Adapting the Habits of Centenarians

A grocery store in Okinawa, Japan consists largely of plant-based foods
Genetic factors are undoubtedly an important element in long-living populations. Different studies have shown that genetics play anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the role in determining lifespan in all animals. However, most studies of human populations conclude that genetics determine about one-third of people’s life span. This still means that lifestyle factors play a larger role than genetic factors in influencing how long a person will live.

An Okinawa Centenarian Study that Home Care Assistance is sharing with its caregivers found over 900 verifiable centenarians who not only experience impressively long life spans, but have admirably good health and independence into their eighties, and nineties.


Okinawan elders engage in a practice of hara hachi bu, meaning they eat until they are 80% full. This results in a low-calorie that may promote healthy, longer lives. One of the main demands we make on our bodies is consuming and digesting food, a process that ultimately leads to the production of free radicals, or unstable molecules. By limiting caloric intake, we limit how much food our bodies need to process, thus decreasing the amount of free radicals in our bloodstream.


Eighty percent of the calories in the Okinawan diet is plant-based. They eat a lot of rice, a wide range of vegetables, fruits, sea vegetables (i.e. seaweed), and soy products. Of the 20% of animal-based calories they do consume, it is mostly cold-water fish or stewed meats from which the fat has been rendered. The fats they eat – from fish, soy products, or cold-pressed canola oil – are largely mono-unsaturated or rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Alcohol consumption is moderate and sweets are occasional treats. Green tea, a very healthy choice, is sipped regularly.

There are many things about the Okinawan diet that contribute to the long lives and good health of its elders. First of all, high fiber is a central pillar in many healthful diet guidelines. A high fiber diet helps maintain a sense of fullness and keeps people from overeating. It also aids in proper, efficient, and pain-free digestion. Fiber comes from whole grains and fruits and vegetables. These complex carbohydrates (versus the simple carbohydrates in refined flour and sugar that break down more slowly) help maintain healthy glycemic load so that the pancreas can produce enough insulin to process the spikes in blood sugar levels caused by eating simple carbohydrates. Along with providing fiber, the large amount of fruits and vegetables in the traditional Okinawan diet provide these elders essential minerals and antioxidants, which in turn fight free radicals in their systems.


The Okinawan high-fiber, vegetable-laden diet is low in protein. Most North Americans eat between two and four times as much protein that they need on a daily basis. Much of this protein takes the form of meat and dairy products, which also contain saturated fat. Saturated fat leads to unhealthy cholesterol levels and the production of artery-clogging homocysteine. When a high level of animal product consumption is combined with a lack of folate, an essential mineral found in dark, leafy green vegetables that helps regulate homocysteine levels, the problem compounds on itself. Furthermore, when we eat protein, our bodies also need to process the by-products: ammonia and urea. Both of these toxins are processed through our kidneys, which are dependent on the liver functioning properly. An excessive amount of protein puts pressure on a host of vital organs.


The protein Okinawan elders do eat tends to come from two sources: cold-water fish and soy.

Cold-water fish tends to be fatty, but that fat needs to stay liquid even in cold temperatures. Unlike other animal fats that solidify, the fat in cold-water fish remains free flowing. It is polyunsaturated and has omega-3 fatty acids, but doesn’t have the same artery-clogging properties as saturated fat. Okinawans eat, on average, three servings of fish – mostly cold-water fish like mackerel, salmon, and tuna – a week, causing them to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their systems than North Americans do. Omega-3s are seemingly miracle workers; they are cancer preventing, brain-function-enhancing, and heart-protecting.

Okinawan elders also eat several servings of soy – tofu, miso, and tempeh – products daily. Along with being an excellent source of low-fat protein, soy contains high levels of flavonoids, strong antioxidants that fight free radicals in any system they inhabit. Flavonoids also provide a source of natural, weak estrogens that can block the body’s own estrogen that causes breast and prostate cancer. In short, Okinawans high consumption of soy may explain their remarkable low rates of cancer. It also helps maintain bone density and muscle mass, keeping older Okinawans looking, feeling, and acting younger than Westerners of the same age.


Antioxidants and flavonoids are also found in tea, which Okinawan elders drink regularly in large amounts. Along with consuming limited red meat and almost no dairy products, drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol helps further protect Okinawan elders. Some alcohol, especially when enjoyed with food, has been shown to have some health benefits. Yet alcohol increases the body’s estrogen production, which in turn can increase the possibility of developing hormone-dependent cancers. High alcohol consumption also destroys folates in the systems, which are important players in maintaining heart health, avoiding stroke, and promoting proper brain functioning.

Refined sugar and other sweets have a limited role in the traditional Okinawan diet, helping them avoid blood sugar spikes, stress on the pancreas, empty calories, and unnecessary cravings. Following a principle of hara hachi bu (eating until only 80% full) is much easier when the foods one is eating are wholesome, nutritious, and don’t induce a physical desire to overeat.

 Home Care Assistance offers the highest quality 24/7 live-in home care in the Region of Halton (Oakville, Burlington, Halton Hills, and Milton), Region of Peel (Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon) and Hamilton.

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