“Blue zones are bullshit. Buettner cherry-picks and ignores areas that have both high consumption of animal products and high life expectancies (Hong Kong, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, … ). He praises Adventists for their health, but doesn’t do the same for Mormons. He misrepresents the Okinawa and Sardinia diets, which actually include much more meat. He also doesn’t mention that the lifespan of Japan has gone up with increased meat intake, while the lifespan of Okinawa has gone down with reduced meat intake. The number of centenarians in blue zones is likely based on birth certificate fraud.”
from summary on plant-based diets
Blue Zones, as described by Dan Buettner, are regions where populations have longer lifespans. There has been much disagreement over the facts, reminiscent of the debates over Ancel Keys’ data. There are, as always, many complicating factors.* Diets in industrialized countries, Blue Zones and otherwise, were transformed over the 20th century and earlier. Accurate data over that period is lacking. Beuttner argued that one of the main factors was a plant-based diet, but he never attempted to separate out this factor from all the others, some of which he also listed. These Blue Zones are (or were) healthier in general, such as moderate caloric intake and greater physical activity but also less tobacco and alcohol. As or more important is the strong social cohesion, trust, and engagement involving tight-knit communities and kin (see Roseto effect and Robert D. Putnam’s comparison between southern and northern Italy from Making Democracy Work) — one might note, as the social is inseparable from the dietary, the Blue Zones were places where people earlier had raised, hunted, gathered, and prepared their own food and did so communally.
Anyway, it’s not hard to find examples outside of the Blue Zones that are plant-based while extremely unhealthy (e.g., India) or meat-based while extremely healthy (e.g., Masai). “Hong Kong has the world’s highest meat consumption, and the highest life expectancy. The people of India eat little meat, and have a high rate of cardiovascular disease” (P. D. Mangan, Meat, Saturated Fat, and Long Life). Consider how impressive it is that Hong Kong residents reach an average lifespan of 85 years on a diet with an average amount of a pound and a half of meat per day, as Dr. Paul Saladino explains it (video & transcript). Also, Hong Kong has the highest average IQ. Meat doesn’t seem to be harming them, as is found in many Asian populations (the problem is that, in Eastern and Western epidemiological studies, the healthy user effect creates confounders that aren’t controlled for; with Asians associating meat with health and Westerners associating meat with disease). Similarly, the French have much more saturated fat in their diet and yet are healthier. This is called the French Paradox.
But these so-called ‘paradoxes’ are so numerous that they seem more like the rule than the exception (Rosetan Paradox, Amish Paradox, Hong Kong Paradox, Swiss or Alpine Paradox, Albanian Paradox, Cuban Paradox, Spanish Paradox, Greek Paradox, Italian Paradox, and more generally the Mediterranean Paradox; Eskimo Paradox, Masai Paradox, South Pacific Paradox, and on and on; or the related Scottish Paradox, similar to the Northern Ireland Paradox and Belfast Paradox, maybe involving vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin found in animal fat; also consider the Israeli Paradox and Indian Paradox where there is bad cardiovascular health outcomes despite little saturated fat). Conventional nutritional studies is sinking under a wave of paradoxes. There are so many exceptions to the supposed rule that we need to rewrite the rules.
The exceptions are even found all across the Blue Zones. One example is Nicoya that, ironically, gets described as ‘plant-based’ in the mainstream media. In a CNN piece, Dab Buettner is quoted as saying about the Nicoyans that, “They eat mostly a plant-based diet, they live in villages where every time they go to work, every time they go to a friend’s house, to church, there’s a walk — so they are nudged into some physical activity which keeps their metabolism at a higher rate” (Robert Howell, Does this beach paradise hold the secret to long life?).Yet, in the same article, that description is proceeded by the words of the Nicoyan Jose Guevara who states in no uncertain terms that he eats an animal-based diet: “I eat, but not as much…. generally beef, a good cut of pork, rice and beans — four meals that we never went without in my house, thank God.” The author of the piece doesn’t even attempt to explain away that contradiction between ideological claim and lived reality. The paradox is so incomprehensible within conventional thought that it can’t even be seen when made explicit.
The conventional-minded ideologues simply know that the diet was plant-based, whatever that is supposed to mean — it certainly doesn’t mean the majority of calories and essential nutrients were coming from plants. It’s amusing that one Okinawan study concluded, “Unexpectedly, we did not find any vegetarians among the centenarians” (H. Shibata et al, Nutrition for the Japanese elderly). Others have come to the same observation when looking across a wide variety of healthy traditional populations: “All traditional diets contained animal products. This was Dr. [Weston A.] Price’s greatest disappointment. He had hoped to find an isolated culture living entirely on plant foods, but had to admit that all traditional people ate animal foods and, in fact, went to considerable trouble and risk to obtain animal foods” (Sally Fallon Morrell, Nourishing Diets). And, most of all, what was highly sought after was animal fat.
The love of fat shouldn’t surprise anyone who has the slightest knowledge about the centrality of saturated fats to healthy functioning for heart, bones, liver, lungs, brain, nervous system, and immune system (Tim Ferriss, 7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat). Were we able to magically remove all saturated fats from the human body, we would quickly die. Instead, if anything, we should be increasing our saturated fat intake back to higher past amounts: “One of these studies, the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology study, also known as PURE, investigated the association of fat and carbohydrate intake on CVD events, such as heart attack and stroke, and mortality. The PURE study included more than 135,000 people between the ages of 35 and 70 from 18 countries and followed them for an average of 7.4 years. Contrary to popular dietary advice, total fat intake was not associated with CVD events and mortality, and in fact, was associated with a lower risk of overall mortality; higher saturated fat intake in particular was associated with a lower risk of stroke. Additionally, higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of death. The researchers wrote: “High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality… Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings ”” (Natural Grocers, Nutrition Bytes: Reducing Cardiovascular Disease: Eat More Saturated Fat, Supplement with Omega-3s, And Optimize Your Vitamin K Intake).
The above counter-examples are simply ignored in the Blue Zones literature, also reminiscent of Ancel Keys’ and his cherry-picking data. The non-paradox paradox is demonstrated simply by looking at the same countries across time. As American health worsened over the past century when saturated fats were replaced with industrial seed oils (observable in the data, though ignored, when Keys began his research), a similar pattern has been found with Okinawans and meat: “Longevity in Japan: Meat up, lifespan up. Except in Okinawa: Meat down, lifespan down” (Tucker Goodrich tweeting about Floyd H. Chilton et al, Precision Nutrition and Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids). For further context, the Japanese immigrants even see health improvements when they adopt an American diet: “In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food” (Uffe Ravnskov, Diet-heart disease hypothesis is wishful thinking).
And one of the animal foods so often overlooked is lard: “In the West, the famous Roseto Penssylvanians also were great consumers of red meat and saturated fat. Like traditional Mediterraneans, they ate more lard than olive oil (olive oil was too expensive for everyday cooking and too much in demand for other uses: fuel, salves, etc). Among long-lived societies, one of the few commonalities was lard, as pigs are adaptable creatures that can be raised almost anywhere” (Eat Beef and Bacon!). The Italian-American Rosetans came from the Mediterranean culture and, having immigrated before the World War era, they were still maintaining the traditional practice of using lard. Back in the Mediterranean, only isolated rural Greek communities maintained this tradition as well. Nutritionist Mary Ruddick, in numerous talks and interviews, has explained how the Blue Zones questionnaire failed to ask Ikarians about their use of lard, not to mention having omitted inquiring about dairy, chicken, goat, sheep, lamb, and all of the other animal foods they’re so fond of. In a conversation with Ruddick, Harry Serpanos, a native Greek who worked in the food business, confirmed the Greek love of meat and lard, cheese and butter (Mary Ruddick Nutritionist and the Blue Zone Myth – Part 1 & Part 2).
“In the Blue Zones, like in Greece and Ikaria,” Serpanos explains in another video, “where people consume a lot of animal foods, they in the questionnaire only had one entry for meat and that was for meat. It translates into Greek kréas which means meat; actually means only beef in Greek. Well, on islands, there’s no cattle. There’s only goats and sheep and stuff like that. Greeks call kréas meat, When somebody says, ‘Have you eaten meat?’, what they mean is, ‘Have you eaten beef?’ Otherwise, we identify the other meats as in their own names. So, it’s a cultural thing, but that’s how culturally insensitive these questionnaires are, that they miss these things. They didn’t even have dairy, an entry for dairy. These are pastoralist people who actually have feta cheese and all sorts of things, and they didn’t even have an entry for that. Here they were asking them, ‘What do you eat?’ And they didn’t even have in their questionnaire an entry for dairy. How crazy is that! But that’s the problem with these foods frequency questionnaires.” (Why 95% of Nutrition Studies SUCK! Is neu5gc or Tmao dangerous?).
By the way, this false characterization began with Ancel Keys study of Greece, which he did during Lent when Catholics were abstaining from eating meat; and one has to suspect that Keys was being intentionally deceptive. This is discussed by Angela A. Stanton who has family in the region (The Mediterranean Diet). Like Serpanos, she has observed the local eating patterns there since childhood, and she agrees that the real traditional Mediterranean diet is far different: “Meat, and lots of it. We need not be reminded too much that prosciutto was already consumed by this part of the world in Celtic times. Why would they have figured out how to store pork legs without refrigeration if people ate lettuces and greens for their meals? Cheeses originate from even an earlier era, unknown in exact origin but it was consumed already widespread by the Roman Empire. So both cheeses and red meat were the staple food in the original Mediterranean way of life, in addition to fatty fish and other seafood, since the Mediterranean is, after all, a region of several countries around and inside the Mediterranean sea.”
This goes back centuries. As Nina Teicholz notes, “saturated fats of every kind were consumed in great quantities. Americans in the nineteenth century ate four to five times more butter than we do today, and at least six times more lard” (The Big Fat Surprise). That was on top of the meat they consumed. In the early 1900s, “On average, Americans ate a phenomenal 147 pounds of meat a year; Italians, by contrast, consumed 24” (Jane Ziegelman, America’s Obsession With Cheap Meat). That is probably a severe underestimation, as data back then was only kept for food shipped across state lines and so excluded food grown at home and at nearby farms, not to mention excluding food that came from hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering. All the way into mid-20th century America, our own maternal family was still mostly eating wild-caught meat procured by the family, despite living in an industrial city.
Many of the populations that lived longer as seen in studies after World War II often were populations that ate higher amounts (and certainly higher quality) of meat and animal fat prior to the war, a not insignificant detail. It’s important not only know what people have been eating when older but also what they were eating during their developmental years and, considering epigenetics, what their parents and grandparents were eating. Weston A. Price studied some of these populations in the pre-war period. In every traditional society he visited, they included animal foods as central to their diets. The ravages of war disrupted many traditional diets, including those later studied in the post-war period by Ancel Keys and others. [As a side note, one of the most popular animal fats in many traditional societies was butter or ghee (refined butter), a point Price elaborated upon. In its rich yellow form from early spring, butter was highly prized, often saved for pregnant women, and sometimes treated as sacred. In populations that have experienced less industrialization of diet, there is still a living, if fading, memory of this: “You must have heard about the men from the times of khareesh (pure ghee). Even when they were old they would not hold their legs for support when standing up. That was the strength of ghee. Even young people these days can’t stand up without holding something for support” (Paksitani village elder, Tribal People Try Cinnamon Rolls For The First Time, Reactistan, Oct 3, 2020).]
Consider again Okinawa, called the ‘Island of Pork’, as a well known example Buettner uses. Many things stand out, besides Okinawa having seen more than its share of war-time violence and death. It was assumed, based on one set of data, that the Okinawans didn’t eat much meat in line with other Asian populations that are, correctly or incorrectly, thought of as gorging on rice, but: “It has been revealed that the consumption level of meat (especially pork) in Japan is higher in the people from Okinawa than that reported by the Japanese National Nutritional survey” (Terue Kawabata et al, Animal food intakes and lipid nutrition in Okinawa prefecture). Still, even this data is limited since, “Periodic festivals (approximately monthly) in which pork and other meats were consumed are not accounted for in this analysis” (Bradley J. Willcox et al, Caloric Restriction, the Traditional Okinawan Diet, and Healthy Aging) — one has to wonder how periodic were those festivals, as one might think of the Medieval Europeans who had festivals about weekly (Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets); in a communal society, it doesn’t require much of an excuse to have a festival or other similar communal events, particularly when that represents the feasting when the most nutritious foods were shared by all. Another source claims Okinawans were likewise festive: “they have a total of 32 festivals a year, more than one every two weeks!” (Mona S. Ottum, Okinawa: Mel Gibson might know what women want but this place has what women need, to thrive even into their second century, that is.).
Furthermore, as far as I know, there is no data prior to the world war era. Most of what we have are historical records that, by the way, indicate higher levels of meat consumption in the late 1800s to early 1900s. As a historical note, a British account of an 1816 visit described the typical livestock among the Okinawans: hogs, milk cows, bulls, goats, and chickens (Captain Basil Hall, An Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-Choo [Ryukyu] Island in the Japan Sea). Writing about the encounter, Arne Rokkum states that the British “had been fed on milk, eggs, meat, and vegetables” (In the Image of the Other: Nineteenth-Century British Voyagers and Okinawans at the Point of Meeting). Otherwise, we can listen to the words of those who had still living memory of the traditional Okinawan diet. An old Okinawan was asked about the secret to longevity and she said, “some say it’s pork” (Japanese Food: Okinawa, documentary) — in fact, one of the most popular traditional foods in Okinawa, originally royal cuisine and considered to help longevity, is rafute made from skin-on pork belly (Tom Downey, A surprising slice of Japan, AFAR, June/July 2013, p. 38). This shouldn’t surprise us, especially not for Okinawa where the pig was highly revered as part of both diet and culture, at the center of their shamanistic religion. It might not be a coincidence that Okinawans ate so much pork. “Dr. Weston A. Price observed, photographed, and wrote about healthy traditional societies from the Polynesian islands that regularly consumed it. In addition, pork was and still is a major component of the diet of exceptionally long lived cultures in Okinawa, Japan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia” (Sarah Pope, Pork: Healthy Meat to Eat or Not?).
