Can you eat your way to a century? I am not referring to test cricketers, I’m talking about the Japanese diet. Or the Sardinian diet. Or the Ikarian diet. Or any one of half a dozen regional, usually traditional, ways of eating that have been credited with keeping an improbable proportion of their populations alive beyond the age of 100.
Two weeks ago, the oldest man ever on record, Jiroemon Kimura, from Kyotango near Kyoto, passed away at the age of 116. His death, and the fact that the new record holder, 115-year-old Misao Okawa, is from Osaka, reminded us that the Japanese know a trick or two when it comes to living beyond 100. According to the UN they have the greatest proportion of centenarians in the world — and a great deal of that knowhow concerns diet.
I have long taken an interest in how I might eat myself to old age. I visited the Ryuku Islands, whose population is said to include the largest proportion of centenarians in the country and met with some of them in what is supposedly the village with the oldest demographic in the world, Ogimi, little more than a dirt street lined with small houses, home to more than a dozen centenarians.
Old folk tended vegetable patches or sat on porches watching a funeral procession go by. My family and I dined on rice and tofu, bamboo shoots, seaweed, pickles, small cubes of braised pork belly and a little cake at the local “longevity cafe” beneath flowering dragon fruit plants.
The next day I interviewed US gerontologist, Craig Willcox, who has spent many years investigating Okinawan longevity and co-wrote a book, The Okinawa Program, outlining his findings.
Willcox summarized the benefits of the local diet: “The Okinawans have a low risk of arteriosclerosis and stomach cancer, a very low risk of hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancer. They eat three servings of fish a week, on average — plenty of whole grains, vegetables and soy products too, more tofu and more konbu seaweed than anyone else in the world, as well as squid and octopus, which are rich in taurine — that could lower cholesterol and blood pressure.”
Okinawa’s indigenous vegetables were particularly interesting: their purple sweet potatoes are rich in flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin E and lycopene, and the local bitter cucumbers, or goya, have been shown to lower blood sugar in diabetics. Like most of us, I am familiar with mainstream dietary advice — eat less sugar, salt and saturated fat — but I much prefer the idea of discovering little-known shortcuts to longevity; I’m more of a “silver bullet” kind of guy.
With this in mind, over a lunch of goya chanpuru — bitter cucumber, stir-fried with tofu, egg and pork — in a restaurant that was little more than a tumbledown hut close to his campus, I asked Willcox which elements of the Okinawan diet he had introduced to his life. Turmeric and jasmine tea, he said; both potentially ward off cancer. Needless to say, both now feature in my morning ritual.
Of course, your destiny as a potential centenarian will also be determined by your DNA, upbringing and temperament, as well as how physically active and sociable you are; the climate where you live; the standard of healthcare available; how relaxed you are about timekeeping; whether you take naps and are religious; wars, and so forth. Being born a girl helps: 85 percent of the world’s centenarians are female. Yet it is generally accepted that diet determines around 30 percent of how long we live. Some argue it can add as much as a decade to your life. So, the question then becomes, should we all switch to a diet of tofu, sweet potatoes and squid?