Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands located off the coast of Japan between the East China and Philippine Seas.
Okinawa belongs to one of five regions of the world known as blue zones. People who reside in blue zones live exceptionally long, healthy lives compared to the rest of the world’s population ().
The lifespans enjoyed by Okinawans may be explained by several genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. That said, experts believe that one of the strongest influences is diet.
This article explores the Okinawa diet, including its primary foods, health benefits, and possible drawbacks.
In the purest sense, the Okinawa diet refers to the traditional eating patterns of the people living on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Their unique diet and lifestyle are credited with giving them some of the longest lifespans on the planet.
The traditional Okinawa diet is low in calories and fat while high in carbs. It emphasizes vegetables and soy products alongside occasional — and small — amounts of noodles, rice, pork, and fish.
In recent years, the modernization of food production and dietary habits has led to a shift in the macronutrient content of the Okinawa diet. Although still low-calorie and primarily carb-based, it now contains more protein and fat.
The macronutrient breakdown of the Okinawa diet is outlined in this table ():
|Fat||6%, including 2% saturated fat||28%, including 7% saturated fat|
Additionally, Okinawan culture treats food as medicine and utilizes many practices from traditional Chinese medicine. As such, the diet includes herbs and spices known for having health benefits, such as turmeric and mugwort ().
Okinawan lifestyle also emphasizes daily physical activity and mindful eating practices.
The health benefits associated with the traditional Okinawan diet have given rise to a mainstream version intended to promote weight loss. While it encourages intake of nutrient-dense foods, this offshoot is heavily influenced by the Western diet.
Summary The Okinawa diet — which is high in carbs and vegetables — refers to the traditional dietary and lifestyle habits of people who live on the Japanese island of Okinawa. A mainstream version promotes weight loss.
Many of the Okinawa diet’s benefits may be attributed to its rich supply of whole, nutrient-dense, high-antioxidant foods.
Essential nutrients are important for the proper function of your body, while antioxidants protect your body against cellular damage.
Unlike other Japanese, Okinawans consume very little rice. Instead, their main source of calories is the sweet potato, followed by whole grains, legumes, and fiber-rich vegetables.
The staple foods in a traditional Okinawan diet are ():
- Vegetables (58–60%): sweet potato (orange and purple), seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, daikon radish, bitter melon, cabbage, carrots, Chinese okra, pumpkin, and green papaya
- Grains (33%): millet, wheat, rice, and noodles
- Soy foods (5%): tofu, miso, natto, and edamame
- Meat and seafood (1–2%): mostly white fish, seafood, and occasional pork — all cuts, including organs
- Other (1%): alcohol, tea, spices, and dashi (broth)
What’s more, jasmine tea is consumed liberally on this diet, and antioxidant-rich spices like turmeric are common ().
Summary The traditional Okinawa diet is comprised of very nutritious, mostly plant-based foods — especially sweet potatoes. These foods provide a rich supply of antioxidants and fiber.
The traditional Okinawa diet is quite restrictive compared to a modern, Western diet.
Because of Okinawa’s relative isolation and island geography, a wide variety of foods have not been accessible for much of its history.
Thus, to follow this diet, you’ll want to restrict the following groups of foods ():
- Meats: beef, poultry, and processed products like bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs, sausage, and other cured meats
- Animal products: eggs and dairy, including milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt
- Processed foods: refined sugars, grains, breakfast cereals, snacks, and processed cooking oils
- Legumes: most legumes, other than soy beans
- Other foods: most fruit, as well as nuts and seeds
Because the modern, mainstream version of the Okinawa diet is based primarily on calorie content, it allows for more flexibility.
Some of the lower-calorie foods like fruit may be permitted, although most of the higher-calorie foods — such as dairy, nuts, and seeds — are still limited.
Summary The Okinawa diet limits or eliminates several groups of foods, including most fruit, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and refined carbs. The traditional form of the diet is historically restrictive because of Okinawa’s geographic isolation.
The Okinawa diet has a number of health benefits, which are often attributed to its high antioxidant content and high-quality, nutritious foods.
The most notable benefit of the traditional Okinawa diet is its apparent impact on lifespan. Okinawa is home to more centenarians — or people who live to be at least 100 years old — than anywhere else in the world ().
Proponents of the mainstream version of the diet claim that it also promotes longevity, but no substantial research is available to validate these claims.
Many factors influence longevity, including genetics and environment — but lifestyle choices also play a significant role.