It turns out that looking at a population following the most destructive war in world history, not to mention decades of military occupation, might not be representative of what is historically normal to the conditions and lifestyle prior to the war. And the elderly who had such long lives after the war, of course, grew up eating that pre-war diet. What exactly was that traditional diet? “Okinawan cuisine is centered around meat. The most important meat is pork. The Okinawans have a saying, that they use every part of the pig except for the toenails and the squeal. Many of the pork parts eaten are composed almost entirely of fat, such as pork skin, pig ears, and pork belly. All the internal organs of the pig are regularly eaten, such as the liver, kidneys, stomach, and intestines, which are also full of fat. Pork lard is the fat of choice for cooking, and many foods are deep fried in pork lard. Every other part of the pig is also eaten, including more familiar parts like spareribs, pork shoulder, and pork loin. The skin is usually left on and eaten whenever possible. Goat is also favored by Okinawans, though pork is far more common. What is interesting is that much of this goat meat is eaten raw, and there are restaurants that specialize in the preparation of raw goat meat” (Stanley A. Fishman, Eat Fat, Live Long: the Real Food of Okinawa). Did we mention lard yet? “Lard is the traditional cooking fat,” a simple fact stated by Mona S. Ottum, as so many others have observed.
“Our researchers,” she goes on, “suggest that the traditional added fat that Okinawans cook with is canola oil. Really? No. It was and is lard from these pigs. Many traditional recipes reflect this, and a recent study has shown that traditionally Okinawa consumed more protein and more fat than Japan as a whole and Okinawans average lower polyunsaturated fat intake levels, about 4.8% of calories. […] Women need fat in their diet for glucose regulation and cholesterol and saturated for hormone synthesis. Everyone needs a more traditional balance between O-3 and O-6 fatty acids and arachidonic acid for a healthy immune system. This newer research is still being overshadowed by old “low fat diet” studies that lump all fat in the same “bad bucket”. Research has recently found that elder Okinawan women in the second highest fat consumption quintile have the lowest mortality and highest cognitive function, at 28% of calories” (Okinawa: Mel Gibson might know what women want but this place has what women need, to thrive even into their second century, that is.; referenced study: Kenji Wakai et al, Dietary intakes of fat and total mortality among Japanese populations with a low fat intake: the Japan Collaborative Cohort (JACC) Study).
Apparently, the Okinawan diet has always been and still is centered on animal foods, as attested by those who have firsthand experience: “I was born in Okinawa and go back once in awhile, and I have never seen a day there without a piece of fatty pork belly. When I first read that thing about Okinawan diet being “low fat”, I was surprised and confused because I had never heard of an Okinawan cuisine that was particularly low in fat, except raw vegetables or fruits. You are totally right that Okinawans love meat, and from almost any part. I was often fed this soup that has weird chunks of meat that looks wrinkly and thin and must be part of the inner organs like intestines or something. On a diet like this, my great grandmother had passed away at about age 102 or 112 (forgot which)” (comment by Fran; Stan Bleszynski, Beware of Okinawa Diet scam!). So far, no quote or comment has been discovered where a native Okinawan, young or old, speaks of the diet of most Okinawans as lacking in pork and lard.
In their book Perfect Health Diet, Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet mention that, “The gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira described traditional Okinawan food as ‘very, very greasy.’” That greasiness was not from canola oil, much less olive oil. After listing all of the foods they liked to fry in lard, the authors argued that, “On these foods Okinawans had the longest life expectancy in the world, with numerous centenarians. The age-adjusted death rate from heart disease was 82 percent lower than in the United States, from cancer 27 percent lower, and from all causes 36 percent lower. Hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast, ovarian, and colon cancer, were 50 to 80 percent less frequent in Okinawa than in the United States. Centenarians had the highest intake of milk, meat, fish, eggs, fat, and oils. Unfortunately, Okinawans recently began to eat vegetable oils, grains, and industrially prepared foods. Okinawans now have widespread obesity, rising rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and shortening life span.” It was specifically the animal foods that were associated with greater healthspan and lifespan.
Sadly, Dan Buettner has marketed the diets of the Blue Zones as plant-based. In an interview with Josh Dean, he asserted that, “It’s very clear that the more meat you eat, the earlier you die. Cut out as much meat as you can. […] You’re better off with a plant-based diet; that’s indisputable” (The Longevity Expedition). No, it’s not indisputable in the slightest. But he does make one somewhat good point: “Longevity is much more a function of what you don’t eat than what you do eat. The only proven way to slow down aging in mammals is caloric restrictions.” Well, it’s not the only proven way nor even necessarily the most effective method. Research done with caloric restriction shows there is only benefit with one-meal-a-day (OMAD), not spread out in multiple meals. So, it appears the benefit of caloric restriction, in many studies, is not actually about the calories but about the length of time during which one does not eat (i.e., intermittent fasting, a more common practice on a low-carb diet). Still, he didn’t entirely dismiss the value of animal foods, specifically not pork, if he only acknowledges it reluctantly — as quoted by Sarah Wilson: “Pork is interesting. It’s an anomaly and I would not have guessed it, but I can’t deny it. One Okinawan scientist studied this. His theory, and I’m not sure I agree with it completely, is that because pig is the most genetically similar to humans, there’s something in the pork protein that helps repair arterial damage. What he cites is that in America we die of heart disease and the Japanese tend to die of strokes, but in Okinawa they have fewer strokes. This is part of the reason they live longer. The doctor theorizes that it’s because they eat more pork than any other prefecture of Japan, and pork protein serves almost as caulking” (How to Live to 100: eat pork; also see: Brad Kearns, The Surprising Secret To Centenarians’ Longevity).
When looking back at their traditional diet, what we know is that Okinawans did not previously consume large amounts of grains, added sugars, seed oils, or highly processed foods; and they still eat less rice than other Japanese: “Before 1949 the Okinawans ate NO Wheat and little rice” (Julianne Taylor, The Okinawan secret to health and longevity – no wheat?). Also, similar to the Mediterranean people (another population studied after the devastation of WWII) who didn’t use lots of olive oil until recently, Okinawans traditionally cooked everything in lard that would have come from nutrient-dense pigs, the fat being filled with fat-soluble vitamins and other key nutrients. Even deserts were made with lard. It’s fascinating that, although living near the water with so much access to seafood, Okinawans have remained so heavily reliant on animal foods and, most of all, animal fat. This is a common feature of other coastal traditional people, from Polynesians to Mediterraneans, who all generously use lard. Yet, this is not the story told of the Mediterranean diet. Even Wikipedia that tends to repeat conventional reviews admits to this fact: “In contrast to the dietary recommendation, olive oil is not the staple fat in much of the Mediterranean basin: in northern and central Italy, lard and butter are commonly used in cooking, and olive oil is reserved for dressing salads and cooked vegetables; in both North Africa and the Middle East, sheep’s tail fat and rendered butter (samna) are traditional staple fats.“ (Mediterranean diet); 44. Massimo Alberini, Giorgio Mistretta, Guida all’Italia gastronomica; 45. Richard Tapper & Sami Zubaida, A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. This is what the Blue Zones literature gets wrong about the common lard predilection of many of the long-lived populations, in and outside of the Mediterranean.
Dr. Michael Eades has spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean and has often written about the real Mediterranean diet. After a fairly typical ‘Tuscan feast‘, he described his meal and put it in context. “As you can see from the photos and the description, this dinner was anything but high-carb, low-fat. And it didn’t contain much olive oil, the supposed backbone of the Mediterranean diet. In fact, the salad pictured above didn’t even have olive oil in the vinaigrette. Most of the calories in this particular meal came from pork fat, which is the real fatty backbone of the true Mediterranean diet, not olive oil. I once shared a podium at a conference on diet held in Chicago about 15 years ago with Coleman Andrews, the erstwhile editor of Saveur magazine, now at Gourmet, I think. During his presentation on the composition of the real Mediterranean diet, he pointed out that the primary fat used in the Mediterranean was lard. Olive oil, he said, was too valuable as an export crop. After our Tuscan dinner, I have to say that I agree with him. Remember this the next time someone tells you to eat a Mediterranean diet for good health. And by all means, do eat a real Mediterranean diet, not what passes for a Mediterranean diet in the minds of most nutritionists. Remember the wise words of Emeril Lagasse: Pork fat rules!” As he explains, olive oil is more expensive than lard — true today as it was true in the past, although for slightly different reasons. Olive oil is now a major export, but in the past it was needed locally as a lamp oil. Why waste olive oil on food when lard is so plentiful. Pigs are raised more for their fat than their meat.
Also, consider that most of the fat in lard is monounsaturated, to be specific oleic acid, the same kind of fat that is deemed healthy in olive oil. “According to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okanawa is a monounsaturated fat-lard. Although often called a “saturated fat,” lard is 50 percent monounsaturated fat (including small amounts of health-producing antimicrobial palmitoleic acid), 40 percent saturated fat and 10 percent polyunsaturated. Taira also reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day ” (Wikipedia, Longevity in Okinawa). Sally Fallon Morell concludes, “What’s clear is that the real Okinawan longevity diet is an embarrassment to modern diet gurus. The diet was and is greasy and good, with the largest proportion of calories coming from pork and pork fat, and many additional calories from fish; those who reach old age eat more animal protein and fat than those who don’t” (True Blue Zones: Okinawa). It is this monounsaturated fat, whether from olive oil or lard, that is supposed to be good for decreasing ‘bad cholesterol’ and improving cardiovascular health. A fair amount of monounsaturated fat is likewise found in other animal foods. Furthermore, if animals are pasture-raised or wild-caught as traditionally done in Okinawa, they’ll also contain omega-3s that, besides being anti-inflammatory, are similarly beneficial in reducing LDL and cardiovascular risk. Simply raising animals with organic feed about doubles their omega-3 content (Carina Storrs, Organic meats, milk could have more of good-for-you fats, study finds).
As a relevant side note, studies show that the association of saturated fat to ill health is actually mediated by omega-3s, as they are needed for the utilization of saturated fats. The relationship between the two is reciprocal with saturated fat playing a key role in immune functioning, among much else (Amy R. Weatherill et al, Saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids reciprocally modulate dendritic cell functions mediated through TLR4). So, the seeming problems of excess saturated fat are, instead, a problem of deficient omega-3s. As saturated fat was scapegoated for what sugar did, it also got blamed for what omega-3s did not do because they were missing. It’s true that, without omega-3s, saturated fats are associated with such health conditions as insulin resistance. But, since that link disappears once sufficient omega-3s are included, is it really the fault of saturated fat? It’s similar, if not exactly the same, to blaming omega-6s also for the problems of omega-3 deficiency or insufficiency, as omega-6s when in balance are likewise essential to health; albeit the introduction of industrial seed oils really threw the modern diet out of whack. Arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 found in animal foods, gets a bad reputation and is likely what many have in mind when they warn against red meat in particular and an animal-based diet in general; a complete misunderstanding, of course (Kelsey Lorencz, 8 Foods High in Arachidonic Acid That Are Good for You). Besides from pork, Okinawans and other Asians would also be getting AA from seaweed.
Why all the paranoia of lurking dangers hiding in the flesh of animals? It’s true that AA can be inflammatory; but, then again, it can also be anti-inflammatory since it’s role is the regulation of the inflammatory response, in turning it on and off. Chris Masterjohn goes so far as to consider AA, along with the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), as one of only two essential fatty acids (Precious Yet Perilous) — as explained by Chris Kresser: “Excess consumption of linoleate (omega-6 fatty acid) from vegetable oil will interfere with the production of DHA , while an excess of EPA from fish oil will interfere with the production and utilization of AA. So, by consuming an abundance of the oils which are today heavily promoted as “essential”—vegetable oil and fish oil—we are actually reducing the amount of the fatty acids that are truly essential—DHA & AA” (Essential Fatty Acids: Not so Essential after All; also see: Hau D. Le et al, Docosahexaenoic Acid and Arachidonic Acid Prevent Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency and Hepatic Steatosis). In a traditional diet, all of these necessary fatty acids are always found together in animal foods, and found in the exact same amounts and ratio needed in human physiology. The body cannot function without these fats. So, why would we seek to eliminate them from our diet?
It’s not only the fat, though. As with most traditional populations, Okinawans ate all parts of the animal, including the nutritious organ meats and the skin, ears, eyes, brains, ligaments etc (by the way, organ meats are full of dietary cholesterol); along with using whatever was leftover such as bones, connective tissue, and odds and ends to make broths and soup (two popular dishes being pigs feet soup pig face soup). By the way, besides pork, they also ate goat meat. There would have been a health benefit from their eating some of their meat raw (e.g., goat) or fermented (e.g., fish), as some nutrients are destroyed in cooking. The small amounts of soy that Okinawans ate in the past was mostly tofu fermented for several months, and fermentation is one of those healthy preparation techniques widely used in traditional societies. They do eat some unfermented tofu as well, but it is eaten sparingly and typically fried in lard or used to be. Fatty animal foods and animal fat were the main source of their calories; along with the main source of their essential, semi-essential, and conditionally essential nutrients. Besides everything being cooked in lard, and in spite of a decline in meat consumption, present Okinawans on average eat around 300 grams of meat and fish — as described by someone who grew up in Okinawa:
“Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu. While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa. Indeed, all those stirfries of bittermelon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil. I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island. Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes. Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably source of vitamin D.
