The People Of Japan Live Longer Than We Do, And It May Have Something To Do With What They Eat

What do you have to eat to live forever?

That’s obviously not a practical question to ask, but what we can ask is what do you have to eat to live as long as possible?

On a very broad level, it is becoming increasingly understood that consuming a more plant-based diet is conducive to reducing your risk of the chronic diseases that kill most of us.

But that one sentence doesn’t really make a whole article now does it?

According to the World Bank, the life expectancy in Canada in 2015 was about 82 years while that  figure sits quite a bit lower at 78.75 in the United States.

In Japan, however, the average life expectancy is nearly 84 years of age, markedly different than the USA and noticeably higher than Canada as well.

Among countries with very large populations, the Japanese live the longest in the world.

Among all countries, Japan ranks in the top 5.

And so while I don’t actually have the secret to eternal life, what I do have are some very cool insights into what some of the people who live the longest in the world eat.

Quick disclaimer before we get started though!

We can’t say with certainty that the japanese diet is the only reason why they live longer than us, there are a lot of differences between Japan and North America that may or may not contribute to their increased longevity.

What we can do, however, is discuss their dietary practices and characterize them as the dietary practices  of one of the longest living peoples in the world.

Today’s Agenda

1.Exploring The Japanese Food Guide

2. Exploring Cultural Japanese Staple Foods


The Japanese Food Guide

I thought it would be an extraordinarily cool exercise to review the Japanese food guide as part of today’s article and take a closer look at some of the things that our Japanese friends do differently than we do.

Although a food guide does not necessarily tell you the whole story of how a country eats, what we do know is that the people of Japan who  follow the guide most closely  tend to have the lowest risk of chronic disease.


The Japanese Spinning Top

So what does the Japanese food guide do that stands out to me?

1. Heavily emphasizes veggies: For those of you who remember my analysis of Canada’s food guide, you will recall that one of my primary critiques is that we do not separate fruits and vegetables. Although fruits are an important part of a balanced diet, it would be tough to argue against the notion that vegetables represent the single most important food group to sustain optimal health.

2. Includes less dairy:  Dairy is unquestionably a useful source of  probiotics, calcium and modest source of vitamin D but can also contain a significant amount of calories and saturated fat, depending on the variety selected. Although useful, dairy is largely replaceable by plant-based foods and also by other animal-based foods with a healthier fat profile, such as fish ( Canned salmon with bones anyone?).

3. Includes exercise as an integral component: Exercise and diet will forever be connected not only due to their dual roles in achieving caloric balance, but also the undeniable role they both play in supporting good health.  Exercise is well recognized to reduce numerous risk factors for chronic disease  and the Japanese food guide acknowledges it as such, as the momentum that keeps the top spinning. As if to say an appropriate energy output makes room for a healthy energy input.

4. Includes plenty of grains –   Take note anti-carbohydrate people! The country with one of the longest life spans in the world recommends it’s people consume grains above all else.

5.  Appears to recommend more meat ( but actually may recommends less): On initial inspection it appears that the Japanese food guide recommends more servings of meat than ours, but I examined this issue further to realize that the Japanese serving of meat is smaller than ours. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but looking at a more complete version of the guide I was able to determine that a single egg is a serving of meat in Japan, whereas here in Canada it’s 2 eggs that equate to a serving of meat.

Conclusion – More exercise, more veggies and probably less meat.

Seems like a pretty solid game plan to extend one’s life span!


2.Exploring Cultural Japanese Staple Foods

Before we get started  there is one thing I have not told you yet.

Yes, you know that the Japanese live longer than us and eat differently than we do.

But what you may not know is that, up until recently, there was a particular island region of the country ( Okinawa) that actually had life spans above the Japanese national average.

With that in mind, I knew I had to figure out what the people in this region ate and share it in today’s article.

Before that though, here are some very interesting facts about the traditional diets of the people of Okinawa.

What did they do differently in Okinawa?

The biggest dietary difference between Okinawa and mainland Japan is that Okinawans favour the purple-fleshed sweet potato over rice, and use it as the primary source of carbohydrates.

As you can see in the rendition of the Okinawan dietary pattern below, the people of Okinawa also valued legume intake more highly as well.

So that’s well and good, but a single question still remains.

What foods specifically did the people of Okinawa eat that are also accessible to us North Americans?

Let’s find out:

The Foods Of Okinawa, Japan

Sweet Potato: Locally grown sweet potatoes are an Okinawan staple and although we cannot access the same sweet potatoes that the Okinawans can, our varieties are still incredibly healthy options. Sweet potatoes contain a lot of the nutrients that the average person needs more of. They are low in glycemic index, high in soluble fibre ( which helps manage blood sugar+ blood cholesterol) , vitamin A and a host of potent anti-oxidant compounds which make them an excellent starch choice at any meal.

Bitter Melon/GourdThese very low calorie vegetables resemble cucumbers with a rough exterior and are exceptionally high in soluble fibre. They are often used in Okinawa either raw or cooked in both salads and stir frys.

Tofu: While the western world worries about whether or not soy might cause men to grow breasts (it doesn’t), the Japanese use this traditional food as an essential dietary staple. Much of the legumes the Okinawans eat tend to come from soy, which is rich in healthy antioxidant compounds known as flavonoids, among a variety of other healthful components.

Seaweed: Seaweed, which you may have only encountered before as part of your sushi at a local local Japanese restaurant, is a broad classification of edible marine algae that contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and can be easily incorporated into your daily life.

Turmeric: Move aside Victoria Beckham, Super Spice has just entered the room. Dare I use those two words? Turmeric is an Okinawan staple and is championed for it’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory characteristics. Is it on your spice rack?

Shiitake Mushroom:  This umbrella shaped mushroom is a well known and widely available delicacy that actually contains a compound that, when concentrated at ultra high doses, is actually authorized as an anti-cancer medication in Japan. Pretty fascinating stuff! Not to mention the fact that, as mushrooms tend to be, Shiitake are low calorie, high fibre and high in a variety of micronutrients.

Burdock:Burdock is a high fibre, low calorie root that contains inulin, which is a prebiotic fibre that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut.  You will have the most luck finding it at your local Asian-speciality supermarket.

Fennel: Used by Okinawans both as an edible vegetable and herbal medicine, this plant is part of the parsley family and its seeds are edible as well. In addition to numerous phytochemical compounds with potential antioxidant/anti-inflammatory capabilities, fennel also contains fibre, potassium and magnesium, which just about all of us need more of.

Are any of these foods part of your dietary pattern? Should They Be? Could they be?

That’s up to you, but all I can say is that these are some of the foods consumed by the people who live longer than anyone else in the world, and they also happen to be accessible to us right here at home too.

Have you been wanting and waiting to change up your diet?

I’ve just given you the perfect opportunity to try new things and I sincerely hope you grab it with both hands.

Thank me later!

Final Thoughts

As I learned throughout the extensive process of putting this article together, valuable insights can be gleaned from embracing the habits of people who seem to be doing things right.

Incorporating a variety of new, nutrient dense foods and  re-evaluating the overall balance of your dietary pattern is always a good thing to do, even if it won’t be enough to help you live forever, it can certainly help you live a longer, healthier life.

That is the goal, after all.

Cheers to the Japanese for showing us how it might be done!

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH

A very special thank you to my Instagram follower @Eldeflower for giving me the inspiration for today’s article.