Secrets of the World’s Healthiest People

Lately it seems I have been getting quite a few good life lessons while going to yoga. Today in class we were asked, ‘Do you know where the world’s healthiest people live?’

Staring at Arun, my yoga instructor, like a blank sheet of A4 paper ready to soak ink, I shook my head. Places with happy faces and nature began flashing through my mind. Tibet? Iceland? Switzerland? If he was tricking us, I thought it would be smart to suggest…India? (he is Indian).

The answer lies in an island of the coast of Japan: Okinawa.

Okinawa is a relatively poor and isolated region from the rest of Japan. But it is home of some of the world’s longest-lived people. On the island of 1.3million residents, over 450 people are aged 100 years and above. To put this into perspective, Singapore’s population of 5 million has just over 700 people aged 100 years and above. That is 5x more people in Singapore, but less than 2x the number of centenarians!

But we should not equate longevity with health. What is the point of living a long life riddled with pain, immobility and illness? A more important and interesting note is that Okinawans’ death and disability rates (from diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke) are much lower than most other developed countries. For instance, there are 80% less Okinawans suffering from heart attacks than in the US. And they are also twice as likely to survive the attack.

So, what is the secret to the world’s healthiest people?

Hara Hachi Bu. Okinawans practice hara hachi bu, a Confucian teaching that instructs people to eat to 80% full. They are the only human population in the world that live in a self-imposed cultural habit of a calorie-restricted diet. There is a corresponding Japanese proverb that adds to this teaching “eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor“.

The concept of hara haci bu diet is gaining popularity in Western countries as a great strategy for weight management. The idea is – our stomach takes about 20mins to digest the full and transmit to the brain our level of fullness. So, if we stop eating at 80% fullness and wait 20 minutes, we should feel almost 100% full in our belly. This curbs over-eating.

Go Green, Go Lean. Their diet is simple. They eat from the earth; primarily rice, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, legumes (soy-related products) and fish; with a small amount of lean meat. In fact, one of their local popular dish is Mimiga, made from pig’s ears. Sounds gross but pig’s ears are low in fat, high in calcium. They also eat plenty of tofu, bittergourd and sweet potatoes as part of their daily staple. This model of nutrition and diet actually minimises the production of free radicals (molecules that damage cellular structure causing cancerous cellular activity).

5am-to-8pm. I read somewhere that Okinawans rise at 5am and sleep at 8pm everyday. I asked my mom and in her Chinese philosophical wisdom, she said ‘When the sun rises, the yang (sun) energy is awake. Hence, the natural body begins to move. This is going with the flow of the energy of life, the natural world.’ And they don’t just sit around. Okinawa elders are surprisingly fit. They engage in many daily forms of physical exercise such as tai chi, traditional dance, gardening, farming and walking.

Joy of Aging. Okinawans have a youthful zest for life. There is an ancient Okinawan saying “At 70 you are still a child, at 80 a young man or woman. And if at 90 someone from Heaven invites you over, tell him: ‘Just go away, and come back when I’m 100’.” Elder Okinawans are preoccupied by hobbies and activities. They thrive in a communal and social environment where people mutually take care of each other. Ask an Okinawan his/her age, and they will joyfully tell you! This happy and care-free attitude explains their low levels of stress, resulting in longer life.

Water & Tea. Ever heard the advice of drinking 7 to 8 glasses of water a day? Well, Okinawans drink up to 12 glasses of water a day. This count does not include green tea and other teas they drink everyday.

Now, that’s what I say – super hydration!

This extraordinary phenomena of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan led to the famous Okinawan Centenarian Study (OCS) that began in 1975. To find out more about OCS, click here.

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