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March's Great Fitness Experiment: Eat Like an Okinawan Centenarian

Posted Mar 01 2010 7:19pm
Not all Japanese trends are worth following... um, ew.

Kickin' it old (as in grade) school style, today is opposite day here at GFE. And what is the exact opposite of me, a high-strung neurotic cynical young (I can still say that right?) American mom? How about a mellow, cheerful Okinawan centenarian!

This month, my Great Fitness Experiment is my first dietary Experiment since my therapist banned me from food Experiments after my spectacular meltdown on the Primal Blueprint, round 2. But my therapist went to prison - to work, not to be incarcerated - and I have poundage to lose so I'm bringing it back. Actually the real reason I picked this Experiment was because this diet/lifestyle best approximates how I prefer to eat on my own. So rather than try to completely overhaul my entire dietary personality like I did when I went Paleo, I'm trying to work with my natural inclinations. And if I get to live to be a wise-cracking yoga-practicing centenarian then even better!

A couple of months ago I read The Okinawa Program by Bradley J. Willcox, M.D., D. Craig Willcox, Ph.D., and Makoto Suzuki, M.D. It was life changing for me. Well it was mind changing and I'm hoping it will be life changing. Drs. Willcox and Suzuki went to the Japanese island of Okinawa and conducted the longest study of the world's longest lived people to try and discover the secrets to their health and happiness - emphasis on the latter because these elders are no addled wheelchair-bound retirement home-sitting oldsters. Unlike most aging populations, these guys and gals stay spry - and hilarious - well past 100 years old.

This is Not a Diet
Every diet these days starts out by telling you it is not a diet. "Lifestyle" is the new word for "diet" because it isn't cool to diet these days, which is a bummer since thin is still definitely in. But the Okinawa Program really isn't a diet. For a book that purports to be about food, about 3/4 of it talks about other lifestyle factors like managing stress, the importance of gardening, building loving relationships, meditation, optimism and exercise among other things. Even their "diet plan" comes with weekly prescriptions to improve your whole person and not just your waistline. For the sake of condensing a very dense 500-ish page book into a 500 word blog post, I am just going to talk about the food. Although I do highly recommend reading the whole book (and no FTC, I was not given this book for free to review. I have no relationship with the authors or any company or anything about anything.).

Nuchi Gusui
One of the benefits of living past the century mark is how much time you have to make up pithy sayings, of which there are many in this book. The first - nuchi gusui - embodies the Okinawan philosophy about food and means to eat your food as if it is a source of healing power. I love this. I spend so much time in my life worrying about food, hating food, feeling guilty about food, loving food too much and just generally thinking about food that if the only thing I accomplish this month is this paradigm shift to thinking of food in terms of its healing powers, then I will consider this month's Experiment a success.

The basic principles of elder eating (that would be eating like the elders, not eating your elders all you Donner Party smart alecks) focus on vegetables, whole grains and fish. (Give it up for the vegaquarians!) With at least 50% of your recommended calories coming from whole grains, low carb this is not. They also recommend only eating 10-20% of your calories from protein, pointing out that every gram of protein you eat forces your body to excrete 1-2 mg of calcium. Fats are capped at about 30% of your daily calories with an emphasis on healthy Omega-3 fats. There is lots of super cool research to back up these ratios that I'm dying to tell you about but, again, brevity is a virtue.

The book lists 9 principles of how to eat like an Okinawan. They are, briefly1. Eat ten vegetables and fruits a day
2. Eat ten whole grains a day
3. Eat three calcium foods a day (note: Okinawans don't really eat dairy which works out well for me as I can't have dairy thanks to the Jelly Bean - who is doing MUCH better on her dairy free milk (oh the irony!) diet thank the stars. Rather calcium-rich foods like leafy greens, soy, seaweed and calcium fortified juices and non-dairy milks are recommended.)
4. Eat three flavonoid foods daily. (note: The book provides a very long list of flavonoid rich foods but the top winners are all kinds of soy foods, vegetables, fruits, tea, beans and lentils.)
5. Eat two Omega-3 foods daily (pretty much just fish, here.)
6. Drink fresh water and tea daily. (note: Per my LDS religion, I will not be drinking tea but will be sticking to just herbals teas and water.)
7. Hara Hachi Bu. Another little Japanese saying that gets thrown around a lot in this book, hara hachi bu means to "eat until you are 80% full." So watch your portion sizes and numbers. The doctors recommend minimizing your animal food consumption, limiting meat (although it should be noted that the Okinawans are not true vegetarians as they will eat meat, although just 1 serving a week) and eggs (7 or less/week). Sweets are recommended to 1-3 servings/week.
8. Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all. Thanks to my religion, I've got this one nailed! True story: I've never had so much as a taste of alcohol my entire life. And I don't feel one bit bad about that.
9. Consider taking vitamins and minerals as a supplement.

The book includes a 4-week "get started" plan that includes menus, recipes and weekly homework assignments designed to get you to leave your Western hurryhurryrushrush mentality behind and bring a little zen into your life. This is what I will be working from this month. I plan to do the mental components as well as the physical!

As I explained yesterday, for the exercise portion of this Experiment we will be doing the second phase of the P90X program.

My Worries
Despite my initial enthusiasm for this plan - you should see the research on this baby! - I do have a few concerns. First, that's a lot of fish to be eating. Do Okinawans not worry about mercury contamination? Second, I don't do well with processed soy (i.e. you don't want to Turbo next to me if I had a soy burger for lunch) and since my thyroid has been hinky in the past I am a little worried about all that soy. Third, only 1-3 sweets a WEEK? Riiiight.

Any of you tried this program? Anyone in on this Experiment with me? (For the record, I don't think I've managed to convince any of the Gym Buddies to try this one with me so I might be reviewing this one solo!)
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