“The diet of Okinawa also includes considerably more animal products and meat – usually in the form of pork – than that of the mainland Japanese or even the Chinese. Goat and chicken play a lesser, but still important, role in Okinawan cuisine. Okinawans average about 100 grams or one modest portion of meat per person per day. Animal foods are important on Okinawa and, like all food, play a role in the population’s general health, well-being and longevity. Fish plays an important role in the cooking of Okinawa as well. Seafoods eaten are various and numerous – with Okinawans averaging about 200 grams of fish per day. Octopus, minnows, skipjack, mahi, crab and even sea urchin are enjoyed liberally. […] Sea urchin or uni, is a very potent source of fat soluble vitamins including vitamins A and E and it is also a good source of phosphorus, vitamin B12, folate, riboflavin and even vitamin C. Uni, like many of Okinawa’s foods, is extremely nutrient-dense. It is also remarkably fatty with over half of its calories coming from fat – particularly omega-3 fatty acids. […] fish and shellfish, are nutrient-dense – providing a rich source of trace minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron as well as vitamin K and folate” (Jenny McGruther, hara hachi bu: lessons from okinawa).
On top of that, Okinawans are known for having eaten a calorie-restricted diet with smaller meals, only eating to 80% of fullness (making one suspect that they were often so calorie-restricted as to be effectively low-carb and hence ketogenic, since ketosis creates a physiological state of decreased hunger and cravings where people are less likely to overeat). They also had fewer meals and no constant snacking all day long — that is to say intermittent fasting which also promotes ketosis, along with autophagy: “Okinawan centenarians only had 2 daily meals” (E.C. Holston & B. Callen, Exploring Centenarians’ Perception of Nutrition). And calorie-restriction, because of decimation of the food system during the war and military occupation following, was common in the post-war period when their diet was first studied in greater detail:
- “When diet was analysed it was found they had an exceptionally high level of nutrients, yet ate less calories -40% less calories than the North Americans and 20% less than the average Japanese.” (Julianne Taylor, The Okinawan secret to health and longevity – no wheat?)
- “Caloric restriction (CR) or dietary restriction (DR) are helpful tools in understanding age and diet related health complications. In the 1972 Japan National Nutrition Survey it was determined that Okinawan adults consumed 83% of what Japanese adults did and that Okinawan children consumed 62% of what Japanese children consumed. ” (Wikipedia, Longevity in Okinawa)
- “Between a sample from Okinawa where life expectancies at birth and 65 were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture where the life expectancies were much shorter, intakes of calcium, iron and vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, and the proportion of energy from proteins and fats were significantly higher in Okinawa than in Akita. Conversely, intakes of carbohydrates and salt were lower in Okinawa than in Akita. ” (Wikipedia, Okinawa diet)
So, according to this eating pattern, the healthy carbs they did eat from sweet potatoes would still have been smaller amounts (and lower glycemic index) in comparison to the standard American diet (SAD) and also would have been part of a far more nutritious set of food (I bet those sweet potatoes were often cooked in lard or slathered in butter; and, yes, Okinawans ate more dairy because of the US military presence that dominated their diet for such an extended period). High carb and low carb are relative constructs. Every traditional society was low carb compared to the modern industrialized diet. In some studies I’ve seen, the ‘low-carb’ group included a diet that had an amount of carbs that was at the high end of the range for hunter-gatherer diets. Any diet lower carb than SAD is going to be healthier. And that is pretty much what you see even with the mainstream diets in how they intentionally or unintentionally end up decreasing starch and sugar intake, whether direct restriction or calorie counting or portion control.
As an impoverished and isolated population living in a constricted island community, sweet potatoes were an important part of their diet, as it was an important part of pig feed. But carbs were limited for the simple reason that large farming wasn’t possible. In arguing for a plant-based diet, one could say that more of the food came from gardens and gathering. “Based on the warm and humid climate of the Kuroshio Current, a food circulation system can be broadened by the supply of scarce carbohydrates and protein resources through the combination of perennial green vegetables and abundant seaweed” (Sanghee Lee & Hyekyung Hyun, Pork food culture and sustainability on islands along the Kuroshio Current). But in terms of calories, energy-dense and nutrient-dense animal foods were absolutely necessary for survival. A smaller amount of fatty meat provides far more calories and essential nutrients than large amounts of vegetables. Also, the nutrients are far more bioavailable in animal foods than in plant foods, although fermentation improves bioavailability. Okinawan longevity was dependent on pork, along with fish and some goat.
This is what made the war era such a dramatic change. Even before the American military arrived, the colonial Japanese were mistreating the Okinawans who once were an independent people. With the Japanese slaughter of the Okinawans’ pigs to feed the military, the sweet potatoes that used to feed the pigs then was increased as part of the human diet to replace the loss of animal foods. This is similar to how the first dependable surplus yields of grains, specifically wheat, were initially fed to cattle; prior to wheat becoming common in the Western diet (e.g., white bread was only affordable and widely available starting in the early-to-mid-20th century), whereas before that wheat like sugar was rich people’s food. One is also reminded of how the originally meat-eating Irish, under 19th century British colonization, were forced onto a white potato diet. Both white potatoes and sweet potatoes are only native to the Americas and were introduced elsewhere during the modern period of colonial trade.
In Okinawa, sweet potatoes were introduced by the 1600s, but pigs had already been established there in the centuries prior. “For example, in the 8th year of the reign of King Sejo 세조 in 1462, it was recorded that Yang and others from Jeju said “there are no animals on Okinawa, only pigs.” From this record, it could be said that pigs were already familiar to people on Okinawa. Similar statements about pig breeding were given by Kim and others. Nonetheless, it appeared that pork was not widely available until at least the 17th century. Since the 18th century, pork has been documented as the main food accompanying funerals and other important ceremonies attended by ordinary people. This finding would mean that pig farming was on the rise in the 18th century. With an increase in the cultivation of sweet potatoes (used for pig feed in the 19th and early-20th centuries), it was rare to find households on Okinawa that did not breed pigs (Munetaka, 2005)” (Sanghee Lee & Hyekyung Hyun, Pork food culture and sustainability on islands along the Kuroshio Current: resource circulation and ecological communities on Okinawa and Jeju).
In further entrenching the pig culture, the pivotal change was that, in feeding the pigs sweet potatoes, they could raise more pigs in order to eat more pork and lard. As every farmer knows, starchy and sugary carbs are fattening, and every farmer wants to fatten their animals. And animals like pigs can produce more fat than meat. That is why everything was cooked in lard. With such bounty of nutritious animal fat, it’s not going to be thrown away; and that is a thousand times more true on an island that long had trouble feeding it’s population. Sweet potatoes were a perfect food for pigs because little else grew well there; and, despite this, they were still forced to feed the pigs human excrement as well. Pigs will eat anything, the very reason they have been so prized as a staple of the human diet. This period of modern development is where many get confused — for example, Mona S. Ottum states that, “First record of food intake puts the purple sweet potato at 93% by weight of all food consumed in Okinawa in 1879. In 1949 post-war, the entire population of Okinawa was under stress of starvation again and the purple sweet potato was 67% by weight of food consumed” (Okinawa: Mel Gibson might know what women want but this place has what women need, to thrive even into their second century, that is.). No, in 1879, the total intake of sweet potatoes combined both the human diet and pig feed, the majority to the latter.
The post-war diet of sweet potatoes and few pig-related foods was a starvation diet, possibly never before seen in Okinawan history because it was likely the first time that nearly all of the pigs were wiped out. Such starchy plant foods weren’t part of the much earlier diet. And so this wasn’t the high levels of nutrition that originally had made the population so healthy. Joseph Everett showed the data that puts pork consumption in historical context (Vegan vs. Omnivore: The Debate (Breakdown of Kahn & Kresser)): “Historically, the pig population of Okinawa was very high, reaching 110,000 pigs – that is 1 pig for every 6 people before World War 2. Tragically, the devastation of the war cut the Okinawan population almost in half and destroyed most of their food supply. The pork population was cut down almost 90% to just 14,000. You may have heard that the Okinawan has nearly 70% of calories coming from purple sweet potato and just 3% from saturated fat. But the survey that found this was conducted in 1949, when people were still struggling to avoid starvation in the aftermath of the war. However, just 14 years after the war, the Okinawan pig population surpassed its previous high reaching 142,000 in 1960.”
For older Japanese, “Pork was the meat that appeared regularly on the dinner table” (Makiko Ito, Pig in Japan: the nation’s most popular meat). Following the example of the non-Buddhist Okinawans, other Japanese began increasing their pork consumption in the 1800s: “During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the consumption of meat was actively encouraged by the central government — a total about-face from what had preceded it for hundreds of years. The new leaders, looking to the West and seeing how their diet was centered on meat, considered that the Japanese people too should eat a lot of meat and dairy products, to become strong and tall like the Europeans and Americans. To eat meat was a patriotic duty. Pork was a lot cheaper to produce than beef, so its consumption increased rapidly.”
The most popular form of pork in the early 1900s was tonkatsu, by the way originally fried in animal fat according to an 1895 cookbook (butter according to that recipe but probably lard before that early period of Westernization). “Several dedicated tonkatsu restaurants cropped up around the 1920s to ’40s, with even more opening in the ’50s and ’60s, after World War II — the big boom period for tonkatsu. […] During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a piece of tonkatsu, which could be bought freshly cooked from the butcher, became the ultimate affordable payday treat for the poor working class. The position of tonkatsu as everyman food was firmly established.” This pork-heavy diet was what most Japanese were eating prior to World War II, but it wouldn’t survive the conflict when food deprivation came to afflict the population long afterwards.
The arrival of American soldiers entrenched the change in foodways — in Contemporary Colonialism, Riri Shibata writes that, “For the first few years after the war, in Okinawa, people were dependent on American military for food, clothing, shelter, and work. Unlike the vast majority of postwar Japanese, whose principal contact with American soldiers had been restricted to public spaces, those on the island of Okinawa virtually lived with the American occupiers until their release from the camps. They ate Spam, biscuits, dried ice cream, and other food products. Provisions were not always sufficient, and Okinawans were restricted from moving freely about their island until March 1947, two years after the American Troops first set foot on Okinawa.” If anything was healthy at all about the diet during and right after the war, it was the caloric restriction. Combined with a highly nutritious diet in their pre-war childhoods and young adulthood, the post-war caloric restriction arguably would have had a healthy impact on the older Okinawans. Yet this same caloric restriction, in its malnourishment, would have been devastating to the health of anyone who grew up during the war and post-war period. Indeed, later generations don’t show any evidence of similar health and long life.
The long-lived Okinawans were first studied in the 1950s and so the centenarians and near-centenarians were born and grew up in the mid-19th century — that was a vastly different world. Even centenarians studied right now in the third century of this new century would’ve spent their childhoods before World War II. The traditional diet of those pre-war Okinawans is similar to the pre-industrial and pre-urban diet of Americans during the 19th century: “It is also false that Western meat consumption is on a dramatic rise from all times in the past. It fell from ~220g per capita per day in 1800, almost entirely in red meat, hit its lowest point in the early 20th century around 100, and only reached the 1800 level in the 1990’s, due to a massive rise in poultry. Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries ate dramatically more red meat than today” (Cleistheknees, Reddit comment; sources: Nina Teicholz, How Americans Got Red Meat Wrong; & Carrie R. Daniel et al, Trends in meat consumption in the USA). In general, most humans for most of human existence ate immense amounts of animal foods.
Consider a study on Okinawan and Japanese centenarians in the decades following World War II: “The present paper examines the relationship of nutritional status to further life expectancy and health status in the Japanese elderly based on 3 epidemiological studies. 1. Nutrient intakes in 94 Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese. 2. High intakes of milk and fats and oils had favorable effects on 10-year (1976-1986) survivorship in 422 urban residents aged 69-71. The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the 10 years. 3. Nutrient intakes were compared, based on 24-hour dietary records, between a sample from Okinawa Prefecture where life expectancies at birth and 65 were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture where the life expectancies were much shorter. Intakes of Ca, Fe, vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and the proportion of energy from proteins and fats were significantly higher in the former than in the latter. Intakes of carbohydrates and NaCl were lower” (H. Shibata et al, Nutrition for the Japanese elderly). Besides all of the population data (e.g., meat-loving and long-lived Hong Kong residents), plenty of Asian research similar to the above has shown a strong link between higher meat intake and better health outcomes (Research On Meat And Health).
So, a temporary decrease of animal foods during the war period and shortly after didn’t cause any harm for older Okinawans; and the intake of animal foods apparently began to quickly rebound, whether or not it ever returned to the higher levels of the past. This was part of other changes as well. Everything about Okinawan society had been devastated by war and transformed by occupation. Their once strong communities were eliminated when the population was put into camps. The earlier Okinawans experienced what is known as the Roseto effect. Their traditional values were the opposite of individualistic prestige and competitive materialism. This was seen in the importance of pigs to their communities where sharing of meat was a communal activity, as part of a gift economy. Some of the Roseto effect has carried over, at least in the elderly who experienced it earlier in their lives and so have continued to benefit from this influence that shaped them. Elderly Okinawans are healthier and remain more physically active, including group exercises that have long been part of their culture. Yet despite worsening health outcomes, the younger generations in Okinawa are better off than in many other places that have been far worse hit by industrialization and modernization. Okinawan culture remains a positive force — in The Mountain of Youth, Jocelyn Catenacci writes:
“Okinawans have a very community-focused, low-stress culture with the vast majority of the population being native-born (27). Okinawans tend to live either with or close to their family and participate in daily familial activities together. This family-oriented culture has greatly contributed to the prosperous lives in this subculture due to their being a lack of apathy and social isolation (28).
