliency of the immune system. A key factor for spiritual health and minimizing stress has to do with the Okinawan concept of ikigai, a reason for living; a reason to get up in the morning.
Between work in the fields, Minei Yoshiko, 93, and Taira Sumiko, 95, (at the time of this photo) pray to their ancestors and also volunteer at the local school. Their low levels of negative emotion, and high levels of social and spiritual contact contribute to their contentment and sense of ongoing purpose. When I ask how they handle stress, they talk about singing, dancing and golf. Sleep is essential, and they enjoy morning tea and reading the newspapers. They also exercise, practice morning stretches, eat the vegetables they plant in the fields and greet children on their way to school. Our interview is conducted over a bowl of doughnuts, so I ask: “don’t you worry about these?” To which Minei-san replies, “I’m too old to worry,” and Taira-san begins singing the Okinawan classic Nan Kuru Naisa, “don’t worry, be happy.”
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.