High levels of free radicals — or reactive particles that cause stress and cellular damage in your body — may accelerate aging ().
Research suggests that antioxidant-rich foods may help slow the aging process by protecting your cells from free radical damage and reducing inflammation ().
The traditional Okinawa diet is comprised primarily of plant-based foods that offer potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities, which possibly promote a longer lifespan.
The diet’s low-calorie, low-protein, and high-carb foods may also promote longevity.
Animal studies suggest that a calorie-restricted diet made up of more carbs and less protein tends to support a longer lifespan, compared to high-protein Western diets (, ).
More research is needed to better understand how the Okinawa diet may contribute to longevity in humans.
Reduced risk of chronic diseases
Okinawans not only live long lives but also experience fewer chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Diet likely plays a role, as Okinawan foods boast essential nutrients, fiber, and anti-inflammatory compounds while being low in calories, refined sugar, and saturated fats.
In the traditional diet, most calories come from sweet potatoes. Some experts even claim that the sweet potato is one of the healthiest foods you can eat ().
Sweet potatoes provide a healthy dose of fiber and have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that they don’t contribute to sharp rises in blood sugar. They also offer essential nutrients like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A and C ().
What’s more, sweet potatoes and other colorful vegetables frequently consumed on Okinawa contain powerful plant compounds called carotenoids.
Carotenoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and may play a role in preventing heart disease and type 2 diabetes (, ).
The Okinawa diet also supplies relatively high levels of soy.
Research suggests that particular soy-based foods are associated with a reduced risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and certain types of cancer, including breast cancer ().
Summary Many of the foods that make up the traditional Okinawa diet may support a longer lifespan and a reduced risk of chronic illnesses.
Although the Okinawa diet has many benefits, possible drawbacks exist as well.
The traditional Okinawa diet excludes different groups of foods — many of which are quite healthy.
This can make strict adherence to the diet difficult and may limit valuable sources of important nutrients. Moreover, some Okinawan foods may not be accessible depending on your location.
For instance, the diet contains very little fruit, nuts, seeds, and dairy. Collectively, these foods provide an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can boost your health (, , ).
Restricting these food groups may not be necessary — and could be detrimental if you’re not careful to replace missing nutrients.
For this reason, some people prefer the mainstream, weight loss version of the Okinawa diet because it’s more flexible with food choices.
Can be high in sodium
The biggest downside to the Okinawa diet may be its high sodium content.
Some versions of the diet dole out as much as 3,200 mg of sodium per day. This level of sodium intake may not be appropriate for some people — particularly those who have high blood pressure (, ).
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day if you have high blood pressure and 2,300 mg per day if you have normal blood pressure (16).
High sodium intake can increase retention of fluid within blood vessels, leading to increased blood pressure.
Notably, the Okinawa diet tends to be high in potassium, which may offset some of the potential negative effects of high sodium intake. Adequate potassium intake helps your kidneys remove excess fluid, resulting in reduced blood pressure ().
If you’re interested in trying the Okinawa diet but need to limit your sodium intake, try to avoid the foods highest in sodium — such as miso or dashi.
Summary The Okinawa diet has several downsides, including high sodium intake and unnecessary restriction of specific food groups. However, the diet can be modified to lower salt content and incorporate a wider array of foods.
Although the Okinawa diet has many positive health effects, some people may prefer a less restrictive or less carb-heavy diet.
Several aspects of the diet may benefit your health, such as its emphasis on vegetables, fiber, and antioxidant-rich foods coupled with its restrictions on sugar, refined grains, and excess fat.
Lifestyle principles promoted by Okinawan culture — including daily exercise and mindfulness — may also provide measurable health benefits.
That said, these principles can likewise be applied to many other diets and lifestyles.
If you’re unsure whether the Okinawa diet fits your dietary goals, consider talking to your dietitian or healthcare provider to create a plan tailored to your needs.
Summary The Okinawa diet emphasizes many different healthy dietary and lifestyle principles, including high vegetable intake. However, it may be too restrictive or carb-heavy for some individuals.
The Okinawa diet is based on the foods and lifestyle of Okinawa islanders in Japan.
Although its benefits may include a longer lifespan, it can be restrictive and high in sodium.
Still, a modern form of the diet lifts some of these restrictions and is geared toward weight loss. Keep in mind that this modern version has not undergone rigorous scientific study.
If you’re interested in improving your overall health and boosting your longevity, the Okinawa diet could be worth trying out.