“Although Okinawans are ranked low within the national Japanese social hierarchy, there is a lack of social hierarchy within Okinawa itself. Women in Okinawa are revered as spiritual leaders, and in their culture, respect increases with age, unlike North America where abuse of the elderly occurs. Despite examples of ageism in many high-income countries, many Okinawans value their own disability-free longevity as respect in Okinawa increases with age. Also, Okinawans practice ancestor worship which shows a respect for history and past generations which helps them form a sense of identity, ethnic self-esteem, belonging and great kinship networks (29).
“Okinawans claim that all of these social aspects of their culture help reduce stress, therefore having a buffering effect on this population’s health, improving the resilience of their immune systems. Some potential negative health consequences of prolonged stress include depression, anxiety, arthritis, cancer, asthma and many other stress-induced illnesses (30). The Okinawan culture focuses on achieving a minimal stress environment and succeeds with drastically lower average stress levels compared to those living in metropolitan areas of Japan and their international counterparts.”
Much research shows the importance of the social. Maybe that was always the key component of health. It’s not necessarily about how much meat or plants people are eating or, if it is, the argument might go the other way around. The loss of traditional community has also meant the loss of traditional foodways involving healthy animal foods. The quality of food eaten has declined with, for example, processed meats having largely replaced the nose-to-tail eating pattern — along with a drastic rise in starches and carbs. This observation is emphasized by how American health declined from the 19th century to the 20th century, during which strong communities were breaking apart — this was in combination with a decrease of saturated fat and an increase of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Similar to the Okinawans, early Americans stopped eating nose-to-tail and lost their access to pasture-raised animals and wild-caught game. What followed these social and dietary changes in both societies? The same predictable pattern that has been seen in all other societies. It is the spread of the diseases of civilization. Trying to go back to some romanticized fantasy of plant-based societies is not going to save us.
Let me finish with some thoughts about why we continually come to such ideological-driven misunderstandings. We seem to never learn from the mistakes of the past. The entire field of diet and nutrition was sent on a goose-chase in trying to blame everything on meat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt. Decades of effort and incalculable amounts of money were wasted, not to mention the untold numbers of lives harmed and shortened. To read the science journalism of Gary Taubes and Nina Teicholz is to learn of one of the greatest tragedies in public health. So much of what Ancel Keys got wrong is simply being repeated and with no better evidence than was available back then. This is apparent in much of the Blue Zone and related research, including the Mediterranean diet. On a related note, take a newer study of elderly Mediterraneans that found more meat correlated to lower mortality rates (Tomás Meroño et al, Animal protein intake is inversely associated with mortality in older adults: the InCHIANTI study); but, admittedly, it is low quality evidence of epidemiology and food questionnaires; if no more low quality than the evidence used to support our present failed dietary recommendations.
So many researchers began with a conclusion and sought evidence to confirm it. This is seen in what data was recorded and what was ignored. There was a heavy focus on the now well known scapegoats of dietary sin, all conforming to mainstream dietary ideology of American public policy. In looking at what is available about Okinawans, it’s hard to find data on how much increase over the past century there was in added sugar and artificial sweeteners, starchy carbs such as rice and grains, industrial vegetable oils and other sources high in omega-6 fatty acids, imported foods and heavily processed foods, GMO and chemically-sprayed produce grown out of season and picked when not ripe, food additives such as preservatives and flavor enhancers (e.g., MSG), etc. And it’s hard to find data on how much the meat they’ve been eating switched from nutrient-dense, organic, and traditionally-raised or wild-caught fatty animal foods such as fish, organ meats, bone broths, etc to nutrient-deficient, factory-farmed, grain-fed, industrially-processed, and chemically-laden lean meats.
Also, saying that their ‘fat’ increased says little at all because, as the Okinawan diet was Americanized, they followed the American pattern of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio getting out of whack: “During earlier times, animal fats were mainly used for cooking in Okinawa, but there was a rapid shift to the use of vegetable oils during the period of U.S.A. rule” (Clara Felix, I Think They Forgave Me). Most of the studies in Okinawa seem to follow the focus of studies done in the United States and so one would presume they would fall under the same biases and failures. Ancel Keys tried to blame everything on meat and saturated fat, even though his own data when re-analyzed showed that sugar was the stronger correlation to heart disease. It didn’t even make sense at the time since saturated fat had been on the decline among Americans prior to the rise of metabolic syndrome involving obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Along with sugar and grains, what shot up during this growing disease epidemic was consumption of industrial seed oils and shortening; and their intake keeps on rising.
Consider the recent paper that I quoted above, Contemporary Colonialism: Okinawa Experiences of U.S. Military Occupation, written by someone of Japanese ethnicity, Riri Shibata. In a lengthy discussion about the changes in the Okinawan diet, sugar is barely mentioned in passing without any presentation or analysis of data, and worse still the author doesn’t even bother to mention the words ‘carbohydrates’, ‘rice’, ‘grains’, ‘wheat’, or ‘bread’ — the very foods that we know have become central to the Okinawan diet since the decades of US military occupation. Yet there is the predictable obsession over meat and fat without even considering the quality and nutrient-density of the animal foods. What doesn’t come up at all is the fact that, “Lard-not vegetable oil-is used in cooking” (Sally Fallon Morrell & Mary G. Enig, Food in China: Variety and Monotony).
This misguided bias began with Beuttner’s book on the Blue Zones. “I believe the reason why Buettner got it wrong was not because of a deliberate attempt to deceive, but more likely its another example of what happens when we look at the world through the current medical dietary dogma. After all, if you believe that meat and animal fats are bad for you, then by default you wouldn’t list them as contributors to longevity. Which is a shame because people might continue to be misinformed” (Justin Smith, Did Dan Buettner make a Mistake with his Blue Zones?). It has been conventional wisdom among mainstream experts since Ancel Keys defeated his enemies a half century ago and enforced his views onto public policy and academic research. When people simply know something is absolutely true without question, they tend to confirm what they’re looking for. It’s human nature and, for that reason, it’s all the more reason to remain skeptical. And such skepticism brings us to inconvenient information.
Okinawan society used to be centered around pigs, not just in terms of diet but in terms of culture and religion. Their main house deity lived in the pigsty below the house. It’s not that they ate massive amounts of pork, but they regularly ate animal foods with pork specifically being central to what made their healthy diet possible on such an otherwise barren volcanic island. Before World War II, almost every Okinawan family raised pigs. The butchering, sharing, and eating pork was integral to the social fabric and included in every family celebration and public ritual. The pig was basically the totem animal for Okinawan society. They loved their pork and still do. But when pork wasn’t available, they’d gladly eat goat, fish, or whatever they could hunt or trap. How did that once healthy animal-based diet get portrayed in such naively simplified terms as plant-based?
* * *
*8/7/19 – For all the analysis many have done on Blue Zones, there might be a simpler explanation. The data is in error. There was never a strong reason to assume the data was accurate in the first place, but the story told was so compelling that most people, including experts, ignored such details. P. D. Mangan wrote that, “Supercentenarians and the oldest-old are concentrated into regions with no birth certificates and short lifespans. Suggests that “Blue Zones” are fictitious, and a result of fraud and/or error.” And John Andrews wrote that, “Shocker. Places where really old people live are less likely to be healthy, and more likely to…have low IQ and not keep accurate birth records.”
See Saul Justin Newman’s study, Supercentenarians and the oldest-old are concentrated into regions with no birth certificates and short lifespans; pre-print, not yet peer-reviewed. Dr. Tro Kalayjian offers some quotes from the paper. One piece, Dr. Saul Newman: debunking the ‘Blue Zone’ longevity myth, quotes him as saying, “So when you have these claims of all these, you know, thousands of people living past the age of 100, or 105, you have to be extremely dubious about that. Because if history is any guide, there’s fraud and error all the time and this seems to be the primary cause of these records.”
Newman offers biting commentary: “So Okinawa, for an example, is world famous for having this extreme longevity. But if you look at the statistics from within Japan, they have the shortest average lifespan, all the provinces of Japan, they also have the highest murder rate. They have one of the worst economies. And of course, one of the most heavily bombed during the war. So, there’s this string of problems with this idea that this would be the longest lived population. You know, why not Tokyo where everyone’s even more wealthy, and they have better records?” That is quoted in Dr. Saul Newman: debunking the ‘Blue Zone’ longevity myth. In another quote, he also offered criticism about focusing on rich communities as Blue Zones:
“Yes, they have an average lifespan of 86 and 83. But so do all 125 million citizens of Japan, all of the citizens of Hong Kong, all of the citizens of Singapore. Now, nobody has gone around and said that those places have some sort of special zone that makes people live long in these regions,” Dr Newman says. There’s absolutely nothing new about that. It’s just you’re just going to a rich part of town and saying gee, people live a long time in the rich part of town. They had the entire US to pick from and they picked one town, if we did the equivalent in London, and went to the rich part of London, I would expect the average life expectancy to be 10 years higher than what it is in Loma Linda.”
Based on Newman’s research, Dr. Daniel Stickler concludes: “So, if we want to recreate a “blue zone” we need to make sure there is relative poverty, below average life-span, lots of smoking and drinking, and very little education. Granted, social networks, nutritional patterns, and activity levels are strong influences on longevity but I think it is now time to step away from the drive to recreate the “blue zone” utopia. It may be based on fraud and misinterpretation of the data” (Could “Blue Zone” Theory Be Completely Wrong?)
* * *
Eat Fat, Live Long—the Real Food of Okinawa
by Stanley A. Fishman
The Real Okinawan Food Is Consistent with the Research of Dr. Weston A. Price
Dr. Weston A. Price spent 10 years studying the diets of the last healthy peoples on Earth. These peoples were free of the chronic diseases that plague the modern world. Dr. Price did not just read studies, he actually traveled right to the people he studied and observed them personally. Dr. Price found a number of similarities in the diets of these people:
- They ate a large amount of animal fat.
- They ate a substantial amount of meat and/or seafood.
- They ate a large amount of organ meats regularly.
- They ate some of their meat and/or seafood raw.
- They ate many kinds of natural foods, unrefined and unprocessed.
- They ate a number of naturally fermented foods.
- They ate at least a small amount of seafood, fermented if they could not get it fresh.
All of these factors are present in the real Okinawan food.
- The Okinawans eat a great deal of pork fat.
- The Okinawans eat a substantial amount of pork and goat.
- The Okinawans eat organ meats regularly.
- The Okinawans eat raw goat meat.
- The Okinawans eat most of their food unrefined and unprocessed.
- The Okinawans eat a number of naturally fermented foods.
- The Okinawans regularly eat a small amount of fermented seafood.
In summary, the diet of the Okinawans is very similar to the diet of the healthy peoples studied by Dr. Price. The longevity of the Okinawan people is further evidence of the benefits of the diet developed by Dr. Price.
I just finished reading The Blue Zones and enjoyed it very much, but I was wondering about something that was not addressed in great detail. All of the diets discussed other than the Adventists (Sardinia, Okinawa and Nicoya) include lard, which I understand is actually used in significant quantities in some or all of those places. You describe (Nicoyan) Don Faustino getting multiple 2-liter bottles filled with lard at the market. Does he do this every week, and if so, what is he using all of that lard for? In Nicoya and Sardinia, eggs and dairy appear to play a large role in the daily diet. Your quote from Philip Wagner indicates that the Nicoyans were eating eggs three times a day (sometimes fried in lard), in addition to some kind of milk curd. So my questions are:
1. Why did you choose to emphasize the vegetarian angle so heavily and de-emphasize the consumption of eggs, dairy and lard? Was this decision based solely on the Adventist health study?
2. Did you record in detail the dietary contribution from the various foods consumed, including macronutrient ratios (by caloric value)? If so, where could I fund that data? Is the data broken down in detail by types of fatty acids?
3. Do you believe the type of fat consumed plays a significant role in health and longevity? (e.g. lard from wild or pastured animals vs. modern processed oils like canola, etc.)? Do you recommend lard as a cooking fat and if not, why not?
A Thumbs Down Book Review
by Tim Boyd
In Sardinia, the author caught up with Tonino, a very active, robust seventy-five-year-old “giant” who was literally up to his elbows in a cow he was slaughtering at their first meeting. Mr. Buettner mentions Toku from Okinawa who was 105 years old and liked to fish every day. In Costa Rica he met Rafael Angel Leon Leon who was one hundred years old, harvested his own corn and beans and kept some livestock. These examples of hale and hearty meat-eating elders notwithstanding, The Blue Zones maintains a distinctly vegetarian bias to its interpretations of longevity strategies. […]
The Blue Zones is mostly story-telling and speculation. It is hardly scientifically rigorous. There is not a single footnote. There is the usual self-serving comparison of health-conscious vegetarians to health-oblivious omnivores. This book is nothing to stick my thumb up about. While veganism isn’t explicitly promoted, the message is that the more rabbit food you eat, the longer you will live. If you are eating like that, you are not living longer. It just seems like it.
by Elizabeth David
(1954 Cook Book and History of Sardinian foods)
The Art of Roasting Meat in Sardinia
‘The Sardinians, but chiefly the shepherds, and, generally speaking, all the country people, excel in the art of roasting meat on the spit and of cooking it beneath the flames. ‘For the first operation, they use a long wooden or iron spit which they turn, crouched meanwhile close to a fierce fire; for the second, they dig a hole in the ground. After having levelled and cleaned it, and lined it with branches and leaves, they place therein the meat, even the entire animal as it is killed, without gutting it; they then cover it with a light layer of soil, upon which they burn a big fire for several hours.
‘This fashion of cooking meat owes its origin to the necessity of the cattle and sheep thieves to hide their booty while cooking it. Thus more than once the owner of a stolen animal going out to search for it has sat round the fire under which his sheep was cooking, without dreaming that the people who had invited him to join them were precisely those who had robbed him.
