High-carb diet in Okinawa, Japan, may be one key to longevity


Modern diet advice has turned “carb” into a four-letter word, but the recipe for longevity may include lots of carbohydrates if you consider the lifestyle of some of the world’s healthiest super agers.

For centuries, the residents in Okinawa, Japan — a “blue zone” where many people live to 100 and beyond — have thrived on a high-carb diet that some have dubbed the “Okinawan ratio.”

With sweet potatoes serving as their traditional main staple and providing about two-thirds of daily caloric intake, the elder Okinawans consume an estimated 10:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio — a proportion that might be shocking to American dieters who shun carbs and load up on protein. This ratio is “remarkably similar” to one that has been associated with the longest lifespans in animal studies of aging, a 2016 study found.

The spuds so popular among locals are sweet, but low on the glycemic index, said Craig Willcox, co-author of “The Okinawa Program,” in a recent interview. “You get a very high quality carbohydrate — there’s tons of fiber in there,” he noted.

Indeed, sweet potatoes are at the top of The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “10 Best Foods” list.

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The Okinawans also consume lots of green and yellow veggies, such as the bitter melon — a plant that looks like a “warty cucumber” and is high in fiber and vitamin C — and soybean-based foods, like tofu and miso. Small servings of fish, noodles, lean meats, fruit, tea and alcohol complete the diet. Herbs and spices, such as turmeric, are often used instead of salt. The diet is low in calories, yet nutritionally dense, researchers report.

Such nutritional factors appear to play a key role in the long life expectancy of Okinawans, who enjoy an 80 percent lower coronary heart disease death rate and a 40 percent lower cancer mortality rate than the U.S. population, studies have found.

Besides genetic factors, their other healthy lifestyle habits, including regular physical activity, low stress and rich social networks, also play a role in longevity and have been reported across the world’s blue zones, said Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.