The “Super Foods” of the Long Living Okinawans – An Interview with Craig Willcox, PhD


Kirk Hamilton interviews Dr. Craig Willcox on a list of “Super Foods” mentioned in a special edition of National Geographic – “National Geographic Blue Zones: The Science of Living Longer – Special Issue” . This edition reviews several Blue Zones from around the world including Okinawa, and reviews some of the most health promoting foods, which Dr. Willcox’s discusses and demonstrates in the following interview from his research and personal experience living and studying in Okinawa for more than 20 years.

Okinawan “Super Foods”


“Bitter Melon’ or Goya…

Goya has a bitter taste and looks like a warty cucumber. It is low in caloric density and high in nutrient density. When you think of Okinawan vegetables you think of Goya. It has been used as an anti-diabetic food in traditional Okinawan medicine. It is commonly stir fried, frequently with tofu, and is rich in vitamin C which doesn’t get destroyed with stir-frying. The elders consume it regularly and have done so for decades. When you think of the Okinawan diet you think of Goya as the “premier” vegetable. The Okinawan diet is rich in green leafy and orange yellow root vegetables.

Whole Soy Foods…

Whole soy foods are eaten frequently today and in the past in Okinawa. People used to carry tofu in woks on their heads. Soy consumption in Okinawa is probably consumed as much or more than any population in the world. The Okinawans have very low rates of prostate and breast cancer. They have healthy thyroids, low rates of dementia and have very large families. They do not have ill health effects from consuming soy products which have been popularized in the Western media. Tofu is used in stir frys. Miso, a fermented soy product, is used as a flavoring commonly throughout Okinawa. Soy products are listed as non-GMO in markets which is easy to find. Tofu is a large portion of the traditional and current Okinawan diet.

Soy foods are good protein sources. Positive health claims for cardiovascular disease such as lowering cholesterol and triglycerides have been made. Older Okinawan women who consume more soy products have less menopausal symptoms and hot flashes. Soy isoflavones have shown improvement in bone density.

Sweet Potatoes (Imo)…

After World War II 60% of the daily caloric intake of the Okinawan elders came from eating sweet potatoes. Sweet potato trucks would drive around and sell them oven baked, like the  ice cream trucks in the West.

In the older days the Okinawans steamed the sweet potatoes. A common yellow sweet potato is the Satsuma Imo (yellow). Ben Imo is a purple sweet potato famous throughout Okinawa. In Hawaii it is called the “Okinawan Potato.”

Sweet potatoes though sweet have a low to medium score on the glycemic index and are incredibly nutrient rich with free radical scavengers including fiber, B vitamins, folate and vitamin E. They are a very high quality and nutritious carbohydrate and are considered a health food in the West. Sweet potatoes are recommended by the American Heart Association. Sweet potatoes were a staple for the Okinawan elders.

Seaweed…

Seaweed is eaten daily in Okinawa by the elders and a large part of the general population. You can get it in convenient cup like packages for daily consumption, like lunches, from any supermarket. Dr. Willcox’s children eat these seaweed “cups” for lunch with garlic.

The seaweed consumed in this demonstration was a Mozoco brown seaweed and it had a Shikwasa flavor, which is a small green, lemon-like, tangerine, citrus fruit rich in flavonoids native to Okinawa and Taiwan.

Seaweed is very high in fiber, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iodine, carotenoids and xanthophylls, such as astaxanthins which give crustaceans their red color. Astaxanthins are very powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.

In Canada when toasting you say “Salute”, if French speaking, and “Cheers”, if English speaking. In Okinawa you say “Karii!”

Green Tea…

Green tea is consumed throughout Japan. Jasmine is popular in Okinawan. Green tea is very high in antioxidants. Elders drink green tea throughout the day.

Other super foods mentioned in this National Geographic Special Edition are brown rice, garlic and Shitake mushrooms.

Craig Willcox, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Okinawa International University, Okinawa, Japan. His is a gerontologist and co-principle investigator of the Okinawan Centenarian Study. Dr. Willcox has been studying the Okinawan centenarians since 1994 working with Makoto Suzuki, MD, creator of the Okinawan Centenarian Study, and his brother Bradley Willcox, MD a researcher, internist and geriatrician in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Dr. Willcox is also co-author of the best selling books, “The Okinawa Program” (2002) and the the “Okinawa Diet Plan” (2005).

Be and Stay Well,

Kirk

You may call Kirk Hamilton PA-C Monday thru Friday 8-9 a.m. PST at 916-489-4400 for brief medical questions at Health Associates Medical Group. (for information about Health Associates go to KwikerMedical.com)

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