‘I have been assured that not only are whole sheep and pigs cooked in this fashion, but calves and mules, and that nothing can equal the excellence of their flesh when so prepared.
‘It is even claimed that for festive occasions the mountain shepherds sometimes take a sucking pig, enclose it in a gutted sheep, which in its turn is put into a calf, and then cook the whole in the manner described; the different meats, they say, cook evenly and acquire an exquisite flavour.’(Chevalier Albert de la Marmora, Voyage en Sardaigne 1819–1825, 1826.)
This Sardinian brigand cooking is very reminiscent of the original klephti or robber cooking of Greece, where the system of flavouring meat or game with aromatic herbs, wrapping it in paper and cooking it slowly in an oven has come to be generally known as klephti cooking. I am told that for a country festa in Sardinia a whole sheep or kid is still occasionally cooked in an underground oven, wrapped in myrtle branches, which give the meat a marvellous flavour. (See Porceddù, p. 202 .)
Check up the people living in the mountains of Sardinia. They live the longest and eat mostly animals and animal driven foods. In the Blue Zones book you’ll find that Sardinians eat plants. This book is sheer obvervational propaganda and no scientist should rely on it.
I wouldn’t say they eat mostly animal food, but indeed, they eat much more animal food than usually said, and much more animal fat.
According to Gianni Pes (university of Sassari), centenarians are also found preferentially in populations of herders, not in plant growers.
Working with a sardinian..he laughed when I said they supposedly eat lots of plants! Lots of sheep, pecorino cheese and other meat be said
‘Blue Zones’ is no more than a bad observational study. 1. Done by people with pro-plants agenda 2. Longevity led by old people – Traditional knowledge applied in neutralizing anti-nutrients in plant foods 3. Less prevalence of toxic PUFA 4. Community – less stress. and lots more.
I [wish] someone would write a book called ‘Mountainous Blue Zones’. This is where the real long longevity people live. And since mountains are more suitable to herding than plants growing they feed mainly on animals and their products.
There was a documentary on bbc way back in 2001 , called “how to live to 101” it traced some of the blue zones . If you ever watch it , it basically makes out the Wilcox brothers as frauds and shows a family in A village in Sardinia actually living on nothing but mutton and chees
There was another program where a geneticist tried to find the longevity gene among the mountains’ Sardinians and one of the sneak behind him and say in joking-defiance tone something like “we eat fat and meat”.
Classic when the ovacca family guy was carving up the lamb he said “vegetarian? The only vegetarians are the sheep!”
The Blue Zones Solutions by Dan Buettner
by Julia Ross (another version on the author’s website)
As in The Blue Zones, his earlier paean to the world’s traditional diets and lifestyles, author Buettner’s new book begins with detailed descriptions of centenarians preparing their indigenous cuisines. He finishes off these introductory tales with a description of a regional Costa Rican diet filled with eggs, cheese, meat and lard, which he dubs “the best longevity diet in the world.”
Then Buettner turns to how we’re to adapt this, and his other model eating practices, into our current lives. At this point he suddenly presents us with a twenty-first century pesco-vegan regimen that is the opposite of the traditional food intake that he has just described in loving detail. He wants us to fast every twenty-four hours by eating only during an eight-hour period each day. He wants us to eat almost no meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products at any time. Aside from small amounts of olive oil, added fats are not even mentioned, except to be warned against.
Instead, Buettner urges us to eat fish daily, something that, historically, only coastal peoples ever did. Apparently we are to disregard the toxic load of mercury and other contaminants that he confusingly points out are now found in seafood. We’re also to eat two handfuls of nuts and seeds daily, an overload of calories high in often-damaged and always-inflammatory omega-6 oils, when we are already consuming as much as twenty times the ideal amounts. In fact, only one or two handfuls of soaked fresh nuts and seeds twice a week gives us the small, safe amounts of these essential fatty acids that we may need.
All of this constitutes a shocking misrepresentation of traditional eating. At this time of modern dietary peril, when a faithful account could have been so helpful, Buettner instead further contributes to the precipitous demise of our nutritional heritage. Why? In the service of the increasingly trendy yet unsubstantiated notion that a vegan-type diet is the ultimate in healthy eating.
The Role of Meat in the Diet: Nutrition Misinformation and Misbelief
by William T. Jarvis
Living to Be 100.
Segerberg46 wrote about 1200 people who lived to be 100. His data came mostly from interviews conducted by the Social Security Administration, while some was garnered from gerontological studies. No patterns emerged that can serve as guides, but there is an absence of healthful living zealots.
Attributions: Edward Ocker, Albany, NY: “I like fat. I always did like the fat meat. I guess I’d have no trouble up north eating what they call blubber. Most people don’t eat the fat. I do. I eat fat.”(p.143) Leslie Carpenter, Rochester, IN, gave as his reason for longevity: “I think because I eat a lot of fat pork. I love fat pork.” A recent media reports on oldster, Mary Clark, 106, stated that she claims her daily
dose of fries keeps her healthy.
National Geographic48 proclaimed that it was going to reveal “the secrets of living longer” on the cover of its November, 2005, issue. However, a careful reading found no such revelations. Rather, readers were treated to superficial descriptions of the lives of oldsters in Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), and Loma Linda, California. In my opinion, the article would have been more useful if it had pointed out contradictions in the lifestyles of these populations. Adventists are teetotalers while Sardinians drink red wine. Adventists eschew pork while both the Okinawans and Sardinians savor the swine. According to a History Channel presentation on Spam, Okinawans cultivated a taste for the pork shoulder-ham product after contact with the U.S. military following the Occupation and are the highest per capita eaters of Spam in the world. Further, Adventist longevity is based upon an aggressive public relations effort by the Loma Linda University School of Public Health which compares the health and longevity of Adventists to the general population rather than a comparable group of nonsmoking, middle-class, well-educated, socially connected people with above average access to health care that does not follow the Adventist lifestyle. When asked why Adventists’ lifestyle instead of Mormons have been so extensively studied when Mormons fared a bit better in earlier studies, Adventist Health Study project director David Snowden informed me that the reason was that the Adventist population is more diverse in its eating habits than Mormons who all eat a lot of meat.
Animal source foods in ethical, sustainable & healthy diets
A dynamic white paper – #ALEPH2020
from The ALEPH2020 initiative (Animal source foods and Livestock: Ethics, Planet, and Human health)
Episode 14 | Indigenous Diets, Fat Intake and the Blue Zones With Sally Fallon Morell
by Avishek Saha
Food in China: Variety and Monotony
by Sally Fallon Morell and Mary G. Enig
And what do Okinawans eat? The main meat of the diet is pork, and not the lean cuts only. Okinawan cuisine, according to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, “is very healthy-and very, very greasy,” in a 1996 article that appeared in Health Magazine.19 And the whole pig is eaten-everything from “tails to nails.” Local menus offer boiled pigs feet, entrail soup and shredded ears. Pork is cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, kelp and small amounts of sugar, then sliced and chopped up for stir fry dishes. Okinawans eat about 100 grams of meat per day-compared to 70 in Japan and just over 20 in China-and at least an equal amount of fish, for a total of about 200 grams per day, compared to 280 grams per person per day of meat and fish in America. Lard-not vegetable oil-is used in cooking. Okinawans also eat plenty of fibrous root crops such as taro and sweet potatoes. They consume rice and noodles, but not as the main component of the diet. They eat a variety of vegetables such as carrots, white radish, cabbage and greens, both fresh and pickled. Bland tofu is part of the diet, consumed in traditional ways, but on the whole Okinawan cuisine is spicy. Pork dishes are flavored with a mixture of ginger and brown sugar, with chili oil and with “the wicked bite of bitter melon.”
[19. Deborah Franklyn, “Take a Lesson from the People of Okinawa,” Health, September 1996, pp 57-63]
How Much Soy Do Okinawans Eat?
by Kaayla Daniel
Do Okinawans consume a lot of soy? Do the Okinawans enjoy extraordinary longevity because of soy in their diets? Because the “average” consumption of soy foods in Asia is not as high as people once thought, many soy proponents now like to point to soy consumption in Okinawa. […]
How much soy Okinawans eat, however, is not at all clear in these books. The authors say that the Okinawans eat “60 to 120 grams per day of soy protein,” which means, according to the books’ context, soy foods eaten as a whole food protein source. But the authors also include a table that lists total legume consumption (including soy) in the amounts of about 75 grams per day for the years 1949 and 1993. On yet another page, we learn that people eat an average of three ounces of soy products per day, mostly tofu and miso. And then we read that the Okinawans eat two servings of soy, but each serving is only one ounce. As for soy making up 12 percent of the Okinawan diet, Robbins pulled that figure from a pie chart in which the 12 percent piece represents flavonoid-rich foods, not soy alone. Will the correct figures please stand up?
There are other credibility problems with the Okinawa Centenarian Study, at least as interpreted in the author’s popular books. In 2001, Dr. Suzuki reported in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition that “monounsaturates” were the principal fatty acids in the Okinawan diet. In the popular books, this was translated into a recommendation for canola oil, a genetically modified version of rapeseed oil developed in Canada that could not possibly have become a staple of anyone’s diet before the 1980s. According to gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, the most common cooking fat used traditionally in Okanawa is a very different monounsaturated fat-lard. Although often called a “saturated fat,” lard is 50 percent monounsaturated fat (including small amounts of health-producing antimicrobial palmitoleic acid), 40 percent saturated fat and 10 percent polyunsaturated. Taira also reports that healthy and vigorous Okinawans eat 100 grams each of pork and fish each day. Thus, the diet of the long-lived Okinawans is actually very different from the kind of soy-rich vegan diet that Robbins recommends.
How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate
by Sally Fallon Morell
(a version of the following can be found here)
[In his book The Blue Zones, Dan] Buettner subtitles his chapter on the Okinawan Blue Zone “Sunshine, Spirituality, and Sweet Potatoes,” but what he reveals in the very first paragraph is that the favorite Okinawan dish is Spam-and-vegetable stir-fry. Readers, please note: Spam is a processed meat that is full of fat.
From a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service report we learn that the “Annual average consumption of luncheon meat per person in the prefecture [of Okinawa] is about 14 cans (340 g per can)/year. It is even more impressive when you learn that Okinawa, with only 1.1 percent of the total Japanese population, is responsible for over 90 percent of the total luncheon meat consumption in Japan. The local menu using luncheon meat ranges widely from stir-fried vegetables to rice balls. ‘SPAM omusubi’… is particularly popular.” The Okinawans also eat more hamburger than people in Japan. […]
Buettner does admit that in Okinawa, people eat almost every part of the pig—unlike the mainland Japanese, who get more protein from fish. But he insists that the Okinawans eat pork only for festivals. His conclusion about the Okinawan diet (presumably based on what he found from using the National Institute of Aging survey, although he doesn’t say): “Older Okinawans have eaten a plant-based diet most of their lives. Their meals of stir-fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, and tofu are high in nutrients and low in calories.… While centenarian Okinawans do eat some pork, it is traditionally reserved only for infrequent ceremonial occasions and taken only in small amounts.” He mentions bitter melon as a source of antioxidants and compounds that lower blood sugar.
Of course, life was hard during World War II. “We had famines, times when people starved to death,” says one of Buettner’s informants. “Even when times were good, all we ate was imo (sweet potato) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But they also ate fish and pork from the family pig, and it’s obvious that this starvation diet was a temporary phenomenon and not a reason to eat a diet centered on sweet potatoes.
What have other surveys revealed about the diets of long-lived Okinawans? In 1992 scientists at the Department of Community Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, Japan, published a paper 6 that examined the relationship of nutritional status to further life expectancy and health status in the Japanese elderly. It was based on three epidemiological studies. In the first, nutrient intakes in ninety-four Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese. The second demonstrated that high intakes of milk (!) and fats and oils had favorable effects on ten-year survivorship in 422 urban residents aged sixty-nine to seventy-one. The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the ten years. In the third study, nutrient intakes were compared between a sample from Okinawa Prefecture where life expectancies at birth and sixty-five were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture (on the mainland) where the life expectancies were much shorter. It found that the proportion of energy from proteins and fats was significantly higher in Okinawa than in the Japanese mainland.
According to the paper, “The food intake pattern in Okinawa has been different from that in other regions of Japan. The people there have never been influenced by Buddhism. Hence, there has been no taboo regarding eating habits. Eating meat was not stigmatized, and consumption of pork and goat was historically high… The intake of meat was higher in Okinawa… On the other hand, the intake of fish was lower… Intake of NaCl was lower… Deep colored vegetables were taken more in Okinawa… These characteristics of dietary status are thought to be among the crucial factors which convey longevity and good health to the elderly in Okinawa Prefecture… Unexpectedly, we did not find any vegetarians among the centenarians” [emphasis added].
From another source, 7 we learn that:
Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu [eat until you are 80 percent full]. While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa. Indeed, all those stir fries of bitter melon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil. I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island. Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes. Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably good source of vitamin D.
The diet of Okinawa also includes considerably more animal products and meat—usually in the form of pork—than that of the mainland Japanese or even the Chinese. Goat and chicken play a lesser, but still important, role in Okinawan cuisine. Okinawans average about 100 grams or one modest portion of meat per person per day. Animal foods are important on Okinawa and, like all food, play a role in the population’s general health, well-being and longevity. Fish plays an important role in the cooking of Okinawa as well. Seafoods eaten are various and numerous—with Okinawans averaging about 200 grams of fish per day.
Buettner implies that the Okinawans do not eat much fish, but in fact, they eat quite a lot, just not as much as Japanese mainlanders.
