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?
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.
Willcox advocated this approach — indeed, the Okinawan dinner time mantra, hara hachi bu, means “eat until you are 8/10s full” — but Mather is more sceptical.
“If you are a mouse, it’s good news,” he says. “If you are a human there is really no good evidence about dietary restriction.”
In potentially encouraging news for gluttons, he points out that recent large-scale tests on rhesus monkeys have given conflicting results on CR: those at the US’ National Institute on Ageing were healthier, but lived no longer on a CR diet, while those at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center saw a survival rate improvement of 30 percent. CR societies, meanwhile, point out that keeping monkeys in cages is unlikely to tell us anything about human longevity.
So, what have the Guinness World Records’ oldest people eaten? Kimura recommended porridge, miso soup and vegetables. His motto “eat light to live long” certainly chimes with CR thinking. His successor as oldest person in the world, 115-year-old Misao Okawa, reportedly celebrated her new title with her favorite dish of mackerel sushi.
The oldest person ever to have lived, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997, aged 122, was a noted chocoholic who doused her dinner in olive oil and drank red wine daily. The man the Russians once claimed as their oldest, sawmill worker Magomed Labazanov, who died last year, aged an undocumented 122, recommended wild garlic. Britain’s oldest person, 113-year-old Grace Jones of Bermondsey, southeast London, is quoted as preferring “good, English food, never anything frozen” and enjoys a glass of sherry with friends from time to time.
And Britain’s oldest man, 109-year-old Ralph Tarrant smoked until he was 70 and likes a whisky. For the record, his favorite meal is cottage pie.
I knew that there had to be a silver bullet somewhere.
Tokyo’s traditional diet
By Justin McCurry
Michiko Ono and Masaru Nishimori are both in their 80s, have never suffered a serious illness and deal with the Japanese capital’s city heat better than their interviewer.
In the Sugamo district of northern Tokyo the capital’s older people — today braving 30°C heat and energy-sapping humidity — come to shop, eat and pray for even longer lives.
The object of their desire is Sugamo’s famed shio daifuku. The heavy, glutinous patties of pounded rice containing salted, rather than the usual sweetened, bean paste are the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon cup of green tea. The sweets are perhaps the one guilty pleasure that elderly shoppers here will own up to in a diet that is otherwise faultless in its simplicity, not to mention its commendable lack of transfats and refined sugar.
Diet is part of the reason for Japan’s impressive longevity, exemplified by Jiroemon Kimura, the world’s oldest person until his death two weeks ago at the age of 116.
For Michiko Ono, an 82-year-old from Tokyo, accompanying her daughter on a shopping expedition, the day begins with an unusually carbohydrate-heavy meal of white rice with a raw egg cracked into it, an unbuttered bread roll and the first of several cups of green tea.
The Japanese originally drank green tea, or ocha, for strictly medicinal purposes, convinced that it lowered blood pressure, aided digestion and prevented certain cancers. Green tea consumption is in decline among younger Japanese, but the drink still looms large in the diet of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
“I drink about six cups a day,” says Masaru Nishimori, 85, who is sitting in the shade of Koganji temple while he waits for his wife to return from the shops.
In the afternoon, Nishimori will allow himself to veer from his otherwise strict regimen of two modestly sized meals a day with a snack of tea and rice crackers or, if he is feeling particularly reckless, a Japanese-style sweet.
The retired hospital administrator describes himself as practically a vegetarian and credits his perfect health to very rare dalliances with meat, and then only a single stick of grilled yakitori chicken.
“If I could point to one thing that has kept me healthy all these years, it would be the lack of meat in my diet,” he says, although giving up alcohol and smoking at the age of 25 cannot have done him any harm.
Ono, a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker, is not quite as abstemious when it comes to meat. She likes pork, but only lean, thin slices mixed with bean sprouts and other vegetables. Like Nishimori, most of her protein comes from grilled fish: for her, oily arabesque greenling; for him, Pacific saury or sardines.
Aside from rice and green tea, the octogenarians share other perennials in their diets: miso soup, drunk regularly, but in small quantities due to its high salt content, and nimono, a low-calorie dish of vegetables simmered in mirin, soy sauce and cooking sake.
Neither has suffered a serious illness and both deal with the Tokyo heat and humidity with far more poise than I do.
“When I go for my annual checkup, my doctor sends me away with the same words every time: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’” Nishimori says. “The only physical problem I have right now is a slightly crooked front tooth.”
Michiko Ono’s menu
Breakfast (6:30am) Boiled white rice mixed with raw egg; bread roll; green tea.
Lunch (11:30am) Small bowl of rice; nimono vegetables (potato, daikon radish, carrots, taro root); thinly sliced stir-fried pork and bean sprouts; miso soup; green tea.
Dinner (6:30 pm) Sushi with her family; green tea.
Masaru Nishimori’s menu
Breakfast (10am) White rice; miso soup containing Chinese cabbage, sliced onion; green tea; occasionally milk or fruit juice.
No lunch, but an afternoon snack of rice crackers or sweet bean mochi; green tea.