Ogimi Diet

The Ogimi Diet - Ingredents to a Long Life Span

Nutritional characteristics of food items consumed within Okinawa have received considerable attention over the last decade. Emphasis has been placed on the abundance of antioxidants in the food items as well as the low-calorie and high glycemic index of traditional Okinawan food. Perhaps because of recent discoveries on the impact of caloric restriction on longevity of laboratory animals, emphasis has been placed on anti-obesity aspects of the Okinawan diet, based on the assumption that caloric restriction will reduce risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes in human populations . Indeed, post-war Okinawans with a diet of approximately 11% less than the 1949 mean daily caloric intake of 1785 kcal/day would have had a reduced body mass index (BMI). In our ethnobotanical surveys, Ogimi villagers often spoke of nutritional deprivation during and after World War II. The question is whether malnutrition of Okinawans during the war had a positive or deleterious impact. However, as regards nutritional deprivation during war time, the Okinawans were not unique. Cox in an analysis of height and weight measurements of nearly 600,000 German children in World War I found extensive indications of nutritional stress and highly reduced BMI as a result of chronic caloric deficits; however, there is no evidence of increased longevity among the German population, nor is there indication of increased longevity among other populations that have suffered caloric deficits as a result of war. We also note that in our ethnobotanical surveys, contemporary Ogimi villagers, while not obese, do not appear to have a significantly reduced BMI compared to other populations, and nothing approaching the 30–70% reduction in calories required in laboratory animals to increase longevity. While not disputing the advantages of eating a plant-based diet, minimal tobacco use, and regular physical activity for a healthy lifestyle which lower risks of cancer and type II diabetes, we suggest that a more careful consideration of the remarkable emphasis on soy products and marine algae in the Ogimi diet, particularly an analysis of the amino acid content of that diet, can give important clues as to the source of neurological health.

Village of Ogimi unlocked the secret to long life

In the village of Ogimi, located in the rural north of Okinawa’s main island, there’s a small stone marker with a few sentences written in Japanese. Roughly translated, they read: 

“At 80, you are merely a youth. 

At 90, if your ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait...

until you are 100—then, you might consider it.”

That’s not bluster. At the latest count, 15 of Ogimi’s 3,000 villagers are centenarians. One hundred and seventy-one are in their 90s. Even in Japan, which currently has more than 70,000 people aged 100 or over, that’s a remarkable statistic.

An island located south of mainland Japan, Okinawa is one of five places around the world that author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner calls a “blue zone,” where he says people live the longest, happiest lives. Others include Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. Though travel to Okinawa and any blue zone is on hold for many, these towns offer lessons about surviving and thriving during difficult times, such as a pandemic.

“Every longevity culture in the world suffered periods of hardships,” Buettner told TODAY. “They went through wars, famines, the same sorts of stresses that we’re suffering right now, and that’s a lesson for all of us.”

One contributing factor to long life in Ogimi? Community support. Residents enjoy active social lives around events like the annual Ungami Festival.

The Ungami Festival honors the sea god, but also pays tribute to the mountain gods, with priestesses praying for a good harvest.

During the Ungami Festival, women wade into Shioya Bay to welcome the men of the village back from the sea.

Like many older locals in Ogimi, Misako Miyagi enjoys an active life. Misako Miyagi, 88, is “merely a youth,” according to a saying in Ogimi, where there is a high concentration of centenarians.

Residents of sub-tropical Ogimi take advantage of the area’s stunning natural landscape, which includes hiking trails leading to Hiji Falls in the Yanbaru forest.

Ogimi’s high concentration of centenarians is remarkable even in Japan, where more than 70,000 residents are 100 years old or over.

What can Okinawans tell us? Why do Okinawans have a history of long life? That comes down to three main factors—diet, social practices, and genetics—explains Craig Willcox, a professor of public health and gerontology at Okinawa International University and a co-principal investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which has been investigating Okinawan longevity since 1975.

“About two-thirds of longevity is related to diet and way of life, the rest is genetics. Generally speaking, you need the genetic rocket booster if you want to get into the hundreds, not just a good diet,” Willcox says. “We haven’t looked into whether or not Okinawa has a genetic advantage over other parts of Japan, but longevity does run in families here.”

Food as medicine

Genetics aside, diet more easily identifies how locals stand apart. If you go to a typical Okinawa-themed restaurant in Tokyo or a touristy one in Okinawa, the menu is pork-heavy and the alcohol is as strong as it gets in Japan. Awamori, the fiery regional spirit, weighs in at an ABV of 40 percent. But that’s not representative of island habits.

Chouju-zen, or longevity food, in Okinawa, Japan

Chouju-zen, or “longevity food,” is nutritionally dense yet light in calories, which some say contributes to long life.

In terms of preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease, the Okinawan diet gives more than five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and incorporates more heart-healthy fish than meat, says Willcox.

“There’s an Okinawan phrase, nuchi gusui, which can translate as ‘let food be your medicine,’” he notes.

 “The sweet potatoes, bitter melon, carotenoid-rich marine foods like seaweeds, green leafy vegetables, and fruit in the diet are anti-aging as they reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.”

The traditional Okinawan diet is also nutritionally dense, yet calorie poor, and that’s ideal,”  Willcox continues, adding that sweet potato rather than white rice was the staple in Okinawa up until the 1960s.

“If you calorie-restrict mammals in a lab, they live longer pretty much across the board,” he says. “A persistent energy deficit triggers a self-preservation mode—you adapt to convert a higher proportion of food into usable energy and turn on enzymes that promote longevity.”

elderly folks chatting in Yukaruhi Hall, Naha, Okinawa Japan

Residents in Naha, Okinawa, also tend to enjoy long lives filled with social outings.

Looking after each other

Life on the islands is different from much of the rest of Japan. The climate is sub-tropical, with mild winters. Okinawans live amid scenic island beauty and have a reputation for being mellow; the laidback approach to punctuality here is known as “Okinawa time.”

Society is structured so older residents retain purpose, or ikigai, in their lives. Giving some in Ogimi an ikigai is the local craft of weaving basho-fu textiles, where the time-intensive cleaning of fibers and spooling of thread is done by groups of older women. It’s not just a way to remain socially active; it gives the weavers a way to supplement their income and contribute to the village economy. Naturally, the basho-fu center is run by a 98-year-old from a family full of centenarians.

In Ogimi, nature abounds, offering stress-free living amid scenic beauty.

Then there’s the way society stresses mutual support through moai. This Okinawan social mechanism brings groups of people with a shared interest together, allowing them to develop emotional connections. Buettner says that’s a crucial element to living a long life, noting that “loneliness is as bad for you as smoking.”

Takashi Inafuku, head of one of Ogimi’s districts, belongs to two moai—one with a group of school friends and another with former co-workers. “They are places where you can exchange information and communicate with others,” he says. “I think that participating in moai, having a common hobby and releasing stress, can help promote longevity.”

Willcox notes that belonging to multiple moai is common. “I know one man in Ogimi who is in seven,” he says. “And people are loyal to their moai; I met a group of 80-year-old women on an outlying island who had been in a moai together since they were in elementary school. I’m in one, too—our common interest is slow food.”

Rob Goss is a Tokyo-based travel writer whose pre-COVID-19 trips around Japan saw him meditating under a chilly waterfall with yamabushi monks and attempting to interview the cat credited with saving a railway. Follow him on Instagram.