The Okinawan diet became a subject of interest after the publication of a 1996 article in Health Magazine about the work of gerontologist Kazuhiko Taira, 8 who described the Okinawan diet as “very healthy—and very, very greasy.” The whole pig is eaten, he noted, everything from “tails to nails.” Local menus offer boiled pig’s feet, entrail soup and shredded ears. Pork is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, kelp and small amounts of sugar, then sliced or chopped for stir-fry dishes. Okinawans eat about 100 grams of meat per day—compared to 70 grams in Japan and just over 20 grams in China—and at least an equal amount of fish, for a total of about 200 grams per day, compared to 280 grams per person per day of meat and fish in America. Lard—not vegetable oil—is used in cooking. […]
What’s clear is that the real Okinawan longevity diet is an embarrassment to modern diet gurus. The diet was and is greasy and good, with the largest proportion of calories coming from pork and pork fat, and many additional calories from fish; those who reach old age eat more animal protein and fat than those who don’t. Maybe that’s what gives the Okinawans the attitudes that Buettner so admires, “an affable smugness” that makes it easy to “enjoy today’s simple pleasures.”
Hara Hachi Bu: Lessons from Okinawa
by Jenny McGruther
Traditional Foods of Okinawa
The traditional foods of Okinawa are misunderstood. After researchers on aging pegged Okinawa as a hot spot of long life, writers examined the lifestyle and eating habits of Okinawan centenarians in effort to track down some elixir or combination of factors contributing to their long lives. And, as is wont to happen, instead of examining the traditional foods of Okinawa in their own right; they, instead, evaluated them with a decidedly western eye – omitting certain factors, ignoring others and neglecting the context in which still others appear – as if they needed to make the traditional, life-giving foods of Okinawa fit with the diets encouraged by the United States government and the nutritional powers that be.
Animal Foods, Seafoods, Fat and Okinawa Cuisine
Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu. While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa. Indeed, all those stirfries of bittermelon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil. I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island. Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes. Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably source of vitamin D.
The diet of Okinawa also includes considerably more animal products and meat – usually in the form of pork – than that of the mainland Japanese or even the Chinese. Goat and chicken play a lesser, but still important, role in Okinawan cuisine. Okinawans average about 100 grams or one modest portion of meat per person per day. Animal foods are important on Okinawa and, like all food, play a role in the population’s general health, well-being and longevity.
Fish plays an important role in the cooking of Okinawa as well. Seafoods eaten are various and numerous – with Okinawans averaging about 200 grams of fish per day. Octopus, minnows, skipjack, mahi, crab and even sea urchin are enjoyed liberally. I recall walking the reefs at low-tide to watch the old mamasans in their sunbonnets squatting over the rocky coral as they scooped up spiny sea urchins, bashed them against reef and scooped out the bright orange goo of inside the urchins. With mixture of disgust and fascination, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the discarded urchins – their black spines still wiggling despite their lack of insides.
Sea urchin or uni, is a very potent source of fat soluble vitamins including vitamins A and E and it is also a good source of phosphorus, vitamin B12, folate, riboflavin and even vitamin C. Uni, like many of Okinawa’s foods, is extremely nutrient-dense. It is also remarkably fatty with over half of its calories coming from fat – particularly omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegetables, Starches, Grains and Okinawan Cuisine
[…] Traditional Okinawan cooking also makes use of starches in moderate portions. Millet, rice and the purple-fleshed sweet potato comprise the bulk of the starches though some buckwheat-based soba and wheat-based udon are also used. Until the decades following World War II, polished white rice was not widely available and Okinawa’s inhabitants, instead, relied on whole brown rice often combined with millet as well as the purple-fleshed sweet potato which is – I can say from personal experience – oh so good. Really good. It’s important to note that grain and starches, apart from times of famine when sweet potato was the only food widely available, were only eaten in small to moderate portions.
Comment by Janknitz
I grew up on the island in the sixties, the island was still recovering from WWII. The people who are elders now did NOT have a whole-grain based diet. How could they when grain, except for rice, did not grow there?
The diet was omnivorous. I too, had an adventurous mom. I remember a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish, seafood, and sea vegetables. I hated Goya so I avoided that. There was plenty of meat– I remember chicken, eggs, beef, and pork was ubiquitous. There was some fermented tofu, lots of pickled vegetables and kimchi. I don’t remember ever eating sweet potato except perhaps in tempura. Rice was served with every meal as it is in Japan, and noodles were common. Our Okinawan maid (it was the 60’s!) made us her own versions of local dishes, always meat based.
I find it ridiculous to hear anyone claim the Okinawan diet is “starch-based” or “whole grain”. Okinawans even ate habu (local poisonous snake) and mongoose when other sources of meat were scarce.
There are many factors that contributed to Okinawan longevity, but it is a falsehood to claim that a nearly vegetarian diet was a factor. There were indeed generous portions of meat, fish, and fowl and nothing went to waste.
Nutrition for the Japanese Elderly
by H. Shibata et al (as quoted here and here)
In 1992 scientists at the Department of Community Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, Japan published a paper which examined the relationship of nutritional status to further life expectancy and health status in the Japanese elderly. It was based on three epidemiological studies. […]
The food intake pattern in Okinawa has been different from that in other regions of Japan. The people there have never been influenced by Buddhism. Hence, there has been no taboo regarding eating habits. Eating meat was not stigmatised, and consumption of pork and goat was historically high. It was exceptional among Japanese food consumption. The intake of meat was higher in Okinawa. […]
I. Nutrient intakes in 94 Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese. 2. High intakes of milk and fats and oils had favorable effects on 10-year (1976-1986) survivorship in 422 urban residents aged 69-71. The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the 10 years. 3. Nutrient intakes were compared, based on 24-hour dietary records, between a sample from Okinawa Prefecture where life expectancies at birth and 65 were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture where the life expectancies were much shorter. Intakes of Ca, Fe, vitamins A, B~o B2 , C, and the proportion of energy from proteins and fats were significantly higher in the former than in the latter. Intakes of carbohydrates and NaCl were lower. […]
Unexpectedly, we did not find any vegetarians among the centenarians.
[1. Shibata H., Nagai H., Haga H., Yasumura S., Suzuki T., Suyama Y. Nutrition for the Japanese elderly. Nutr & Health. 1992; 8(2-3): 165-75.]
(as quoted here and here)
Pork appears so frequently in the Okinawan diet that to say “meat” is really to say “pork.” Everything from head to tail is used. As the saying has it, only the “oink” and the toenails go begging. It is no exaggeration to say that the present-day Okinawan diet begins and ends with pork. Especially in the case of hogs, what the meat lacks in (vitamin A, D and others), the entrails more than make up for it. The stomach and innards are cooked together in a clear “Nakami” soup. The liver and heart, together with vegetables, make “Motsu” (giblet) dishes.
These dishes contain high-quality protein and are rich in vitamins and minerals. We have the belief in Okinawa, based on the philosophy of food as medicine, that when one or more of your internal organs is out of kilter, it is good to eat the same innards of animals. The idea is to eat a food that supplies whatever is lacking. Pig feet and pork with the skin on are washed under boiling water and then simmered and eaten. The skin contains a high-quality protein called collagen.
The special feature of pork is how many dishes it is used in. Dishes using pig feet are called “Ashi Tebichi.” “Soki” soup is a soup dish with pork spareribs, Konbu, Daikon (Japanese radish), winter gourd and other vegetables. “Rafute” is thick bacon with the skin on, slowly cooked with Awamori. This was originally a preservation technique. Pig’s entrails commonly appear in clear Nakami soup. People think that pork is fatty, but if the fat is boiled off before the dish is prepared, this is eliminated.
The skin of the ears and snout chopped and dressed with Miso sauce makes pork rind Sashimi, “Aemono.” This is crunchy and gives a refreshing sensation when eaten. Aemono is a must on the table with sake and for celebrations.
History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food
by Hiroko Sho
Pork cuisine and the meat eating culture
In Okinawa, they have sayings such as, ‘Eat the entire pig and leave nothing, and ‘You can eat every part of a pig a part from its oink’. In other words, a feature of pork cuisine is the clever use of all the beast, including the pig’s legs and feet, ears, the skin of the face, heart, kidneys, lungs and other organs. When Sasamori Gisuke, who was born in Aomori Prefecture, visited Okinawa in the twenty-sixth year of the Meiji era, he was full of praise, saying
‘They say one sort of pig is enough to produce dozens of different marvellous dishes. The delicacy of the pork cuisine here would be enough to shame into silence Westerners who eat meat as their main dish’.
Pigs were first brought into the Ryukyus by Chinese immigrants in 1392, but they failed to become widespread because of a lack of food in the farms of the time.14 When sweet potatoes were introduced from Fukkien Province in China, however, the practice of pig breeding spread rapidly, marking the beginning of the meat eating culture. […]
The relationship between ‘pork and sweet potato’ occupies a special position in Okinawan food culture, favourable geographical conditions helping the combination to become by far the most important food items. It goes without saying that all the pig was eaten, including the fat, leaving nothing behind. This is very different compared to the Japanese mainland where a vegetarian diet for religious occasions is observed. In Okinawa, pork is even included in the dishes served at funerals. During a survey conducted in Itoman City in the south part of the main island of Okinawa, we learned of a way of preserving pig’s blood, in essence the same as the ‘paste’ foods seen in western meat eating cultures.8 Fresh pig’s blood is mixed with salt and starch, then placed in a basket lined with a cloth and steamed for about 30 min. Once the mixture sets like jelly, it is cooled and kept in a jar containing pork fat. This is an extremely simple preserving method, but it observes the basics of flavouring with salt, adding starch as a setting agent, heating and then keeping air out. Western recipes use a variety of spices, and also make ‘blood sausages’. In addition, fatty cuts such as belly pork can be salted and last a comparatively long time, even in subtropical regions with high temperatures and high humidity, again surprising us with the ingenuity of our forebears.
Some present examples of widely used Okinawan pork dishes include leg tibichi (soup made with leg of pork, konbu seaweed and daikon radish or gourd melon), ear skin sashimi (skin of the face or ear in a vinegar and miso salad with cucumber, beanshoots and peanuts), and nakami suimono(soup made with pig stomach or intestine, cooked with mushrooms until soft). These dishes all contain large amounts of collagen and elastin, both attracting interest in recent years as important substances in preserving health and long life through the prevention of lifestyle diseases.
From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s, in my laboratory we have conducted experiments with foodstuffs our Okinawan elders eat everyday as being ‘good for the health’, feeding them to white rats in freeze-dried powder form.17 In one of these experiments, we fed pigs feet, ears, stomach and intestine to hyperlipidaemic white rats and examined the effects on lipid metabolism. The results, as shown in Tables 3 and 4, show that a statistically significant reduction in serum and hepatic triglyceride levels was seen in rats fed pigs feet. This indicates that pork cuisine is not simply a source of protein, but also has health-giving effects as a result of its collagen content. It [PORK] deserves attention as an integral part of Okinawan longevity food.
We tend to avoid pork in this present era of overeating, but in Okinawa it is a major pillar of the longevity diet. It is important to realise that there is a fat content, not just in the meaty portions, but in the special parts such as feet and ears, skin of the face and internal organs, and to remove this during the preparation process. In popular dishes such as sooki shiru (soup made with pork ribs and daikon radish and konbu seaweed), nakami no suimono and leg tibichi, the subcutaneous fat is carefully removed in a process known as akunuki, so that these healthy pork dishes are made with almost no saturated fat content (Table 5).
[Of course, they remove this fat not to throw it away but in order to use it for cooking of other foods. Every traditional cook knows the secret of making delicious vegetables is cooking them in animal fat. BDS]
Pork food culture and sustainability on islands along the Kuroshio Current:
resource circulation and ecological communities on Okinawa and Jeju
by Sanghee Lee and Hyekyung Hyun
[I]sland communities along the Kuroshio Current commonly have adapted to poor soils and harsh weather conditions such as high humidity and storms (See Youn, 2017). The pork food culture found in these island communities is among the most ecologically and culturally sustainable aspects of their existence and are the focus of the present study.
Archaeological studies suggest that wild pigs were domesticated around 6,000-10,000 BC (정연학, 2008). Island communities in Luzon, Taiwan, Okinawa, and Jeju, which are all located along the Kuroshio Current, have achieved a form of ecological sustainability through a pork food culture. An investigation of this pork food culture is thus important for identifying a common maritime culture along the Kuroshio Current. […]
The Okinawa-Jeju region shares common extreme environmental conditions, such as infertile soil (basalt and limestone soils), a warm and humid climate throughout the year, and frequent typhoons, resulting in low crop productivity and absolute food shortage. In such conditions, an ecologically sustainable food system based on pork is understandable. […]
Due to poor soil fertility and water scarcity, a limited number of grains (mainly barley, foxtail millet, and soybeans) and sweet potatoes are cultivated and used for food.
The islands have similar histories: They were once independent countries but were ultimately annexed by the governments of their respective mainlands. After losing their independence, they were given new names: Okinawa was formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom, and Jeju was formerly the Tamla Kingdom. During World War II, residents on both islands were forced to build military bases for the Japanese Imperial Army. Large portions of the populations on both islands were also slaughtered by their respective governments during the battle of Okinawa in 1945 and Jeju 4 April massacre in 1948.
In terms of food culture, both islands are known for their ‘dung-eating pigs’ and pork food dishes. The word for ‘pig’ in the local dialects is wa on Okinawa and dosegi on Jeju. There are also several local terms for pig and pork products on these islands. […]
For example, in the 8th year of the reign of King Sejo 세조 in 1462, it was recorded that Yang and others from Jeju said “there are no animals on Okinawa, only pigs.” From this record, it could be said that pigs were already familiar to people on Okinawa. Similar statements about pig breeding were given by Kim and others. Nonetheless, it appeared that pork was not widely available until at least the 17th century. Since the 18th century, pork has been documented as the main food accompanying funerals and other important ceremonies attended by ordinary people. This finding would mean that pig farming was on the rise in the 18th century. With an increase in the cultivation of sweet potatoes (used for pig feed in the 19th and early-20th centuries), it was rare to find households on Okinawa that did not breed pigs (Munetaka, 2005).
