As stated in the previously-mentioned research of Okinawan health, a certain percentage of their longevity can be attributed to genetics. Somewhere between 10-50% of the high life expectancy is due to a certain gene (HLA or Human Leukocyte Antigen) which reduces the risk of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Put simply, this gene reduces the risk of conditions like arthritis, certain heart diseases, atherosclerosis, type I diabetes, and many others that are extremely common amongst Western culture.
The traditional Okinawan diet is filled with nutrient-dense vegetables like the goya (bitter melon) and beniimo sweet potato. Western agriculture has bred sweetness into our vegetables, therefore robbing them of the bitter-tasting, but ever-important, antioxidants. Basically, Okinawans eat more vegetables than we do and they get more “bang for the buck” by eating vegetables that are high in vitamins and minerals. Many vegetables of the Okinawan diet are farmed locally and sold at farmer’s markets, increasing immunity of consumers by introducing a plethora of local bacteria and pollen strains to their diets. (It is also important to note that Okinawans often eat fruit in small amounts in lieu of a sugary dessert. There are a number of French-themed pastry shops that sell delicious sweets, but they are much smaller than Westerners would serve and far less sugary.)
Protein sources in Okinawa consist of locally-farmed pork or goat and fresh fish; however, the pork or goat is eaten in far less amounts than what would be consumed in a typical Western diet. The abundance of fresh fish provides health-boosting Omega-3 fatty acids that many Western meals lack. In fact, fresh sushi and sashimi rolls can be purchased from the standard convenience store, which are located mere blocks from each other. On a similar note, a sea food that is virtually non-existent in Western culture is seaweed. Seaweed or kelp is served regularly in salads or side-dishes in Okinawa, further expanding the repertoire of nutrient-dense foods eaten in this area.
Processed food made its debut into Okinawan diets after WWII when American forces established bases on the island. With the heavy American presence came the increased processed- and fast food consumption. The popular burger chain A&W and famous fried chicken chain KFC have especially popular roles in Okinawan culture. Because of that trend, Okinawa is slipping from its first place holding of the world’s highest life expectancy.
Riding around town, I often see elderly Okinawans walking or jogging along the road. Even when the person is bent over from spine-crippling osteoporosis, they will still be mobile with the aid of a cane, walker, or in poorer areas, a baby stroller. The fact that Okinawans still exercise use of their bodies even after a disease has compromised their posture says a lot about the importance of physical activity to this culture.
When not exercising, Okinawans remain active in their everyday activities. One example being cleaning a tatami floor requires more taxing physical positions in Japanese culture than with the convenience-based appliances used in Western households. Floors are cleaned in Japan by getting down and dirty: using a deep squat or sometimes a bear crawl to push a cloth across the floor. In Western cultures, we tend to remain upright and push a long-handled mop that requires less strain. Another basic difference is the fact that many Okinawans farm or garden well into old age, requiring daily physical activity.
Finally, a lifestyle difference between the two cultures is the lack of stress. One major factor in lack of stress is the loose sense of time in Okinawan activities. As an island paradise, the sense of relaxation and stress-free living extends into the very essence of Okinawan activities. The sun shines about half of the year, basically any time other than the typhoon and dreary winter seasons. Sunshine does a body good when provided in sensible amounts, decreasing many ailments from depression to certain types of cancer. Okinawans do their part to reduce sun damage by wearing visors, protective eyewear, removable sleeves, and by refraining from staying out in the sun for too long.
So how do we embrace Okinawan culture in our daily lives? Easy: all you need to do is eat more nutrient-dense vegetables, refrain from sweets and processed food, go outside in small amounts, practice stress-relief, and stay active every single day as long as your body will allow it.