We often associate the greatest longevity with Japan, owing largely to the healthy Japanese diet and lifestyle.
One of the Japanese diets thought to potentially improve health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases is the Okinawa diet.
But, what exactly is the Okinawa diet, and how do you follow it? Is the Okinawa diet a good diet for weight loss?
In this guide, we will discuss what the Okinawa diet is, how to follow it, and diet weight loss and health benefits to help you decide if this meal plan is right for you.
We will look at:
- What Is the Okinawa Diet?
- How Do You Follow the Okinawa Diet?
- What Are the Okinawa Diet Foods?
- What Are the Benefits of the Okinawa Diet?
Let’s get started!
What Is the Okinawa Diet?
The Okinawa diet is a low-calorie, low-fat diet that is high in carbohydrates and is intended to replicate the traditional eating patterns of those living on Okinawa Island in Japan.
Okinawa is located off the coast of Japan between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea. It is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands and belongs to one of the five global regions termed “blue zones.“
People who live in these five blue zones around the world have been found to have significantly longer lifespans—and live these longer lives in good health—relative to the rest of the world’s population and average lifespan worldwide.
Although there can be genetic and environmental factors that play into the exceptionally long lifespan of the Okinawan Japanese people, health experts believe that lifestyle factors, including the traditional Okinawa diet and food choices, play a key role in supporting not only a longer life but a longer, healthier life.The modern Okinawa diet meal plan tends to be a little higher in protein and fat than the true traditional eating patterns of those living on Okinawa island though it is still higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat than many weight loss plans.
However, the Okinawa diet is thought to be very healthy and is low calorie, free of processed foods, and considered to be a lifestyle diet as much as it is an effective weight loss diet.
How Do You Follow the Okinawa Diet?
The Okinawa diet meal plan focuses on eating vegetables and soy, such as tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh, but also includes occasional but small amounts of fish, pork, rice, and noodles.
The Okinawa eating pattern also emphasizes the use of particular spices and herbs that have roots in traditional Chinese medicine for particular health benefits.
For example, the Okinawa diet menu includes frequent use of turmeric and mugwort, which are thought to reduce inflammation.
Alongside following a low-calorie, high-carb, simple diet that is free from all processed foods, the Okinawa diet for weight loss replicates the healthy lifestyle behaviors of the people residing on Okinawa Island.
This includes regular physical activity on a consistent basis and incorporating mindfulness into your daily life—particularly in terms of eating mindfully and presently during your meals rather than eating while doing something else—to support portion control and weight loss.
As the Okinawa diet plan has evolved over time, it has shifted to include a little more protein and fat while decreasing the percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates.
This departure from the original diet plan is thought to have occurred as a way to better match the typical Western Diet macronutrient ratios and turn the Okinawa eating style into more of a weight loss diet than its intended true replication of the traditional Okinawan style of eating as a lifestyle diet.
The modified Okinawa diet weight loss meal plan includes more protein and fat as these macronutrients are thought to increase satiety more than carbs, and the current trend that most people gravitate towards high-protein, low-carb diets to lose weight.
However, the Okinawa diet plan remains a low-calorie, high-carb diet relative to most other weight loss diets and lifestyle diets fashioned after traditional cultural eating patterns, including the Mediterranean diet.
Here is a breakdown of the macro ratios of the Okinawa diet meal plan, including the original weight loss plan and the modern modified weight loss meal plan:
|Macronutrient||Original Okinawa Diet Plan||Modern Okinawa Diet Weight Loss Plan|
|Fat||6%, with 2% saturated fat||28%, with 7% saturated fat|
Note that you can follow either version of this diet, depending on your preferences for macro ratios, health, and weight loss goals, and which diet foods appeal most to you.
What Are the Okinawa Diet Foods?
Most of the Okinawa diet benefits are thought to be attributable to the fact that the food list is composed entirely of whole, natural, unprocessed foods that are nutrient-dense and high in antioxidants.
These foods help combat free radicals and prevent oxidative damage that can lead to premature cellular aging and chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, among others.
Plus, the absence of processed foods and added sugars, industrial oils, artificial sweeteners, chemicals, etc., eliminates inflammatory foods, high-calorie foods that are devoid of nutrients and foods that can alter your appetite, hormonal balance, and food cravings.
While most people associate Japanese cuisine with consuming large amounts of rice, the Okinawa diet includes very little rice.
Instead, this Japanese diet includes sweet potato and other starchy vegetables as the primary source of calories, followed by whole grains, soy, and vegetables that are high in fiber.
Here is a list of the foods that should compose the bulk of your Okinawa diet meal plan:
- Vegetables (58–60% of the calories): Purple and orange sweet potato (including ube sweet potatoes), Chinese okra, cabbage, seaweed, kelp, bamboo shoots, daikon radish, bitter melon, carrots, pumpkin, and green papaya.
- Grains (33% of the calories): Millet primarily, followed by whole wheat rice and noodles (rice noodles, buckwheat noodles, wheat noodles, etc.).
- Soy foods (5%): Tofu, miso, natto, tempeh, and edamame.
- Meat and seafood (1–2%): White fish and seafood, with very occasional pork. Note that organs of these proteins are consumed as well.
- Other (1%): Jasmine tea, spices such as turmeric, and dashi (broth)
Although jasmine tea and spices are listed at 1%, this refers to the caloric contribution of these foods to the diet; because they both contain virtually no calories, they appear to have little emphasis on the diet.
However, they are supposed to be consumed liberally, particularly turmeric, dashi, and jasmine tea; it’s just that these Okinawa diet foods do not provide calories towards the daily caloric intake, so they fall at the bottom of the list.
As can be seen, the traditional Okinawa diet food list is very restrictive and quite different from the foods you would find on a typical Western diet meal plan.
There is very little overlap, and the Okinawa diet food list is quite short for the traditional version of the diet.
Thus, the list of foods to avoid on this diet meal plan is extensive and includes food groups such as the following:
- Meat: Beef, poultry, and any sort of processed meat like bacon, sausage, cold cuts, and pork can only be eaten very occasionally.
- Seafood: Other than white fish and certain seafood, this diet food list doesn’t include seafood like lobster, certain fish, etc.
- Dairy products: Milk, cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese
- Legumes: The diet menu includes soy, but all other legumes, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, etc., are not included
- Nuts and Seeds
- Fruits: Aside from bitter melon, the list of Okinawa diet foods doesn’t include many fruits
- Processed foods: All processed foods are eliminated.
- Other: Chocolate, vegetables not listed, processed soy like vegan chicken nuggets, fried fish, etc.
What Are the Benefits of the Okinawa Diet?
Here are some of the top benefits of this diet:
- It may promote longevity.
- It may reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
- It may aid in weight loss.
- The Okinawa diet meal plan is simple.
Although there are benefits of the Okinawa diet plan for weight loss and health, the diet is also very restrictive, which can impact adherence and make it unappealing, particularly if you do not like the foods on this particular diet menu plan.
The restrictive nature of the Okinawa diet menu plan also eliminates certain food groups that are thought to be healthy, such as nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, and certain vegetables.
It can also be high in sodium if you are eating a lot of miso or dashi broth.
If you have problems regulating your blood sugar, the high-carb original Okinawa diet plan may not work well for you, though the carbs in the Okinawa diet foods are low glycemic and high in fiber, so there should be little insulin response after eating.
To learn more about the distinction between lifespan and healthspan, check out our guide here.