In the case of Jeju, the Records of the Three Kingdoms: Book of Wei Biographies of the Wuhuan, Xianbe, and Dongyi 삼국지 위서 동이전, written in 280 AD, states that “the people of Jooho 주호 (Jeju) are good at breeding cattle and horses.” It could therefore be said that pig breeding may have started during the early Tamla Kingdom (227 BC-1402 AD) (진영일, 2008, pp. 42-43; Youn, 2017). A record of pig breeding in public institutions on Jeju can be found in Won-jin Lee’s Tamlaji 탐라지, written in 1653 (김찬흡, 2002). During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), it was written that “there were few houses without pig farming” on Jeju (강동식 et al., 2009). The relationship between sweet potatoes and pig farming on Okinawa and Jeju was very important in commercial terms, and it seems that the breeding of dung-eating pigs on Okinawa and Jeju was established to compensate for insufficient pig feed. A new type of ecologically sustainable food culture came to be established, and, in the process, the pork food culture of the islands along the Kuroshio Current zone was formed. […]
Residents of these islands are cautious about altering the spatial structure in a way that interferes with this ecological system. The pigsty is the most important element. The people of Okinawa and Jeju believe that a deity dwells in the pigsty. On Okinawa, this deity is called Hurunukami (‘The Deity of the Toilet’), the most prestigious among the household deities and the one who can expel evil spirits. After attending a funeral, people stop at the pigsty to expel possible evil spirits before entering their main house building. Similarly, people on Jeju believe that there is a deity named Chikdobuin (‘The Toilet Wife’), and when a pigsty is altered carelessly, they believe that the household will face a series of unfortunate events. Thus, the existence and power of the deity of the pigsty is a cultural feature seen on multiple islands along the Kuroshio Current.
The breeding of dung-eating pigs was reported in the Philippines, Okinawa, the Korean Peninsula, and China’s Shandong and Shanxi provinces in the 1940s (석주명, 1968). More recently, Nemeth (1987) reported that dung-eating pigs could be found in equatorial South Asia, Africa, Central America, and China. However, it is significant that, on Okinawa and Jeju, the pigsty is not only a place for breeding pigs but also serves as part of a system that circulates the island’s resources. The pigsty also became part of a cultural system. […]
The butchering process can be divided into approximately five steps: the removal of hair, blood, internal organs, bone, and meat (including fat). As the butchering process is a community effort, the pig’s hair is sold to raise community funds.
Afterward, the internal organs are washed to clean them inside and out. On Okinawa, most of the internal organs are chopped and salted and stored in a jar. The blood, liver, kidney, pancreas, and head are not preserved in salt but are consumed on the day of slaughter (Munetaka, 2005). On Jeju, the parts that are eaten raw or steamed are separated. The womb, spleen, an intestinal fat called maerok, and fat under the chin called solbadi are eaten raw. Other parts are steamed. The participants share the liver and intestines alongside alcoholic beverages ( 수경, 2011).
Pig butchering differs between Okinawa and Jeju, as shown in Figure 4. These differences may reflect different ways of combining other food resources on each island and different forms of community meal (members can eat at different times of the day, for instance during a daylong party). Pork is distributed equitably among the island’s community members.
On Okinawa, the owner of the pig takes all the meat and stores it to continue to share it with neighbours. On Jeju, the owner takes the intestines, the head, and the bones between the head and ribs (jeobjakppyeo) after paying the butcher (yongin) for his work by offering him the anal parts, bladder, and hair. The remainder is distributed among community members in a community meal. On Okinawa and Jeju, pork is spoken of as part of the culture of the community meal of ‘making together and eating together’. The meaning of the community meal includes distributing pork to every community member. On both islands, the eating of pork at the community meal occurs at every family memorial, seasonal ceremony, and community ritual. The community meal is based on boiled pork. […]
The eating of pork during a community meal is an important social activity on Okinawa and Jeju. If a member fails to participate in or misses the community meal, it is treated as a very serious social issue. Distributing pork is an opportunity to provide community members with needed protein and vitamin B1, and this community meal is integral to the shared sense of community. In addition, to maintain the ecological community, labour must be shared continuously; hence, solidarity through the community meal becomes an important social activity for maintaining the community. […]
On Okinawa, soup dishes such as soku-jiru (pork rib soup), nakami-jiru (pig intestine soup), and tebichi-jiru (pig’s feet soup) were developed. On Jeju, pork soup with cabbage, mom-guk (pork soup with gulfweed and buckwheat powder), and bracken soup (pork soup with bracken) emerged. Mom-guk and bracken soup are typically consumed during ceremonies. All these thick pork soups are based on stock created by boiling pork bones for hours. The benefits of providing pork in the form of various soup dishes are that it (1) stabilizes the food supply, (2) promotes community nutrition, and (3) creates an ecological circulation system.
I came to this conclusion based on the disconnection between what Willcoxes wrote about their “Okinawa” diet and what Okinawans really seem to eat (based on many sources, Japanese and American). I was myself quite surprised when I found out. The most notable discrepancy being the highest proportion of pig meat, pig fat and fish among all Japanese prefectures, based on Japanese publications covering not only the recent post 1970-ties but also earlier historical data. This is the fact that Willcoxes completely glossed over and were either unaware of due to perhaps their lack of knowledge and poor research done on their part (which I doubt) or perhaps it may have been an intentional omission?
In view of this I am inclined to conclude that Okinawan longevity is probably IMHO solely due to their diet that is the highest in animal fat and fish among Japanese and the lowest in starch. The recent fall in longevity stats is most likely due to unhealthy effect of Western commercial junk food high in wheat, sugar, polyunsaturated vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats, that has been widely available since the WWII.
I know this is an old post, but McDougall is at it again, touting the “starch-based” Okinawan diet as the key to longevity (see his June 2012 newsletter).
I find this amusing because I grew up on the island of Okinawa. My mother was a “locavore” before the world knew what locavores were, and loved exploring the local cuisine in places most Americans never dared, plus we had a maid (I know, but all the American’s did in the 60’s) who often cooked her traditional dishes for us.
First, I never saw a purple sweet potato in my life until 30 years after I left Okinawa–they were simply not common on the island during my time there. I suspect that when the Okinawans were rendered desparately poor and starving at the hands of the Japanese in the early half of the 20th century, they might have used sweet potatoes as a subsistance diet, but they put that diet far behind as soon as they could.
Perhaps this period of near starvation has more to do with the long lives (as in studies showing that calorie restriction prolongs life) than the starch from the potatoes. I remember being told by one of our Okinawan friends that they were so poor prior to and during WWII that it was impossible to replace broken pair of rubber zoris (flip flops) which cost all of $0.20 in 1965.
They did eat starch regularly, in the form of rice just like the customary Japanese diet, but also PLENTY of meat, fish, and vegetables, and no stinting on fat. I would hardly call it a “starch-based diet”.
Did the researchers attribute their claim of the “plant-based diet, low in salt and fat, with monounsaturates as the principal fat” on that dietary data from 1949? Anyone living in Japan at that time would have described to you an extended period of crushing poverty and food shortages, hardly resembling the traditional Okinawan diet, which is high in pork and vegetables. The Japanese government is trying to get those who cling to the traditional Japanese diet of boiled white rice and salty condiments to eat more pork and vegetables, so they can live longer, more productive lives, as Okinawans do, rather than being bedridden with osteoporosis and stroke complications as so many elderly Japanese are.
Living to 100 and Beyond
by Timothy Harris
British actuaries within the past year or so have performed a cohort analysis of the mortality of the population. They found that the group of individuals who survived the siege of Great Britain during World War II and were forced to follow a near starvation caloric restricted diet has shown materially lower mortality than the other cohorts. This group has contributed to the longevity dilemma encountered by the country’s actuaries and may, in fact, be the sole cause of the actuaries having missed the target in their estimated mortality and life expectancy.
Another example in a human cohort (again in the opinion of this author) is in the longevity of the population in Okinawa. In Chapter 1 we saw that, with the exception of a few small countries, Japan had the longest life expectancies. Within Japan, the Okinawans are known to have an even longer life expectancy and a higher percentage of centenarians and super-centenarians. In addition, this older Okinawan cohort exhibits better health statistics. This has been the topic of some authors in citing populations which for one reason or another have higher life expectancies. It has also been the source of books and promoters touting the Okinawan diet and lifestyle. One important piece of information, which has not been addressed in sufficient detail, is the past history of this cohort that has lived so long. Okinawa was the site of some of the most severe fighting in World War II. The population was severely decimated; as much as 25% of the population was thought to have been killed during the Battle of Okinawa and would have not only been subject to caloric restriction but also to selection with the strongest surviving. During the Japanese occupation of the island prior to and during the battle of Okinawa, the Japanese took much of the food from the Okinawans leading to mass starvation in addition to the battle casualties. Hence, we have another example of a forced trial of the caloric restriction concept on human beings. The promotion of the Okinawan diet as being the longevity panacea is as valid as promoting the fish and chips and warm beer diet of the British cohort that survived the siege of Great Britain.
Okinawans have a slightly higher average life expectancy than the rest of Japan as well as a higher number of centenarians per 100,000 than Japan. Note that this cohort of the population would have been on the Island during WWII. […] The population is also shorter than most Europeans. In Chapter 9, we will explore the “insulin like growth factor” (IGF-1), a shortage of which is thought to impact both longevity and height. We will also discuss certain populations that are shorter in height and longer on life. IGF-1 is thought by some to be impacted by caloric restriction, leading to less growth but longer life when caloric restriction is followed prior to maturity.
What is the secret to Japanese people being so healthy, free of heart disease, and living longer, generation after generation?
by William Tait MacDonald
There seems to be this convenient historical amnesia about WW2 and the period afterwards where there was mass starvation in Japan. Talk to elderly Japanese people and they’ll tell you about it.
Japan wasn’t a democracy during WW2 and the Generals in charge viewed feeding the military as their first priority, and so the general population starved. The slogan at the time was “We shall not want until victory”, and one old lady told me the story of a little boy at her school getting a savage beating for daring to ask for a second helping because he was starving.
The resulting statistical “health” and “longevity” of Japanese people is a direct result of this period of mass starvation, because:
- Longevity – There is plenty of research showing that a calorie-restricted diet increases the life-span of mice, and this seems to be true in humans too. The period of starvation in Japan during and after WW2 has created a cohort of people who had calorie-restricted diets for 20+ years, and are so living longer.
Logically speaking people who are living to 100 today are those who were in their 20’s during WW2.
- Health – Here we’re looking at another set of statistical errors. Those who weren’t healthy during WW2 and the subsequent years during hyper-inflation and the crash in Japan simply died. There is a huge “survivor effect” in statistics dealing with Japanese people. Normally these statistics would be evened out across the population pyramid, but Japan has an inverted population pyramid (i.e. there are more old people than young people because of the aforementioned longevity effect, plus advances in medicine), and so the “health” of Japanese people isn’t a result of diet, it is a result of the unhealthy having died.
This is why being historically and statistically literate is important. I have no doubt that in a few years someone will start touting the “Ethiopian diet”, completely ignoring that Ethipian population statistics are heavily influenced by repeated famines where the ill died off and the healthy barely survived on calorie-restricted diets.
The bottom line is that if you want to live longer then eat less calories. Calorie-restricted diets are pretty much the only thing that has been shown time and again to improve lifespan. It really is that simple – but here’s the kicker, people don’t want to hear this because they don’t want to give up their cake and cola. Fair enough. I have no issue with someone wanting to live 70 years of happy indulgence rather than 90 years of grumpy stoicism. Life is about quality, not quantity.
However I wish people would please stop trying to triviliase millions of people starving to death simply to sell sushi or tofu or whatever health fad they’re currently trying to delude people into thinking will extend their lives without them having to give up their bacon sandwiches. It simply doesn’t work like that.
[Important point, although missing part of the picture. Low-carb diets can create the same benefits of starvation by way of the same mechanisms of ketosis and autophagy. What people are afraid to give up is not the bacon part of their bacon sandwiches but the bread, that is to say the starchy and sugary carbs. When low enough in carbs, a diet promotes ketosis. And when in ketosis, hunger and cravings decrease which makes caloric restriction easier, often through fasting. And in fasting, someone already in ketosis quickly enters autophagy which is the secret to long life. BDS]
Nutrition for japanese elderly
China had some famines in the 20th century. My mother in law said they were so poor and things we’re so dire they couldn’t even afford salt to put on their meager portion of rice.
During the Irish potato famine, again, people didn’t have much to eat, and their diet became oriented around one or two things.
So you should consider the economic and historical context of what was going on when Okinawans were eating 93% sweet potatoes.
Before potatoes were introduced to Ireland, they were the “milk people” and milk was a major food source. Makes sense if all you have is grass, ruminants are magical for transforming sunlight into protein, fat and carbohydrate.
“Every account of what Irish people ate, from the pre-Christian Celts up through the 16th-century anti-British freedom fighters, revolves around dairy. The island’s green pastures gave rise to a culture that was fiercely proud of its cows (one of the main genres of Ancient Irish epics is entirely about violent cattle rustling), and a cuisine that revolved around banbidh, or “white foods.””
What’s the Truth About the Blue Zones?
by P. D. Mangan
Do Blue Zones even exist?
That’s a strange question to ask, one might think, but given past hype about allegedly long-lived people that turned out not to be true, it pays to be skeptical.
