According to John Mather, a director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, England, it probably wouldn’t do any harm, but the prevailing scientific evidence weighs more heavily in favor of the Mediterranean diet.
“There is not enough research on people who adopt the Japanese diet in non-Japanese settings,” he says. “It is true Japan holds the [longevity] record at the moment, but if you go back a little it was Sweden or New Zealand.” (The Chinese have referred to Okinawa as the Land of the Immortals for centuries, but this probably does not constitute strong epidemiological evidence.)
Mather, who has worked in nutrition for 40 years, adds that the Nordic diet has made a late surge, with recent research pointing to the benefits of its fish and, more controversially, dairy-rich diet (the latter is an anomaly in longevity diets: the Japanese eat little dairy, and in the Mediterranean diet it is mostly limited to cheese and yoghurt). However, he still prefers to point to the well-documented longevity of the people of the Nuoro province of Sardinia or the Greek island of Ikaria, the latest destination on the fountain-of-youth trail.
Last month it was reported that one in three Ikarians make it past 90 years of age. Among the dietary factors cited are herbal teas rich in antioxidants (including wild mint, good for digestion, and artemisia for blood circulation), gallons of olive oil, plenty of fresh vegetables and little meat or dairy. The US’ longest-lived community, the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, also eat a largely vegetarian diet, and the people of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula — another of the world’s so-called “blue zones,” places identified by longevity researchers where people live to a notably riper age — apparently eat large quantities of beans.
It is surely no coincidence that Ikaria only got its first supermarket three years ago, while, in contrast to the centenarians, the generation of Okinawans born since the arrival of the US airbase and its accompanying fast-food outlets have demonstrably declining health.
“All of these diets work on similar mechanisms,” Mather says. “One hypothesis is that the secret about ageing is to avoid accumulating molecular damage, and eating fish, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and not so much red meat, dairy or sugar may help us to reduce that kind of cellular damage.”
Sadly, the professor is dismissive of silver bullets.
“In the early days we did try to link health with specific foods or nutrients, but now we look more holistically at dietary patterns,” he says.
According to some, those dietary patterns also include calorie restriction (CR) — eating less, even of the good stuff. Ikaria, Okinawa, Sardinia to an extent, and parts of Scandinavia, have all suffered from periods of food shortage and their traditional diets adapted to scarcity. Many now believe that reducing your daily calorific intake from 10 percent to as much as 40 percent below the Western average can stall chronic diseases and boost immunity.