Old and happy

Although they eat rice and meat – that’s why Japanese often live to be 100 years old

Yesterday, 02.06.2024 | 08:10

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Researchers find two factors that keep us healthy and mentally fit into old age

In search of the secret to a long life, nutritionist Malte Rubach came across the inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa. An above-average number of centenarians live here. From them, Rubach learned about special eating habits and regional superfoods.

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  • Watch the video above: Researchers find two factors that keep us healthy and mentally fit into old age

It is an ancient dream of humanity: eternal youth and a life of happiness and health. Whether it is the search for the Holy Grail or the ascent to Mount Olympus, the path to this goal has obviously always been associated with great effort and obstacles.

Even Indiana Jones failed in the end, although he almost managed to drink from the Holy Grail. But when it comes to longevity, the best tips are being announced time and again. One nation seems to have got the hang of it: the Japanese.


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In particular, the somewhat remote island of Okinawa, where people live a little longer than on the main islands and where there is an above-average number of centenarians. But how can that be? Low-carb gurus say white rice makes us age faster and vegan advocates recommend not eating too much animal protein. Once again, a case for research to get to the bottom of the facts. And right on site.

About the expert

Malte Rubach is a nutritionist and author. He wrote his doctoral thesis in the field of coffee research at the Technical University of Munich. He now lives and works in Munich.


Okinawa and the sweet potato myth

After we had taken off straight from Tokyo to Okinawa, the first surprise awaited us. It was when we met a YouTuber couple who are quite well-known in Brazil (channel “Muito Japao”, highly recommended), who have been living in Tokyo for a while and were on a short vacation in Okinawa at the same time.

During our research, they led us straight to a devious Kaiseki restaurant in the capital of Okinawa. That’s what they call restaurants there that serve a complete range of traditional regional dishes. The Japanese version of tapas, so to speak. To our delight, everything on the food menu was on the table – both plant-based and animal-based.

Vegetables, tender pork, beef and chicken, fish and of course: white rice. I particularly remember the soup with a slimy lump in it, which turned out to be a pork knee joint. The cartilage can then be sucked out and is said to provide valuable protein. A regional superfood, so to speak. The Japanese swear by it.

There is no trace of the crazy and monotonous diets made up of miracle tubers, vegetables and fruits that are often sold to us here as superfoods. The Japanese simply eat a little of everything, but not too much of it.

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“The Secret of Healthy Aging” by Malte Rubach

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The animal protein myth

So first of all, the all-clear for all those who have been scared off by low-carb and keto diet gurus. Whether in Okinawa or on the main islands, every Japanese person has a rice cooker at home and they don’t use it to dye eggs. They use it to cook rice.

A no-go for wholefood eaters and a horror scenario when you consider what is on the list of supposed fattening and aging foods in Germany. But that would be bearable if at least bad meat were a rarity. But no, that doesn’t help either and instead of telling it like it is, the myth of the lactose-intolerant Japanese who eat fish and otherwise live a vegetarian lifestyle is taking hold in the western world.

This is how everyone can live to a ripe old age. At this point we began to suspect that many German nutrition guides simply repeat what has already been said 1,000 times elsewhere. The Japanese also love pork. Especially the small Agu pig, which we don’t have here.

Pork as an anti-aging agent?

Kobe beef too, of course. And now comes the surprise: on Okinawa, where people live a little longer on average than on the main islands, meat consumption is 20 percent higher. So it’s strange that with all the obsessive search for the superfood of the 100-year-olds of Okinawa, no one has yet discovered and praised pork as an anti-aging agent, is it?

Is a high proportion of animal protein the secret to a long life? In Japan, as a look at the consumption data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reveals, the supply of animal protein is 1.25 times greater than that of plant protein. In other countries where people live to a particularly old age, 1.5 times more animal protein is eaten than plant protein.

In other words, the opposite of what is so often praised. Of course, this is not a free pass for daily meat feasts, because it is also true that the Japanese still consume more calories from plant-based foods than from animal-based foods. But in principle, we are not so far off the mark here in Europe with a balanced diet that excludes no foods. This also includes rice or meat from time to time.

What really makes you old and happy

So don’t let trends confuse you. By the end of our trip, we had eaten our way through the entire Japanese buffet, except for the fermented soy beans called “natto” that the Japanese like to eat for breakfast. However, the secret of the Japanese’s longevity is not due to any superfood, no: there are lots of superfoods!

There is actually nothing they don’t eat and a balanced diet provides pretty much everything the body needs. And there are two more things to add: the Japanese are world champions at self-control. Everyone has probably come across the behavior of the Japanese in particular, which is perceived here as rather reserved or shy.

For this reason, it is considered downright rude and disrespectful to stuff yourself, especially in company. And especially if the food was prepared and prepared by yourself. “Hara hachi bu” is the name of a Confucian philosophy there, which means something like: “Eat only 80 percent.” So the question remains: is there another reason for the Japanese’s good health?

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Yes, because they are on average much less likely to be overweight, they also have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and other unpleasant things. However, more Japanese people are affected by diabetes than Germans, for example. In these cases, the whole grain version of their favorite grain could possibly be more beneficial. Eating consciously and cooking for yourself seem to have a kind of protective effect.

But please don’t get carried away with your obsession with being slim: On Okinawa, of all places, where people live a little longer, they are a little bit fatter, but not overweight. And last but not least: right here in our beautiful Switzerland, people live almost as long as the Japanese. How can that be, right in the middle of Europe and with our “unhealthy” diet? You see, you could write a whole book about this topic…

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