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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 13, 2004

Mindful approach is pillar of the Okinawa Diet

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

The first thing you need to understand about the Okinawa Diet Plan is that it doesn't mean restricting yourself to boiled pork, purple sweet potatoes and bitter melon, though you may learn to love these Okinawan favorites.

Book release is benefit

Book release and tasting event for "The Okinawa Diet Plan," with appearances by authors Dr. Bradley J. Willcox, D. Craig Willcox and Dr. Makoto Suzuki

  • A benefit for the Hawaii United Okinawa Association
  • 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Hawaii Okinawa Center
  • $40 admission
  • Tickets: 676-5400
What it does mean, explains Bradley Willcox, the Hawai'i-based co-author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Okinawa Diet Plan" (Clarkson Potter, hardback, $24.95), is consciously choosing foods in the way that Okinawans have done for generations.

It means filling your plate with nutrient-dense, calorie-starved foods such as soy, fruits, vegetables, sprouts, broth-based soups, seaweed, konnyaku (a plant jelly), sweet potatoes, lean poultry and fish, beans, grains and yogurt.

It means measured and infrequent consumption of breads, cheese, oil, nuts, meats and sweets.

And it means observing three key principles: kuten gwa ("little portions"), hara hachi bu (eat until 80 percent full only) and nuchi gusui (eating as though food had healing power).

Okinawans are not only one of the longest-lived ethnicities in the world, but also the healthiest, as the book notes. They got there by eating this way, getting plenty of exercise through physical labor, martial arts, dance and walking from place to place, and by maintaining a strong community bond that uplifts the spirit.

Dr. Bradley Willcox of the Pacific Health Research Institute, left, is a Hawai'i-based co-author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Okinawa Diet Plan." Another co-author is his brother D. Craig Willcox, a medical anthropologist and gerontologist now at Okinawa Prefectural University's College of Nursing.
The new book is the "and here's how you do it" sequel to the New York Times bestseller "The Okinawa Program." It has the same three authors: geriatrician Dr. Bradley Willcox of the Pacific Health Research Institute and the University of Hawai'i; his brother D. Craig Willcox, a medical anthropologist and gerontologist now at Okinawa Prefectural University's College of Nursing; and Dr. Makoto Suzuki, a cardiologist and geriatrician at Okinawa International.

All three contributed to the 25-year-study of Okinawan centenarians that yielded the guidelines on which the diet is based.

Bradley Willcox said the conventional view was that lifespan in a population was a matter of genetics. But studies like the Okinawa Centenarian Study have convinced researchers that longevity involves the interplay of environmental factors and what he calls "Mercedes-Benz genes vs. Ford Escort genes."

"If you treat that Ford Escort well," he said, "it could last longer than the Mercedes."

Studies have shown that genes of elderly mice fed a calorie-restricted diet are able to work as though the animal were much younger, and the animal is much less prone to the wear and tear of aging.

Putting food plan in action

When Dr. Bradley Willcox, an expert on healthy aging, makes his own food choices, he keeps it simple:

• Brown is better than white (meaning: whole grains, not refined).

• Plant protein is generally healthier than animal protein.

• Fish is generally a better choice than meat is.

• Eat several small meals a day. He once worked on research project in which people ate the very same foods, but at a different number of meals, and found that the more meals, the lower the blood sugar, the lower the insulin levels and the lower the cholesterol levels.

• Don't overly restrict protein; it's more effective than carbohydrate or fat at staving off hunger.

• And remember what the Okinawans taught you — hara hachi bu (push away from the table when you're 80 percent full).

Willcox recalls one centenarian Okinawan Canadian he was trying to interview for a study. Every time he called, the man's 90-something-year-old wife would report that he wasn't home. Willcox would clench up, thinking perhaps the man was ill or in the hospital, but, no, she'd cheerfully report, "he's fishing."

Many Americans say they have no desire to get old, because their idea of old age is decrepitude, Willcox said. "But when you ask them, 'If you could be as healthy as you are now and live to be a 100-year-old,' all of a sudden, the answer changes."

The book reviews what the studies uncovered about the long lifespan associated with living lean; outlines 10 dietary principles evident in traditional Okinawan eating styles; identifies particular Okinawan "power foods" rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and important trace elements; and offers three different eating patterns (strictly Okinawan, East-West and Western) as well as recipes developed and tested by Sayaka Mitsuhashi (who is also Bradley Willcox's wife).

While the low-carb craze has raised awareness of how foods affect blood sugar, Willcox is interested in getting across two key ideas:

  • Elevated blood sugar is only one part of the equation; the critical issue is how much insulin a food prompts the body to release. (Both too much and too little insulin in the system are dangerous.) He'd like to see an insulin index on food labels.
  • Instead of merely counting calories, learn to understand calorie-density — that is, calories per gram. By building a diet around foods that have less than 1.5 calories per gram — and often less than 1 calorie per gram — Okinawans get enough food to feel satisfied without consuming so many calories that they store fat and gain weight. The foods with the lowest calorie density also seem naturally to have the highest nutritional value.

In order to feel comfortably full, we all need to eat about two to three pounds of food a day, Willcox said. If that two to three pounds is chosen from bulky but low-calorie foods, we eat healthily without getting hungry.

If there's one Okinawan dish that characterizes calorie density, it's broth-based soup. Miso, soba (buckwheat noodle), nankwa nbushi (pumpkin), tsumire (fish croquette), pumpkin (nankwa nbushi, almost a stew), kelp or seafood broth are standards in Okinawa. Served as a first course, they are filling and nutritious and naturally curb hunger for higher-calories entrees.