How much do the Blue Zones have in common with gerrymandering or redistricting? In the United States, a ruling political party often redraws congressional and other districts to make them full of people who will elect that political party. It’s easy to do, just by drawing lines on a map. Have researchers drawn lines on a map that includes high numbers of centenarians and then dubbed them Blue Zones?
I have no evidence that they did that, but it’s reminiscent of how above-average numbers of cases of leukemia or other cancers have been found in certain locations, only to find out later they were statistical flukes.
A problem, as I see it, in this research, is that people tend to see what they want to see.
Why are some groups included and not others?
Take the Adventists of Loma Linda, California; male Adventists live about 7 years longer than other white Californians, and this is ascribed to their lifestyle. The Adventist church recommends being vegetarian, although not all Adventists follow that stricture.
But Mormons in California and Utah appear to have about the same increase in life expectancy as the Adventists, and they are not vegetarians. So why aren’t Mormons on the Blue Zone list? Is it because of an agenda? Not sure what that might be, since Adventists are looked at almost equally as outsiders— not by me, just saying that’s the perception.
Maybe there are other places in the world where people live a lot longer, but because they don’t fit an agenda, they’re not included. I’m not accusing anyone of cooking the books, just noting that biases are everywhere, and our own biases are the hardest to see.
The Blue Zones are not in Western Europe
The Blue Zones all lie outside Western Europe, and except for the Adventists, none of the people inhabiting them are of Western European extraction. To a great extent, the factor that unites all of these groups is either being less touched by modernity, or actively rejecting it.
Western Europe is characterized by the nuclear family, which consists of parents and children to the exclusion of other relations. Outside Western Europe, households are more likely to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., or in any case they all live quite near each other and see each other often.
Observers have noted that social cohesion is a common factor in the Blue Zones. Even among the Adventists, who are mainly of European origin, their minority religious status ensures that they stick together. Church attendance is also associated with longer life.
How would social cohesion make people live longer? Probably by giving older people a sense of purpose and belonging, leading them to actively participate in family and society.
The average American over the age of 65 watches television more than 7 hours a day. What would that do to their sense of belonging and purpose, much less the amount they spend in physical activity? Television viewing time independently raises the risk of death; each 1 hour of viewing associates with an additional 4% risk of death. Whether that’s due to lack of physical activity, decreased social cohesion, genetic confounds, or demoralization from crap TV shows, can’t be determined. But it seems doubtful that people in the Blue Zones are watching TV that much.
Brian Sanders: “We’re talking about Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones. You’re talking about this cognitive dissonance that people have, right; or they come with agendas. He had this idea I’m gonna show the world that all these Blue Zones are plant-based and all that. Then you kind of just see what you want to see and leave out what doesn’t fit your agenda.
Mary Ruddick: “It’s wildly different than it’s been portrayed in all the Youtube videos and everything else. You know, we’ve only seen beans once on a menu. I’ve purposely been taking pictures of all the menus of everywhere we go and they’re typically three-fourths animal-based, which is either meat or dairy or egg base and one quarter vegetable dishes and those are typically served drowning in fats. Here they use a lot of animal fats. In fact, goat ghee is very popular — you see it at every market and then you’ve got really good butter this time of year, though you’re going to see more olive oil.
“They’re very seasonal with their foods the way people used to be 50 years ago. Here it’s hot in the summer — so butter isn’t going to be served because it’s going to melt, but ghee isn’t going to go bad so that’s used and the olive oil. I love that it’s so local. That’s kind of the solution to all this health stuff is. If you’re eating as Gary Fettke says, eat fresh local seasonal completely, that’s all!”
Mary Ruddick: “I looked at a lot of these studies and I even got to meet some of the people who put these studies together on the Blue Zones. And I think some of the inaccuracies came from the language barrier. I find so often, when people are doing dietary studies, they’ve never really studied nutrition. And when you haven’t spent your life… even if it’s with patients you know, it doesn’t have to be a formal but just seeing how food responds in people’s bodies, they miss the mark in a lot of areas.
“When I was looking at these studies, they didn’t ask the Ikarians the correct questions. So the questionnaire only had a few different foods on it. It had olive oil, it had grains (and they separated that from pasta for some reason), then they had fruits vegetables (they separated potatoes from vegetables), and they had beef. And what’s interesting about that is that the Ikarians really don’t eat much beef, but it’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s that they eat everything very locally. You’re not going to get a pineapple or a banana in Ikaria. They grow everything themselves and I mean that very literally. It’s not like they’re going to farmers markets. They grow their own food on their own property for their family. So they have their goats and their sheep and their chickens and they have their vegetable plot and this kind of thing.
“They really weren’t asking them the correct questions They didn’t ask them about how much lamb they ate or how much goat or chicken or dairy. They didn’t have any of those on the questionnaire. So I think they just missed the mark with that and got a false impression. But, to give you an idea of what it’s like on my first day, we went to a little restaurant. Now I know Greece is mostly known for its tourism and these beautiful sail boats and the islands and things like that. And Ikaria is definitely beautiful, but it’s not a tourism island; it’s not where foreigners tend to go. It’s very Greek — so there’s not an industry for it. So, when you go to a restaurant, it’s just for the locals really and and it’s usually some old grandma cooking up the stew; and that was very much our experience.
“It was very nose to tail. When I was invited into the kitchen, they would be making cheese they would be cutting up liver and tongue and boiling a pig head and these kind of things. I was even there in the summer which is the height of their their plant-eating, right, because again they’re really not processing things for the winter. I want to stress that so much. Although the Ikarians — and I guess I should say this too because I don’t know the background of of your followers to this extent or how much food history you guys know; but the nightshades, the tomatoes, the potatoes, all of these things are very new to the Greeks. We think of the Greek salad as tomato and cucumber. It’s only been a part of their diet for the last hundred years and potatoes only the last 50 in Ikaria.
“Although they eat these foods now, they still only eat them very seasonally. So they had them right like when I was there. They’ll have the tomatoes and they’ll cook them into a sauce or do something else to them, but they’re not going to make it into a sauce to keep for winter and to have with pasta or something like that. That just doesn’t get done. It’s actually a very low-grain culture. They don’t eat much green at all. So, overall, it was just completely opposite of what the book said it is. I went in the highest plant season, but it’s very much not plant-based. Even Dan [Buettner], you know the author of the book, mentioned in there that their diet is 50% fat from olive oil; and that was without taking into account the dairy and the meat consumption and the fish consumption. But if you actually speak to a real Ikarian, they’ll tell you they eat goat every day.”
Canrnivore Is Vegan:
More Okinawa Diet Meat Eating Evidence
Hong Kong: Stop Living So Long. You Eat Too Much Meat!
The Japanese Eat a Lot of Meat!
True Blue Zones: Okinawa
by Sally Fallon Morell
True Blue Zones: Sardinia
by Sally Fallon Morell
True Blue Zones: Loma Linda
by Sally Fallon Morell
True Blue Zones: Ikaria, Greece
by Sally Fallon Morell
True Blue Zones: Costa Rica
by Sally Fallon Morell
Costa Rica: Land of the Centenarians
by Gina Baker
Centenarian Dietary Secrets
by Gina Baker
Centenarian dietary secrets w/ Gina Baker
Wise Traditions podcast #160
16 thoughts on “Blue Zones Dietary Myth”
Hi Benjamin, I can’t help but leave my jaw dropped at the depth of research you put into this article. Thank you for that! One item I wasn’t clear on was where you mentioned the restricted caloric intake of Okinawans. Specifically, where you mentioned eating until 80% full. If I remember correctly, Blue Zones Solution recommends the 80% full idea. Would you say that idea is a keeper? I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreting what you were suggesting as this came after your many valid arguments about how diets changed post-WWII. Did Okinawans follow similar calorie restriction pre-WWII?
Hello, Paul! Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you found it interesting. I do put a lot of work into pieces like this. Yet most people find it boring. I have other posts that get much more attention, whereas you are the first person to like and comment on this post. I find it all fascinating, no matter what diet one chooses. It tells us a lot about what it means to be human. I have some other long posts that go more into such things — for example see my post “The Agricultural Mind“. I also love the historical angle, in seeing how society changes. Living memory is so short and our modern society easily falls into historical amnesia, as we don’t appreciate how rapidly and radically the world has transformed.
There are those who look to the post-war Okinawans as if they represented a traditional society without looking any deeper. That is so naive. I also find it sad because we do have a fair amount of knowledge to draw upon. You are right to hone in on that particular detail. I wouldn’t emphasize too much the 80% rule, but I do think it points to something important. I’m not sure about how such a rule would’ve applied to the pre-war period for Okinawans. Rather than taking it as a literal rule, I’d suggest considering what it represents in comparison to what we know of the study of a wide variety of diets.
Many people like Weston A. Price have looked at traditional societies, from hunter-gatherers to small-scale rural farmers. There are some commonalities to be found amidst all the cultural variations and ecological differences. I don’t think that portion control and calorie restriction exactly is one of those commonalities, at least not in the way we think about it now, as many traditional societies would consume high-calorie foods and often in large amounts. It’s more about the relationship to food.
More typical among traditional people is fasting and feasting. That is to say they eat food when it is there and the don’t when it’s not there, but that is in the context of food storage being limited. So, most hunter-gatherers would gorge on what was brought back to the village or camp, sometimes even to the point of their gut being distended, and then they might not eat for the next day or several days. The gastrointestinal system would be given a rest, the body would go into ketosis, and full autophagy would on a regular basis heal the body.
Periods of fasting were also achieved by time-restricted eating and what is sometimes referred to as intermittent fasting. For most of human existence, humans didn’t eat three square meals a day and snack constantly in between meals. Instead, the historical and evolutionary norm has been to skip breakfast, eat a large meal during the middle of the day, and maybe a smaller meal or snack later in the day — one meal a day (OMAD) or two. That means, even on days of eating, much of the time is spent in fasting which on a very low-carb diet as is traditional would kick the body into regular ketosis as well and ketosis is well known to reduce hunger and cravings (besides my writings on the agricultural mind where I discuss the Mongols and fasting, see the Spartan Diet).
This traditional style of eating is easier to do on a low-carb and high-fat diet with loads of nutrient-dense fatty animal foods. That is because fasting happens more naturally when one is already in a state of ketosis from carb restriction and when one is fully nourished with extremely satiating foods. A high-carb diet, on the other hand, causes one to feel hungry all the time. Traditional societies that had more carbs still usually had far less carbs than what is normal in our society. I’ve found it amusing when a dietary study describes as ‘low-carb’ what is at the high end of carb consumption for hunter-gatherers.
For the Okinawans, their particular eating pattern was conditioned by their environment. They lived on a small, somewhat crowded island with limited farmland and wilderness. The 80% rule might have been more of a necessity made into a virtue. They simply lacked a surplus of food and they had traditional methods of ensuring everyone had access to a certain amount of nutrient-dense foods, such as the communal butchering of pigs and sharing all parts of the animal. The 80% rule, though, would achieve a similar state of ketosis as a low-carb diet of feasting and fasting —- so two ways to get the same healthy result.
I was so glad to have found your post as the one-sentence pitch for Blue Zones got me excited for a minute and then as soon as I looked for the criticisms, they seemed plenty. But, the idea of exploring longevity + good health around the world is still a great exploration to consider (and clearly one that takes deep inquiry).
My favorite part of your post was the wondering about community and how, if we could properly measure the impact, it might be a significant contributor to longevity + good health (significantly more so than diet). I look forward to exploring more of your writing and thank you for the thoughtful reply.
The idea of looking at long-lived populations is a good strategy. But the problem is in beginning with a conclusion and then cherrypicking the data that confirms what one already believes and wants to find. That was the sin of Ancel Keys. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of evidence that contradicted or complicated the view presented in Blue Zones.
The simple fact that the longest lived countries in the world are also the populations eating the most meat would force any honest person to think more deeply. Another researcher who traveled around looking at long-lived populations found one of the most common features of healthy diets was lard. Traditional people relied on lard because pigs can be raised in almost any environment.
Yet there is obviously a ton of confounding factors. It goes far beyond diet, of course. Community is super freaking important. To understand this, read books like Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets, Bruce K. Alexander’s The Globalization of Addiction, Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections, Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, etc.
About the specific study of healthy communities, there is what is called the Roseto effect. It’s based on the people living in Roseto, Pennsylvania. It was a healthy population that seemed like it shouldn’t be. Many of the men worked around toxic chemicals, adults drink and smoked often, and they ate a lot of saturated fat and processed meat. So, it was speculated that they were healthy because of the strong and close social connections, such as high rates of civic organizations.
This Roseto population were mostly Italian-Americans. It was thought at the time that Italians traditionally ate more olive oil and less lard. It turns out that was a false assumption, based on Italians not using as much lard after WWII because most of the pigs had been killed. The social aspect certainly did help, but all those nutrient-dense fatty animal foods also helped. Saturated fat, research has since shown, is beneficial and necessary to the normal functioning of the human body. Besides, lard largely consists of monounsaturated fat, the same fat that supposedly makes olive oil healthy.
It just so happens that healthy traditional populations tend to have both of these factors. They have strong communities as part of close kin connections. But they also tend to eat large amounts of animal foods. That was particularly true of the people studied by Weston A. Price, as the traditionally raised and hunted food was even higher in fat-soluble vitamins. It’s the whole package of these societies. Modernity has destroyed multiple aspects of what creates the conditions for human health and thriving.
There is basic example of how social are humans. In sick building syndrome, one of the factors discovered was how modern office buildings are so tightly sealed. No sound can come in from outside. This creates an eerie silence that is disconcerting and anxiety-inducing. It’s a low-level background stress and it makes people sick.
They were able to solve this problem simply by piping in sound such as recordings of people talking but at such a low volume that you can’t actually hear what is said. It just creates a background noise, specifically of the human voice, although the sound of wind, water, or birds would probably work as well.
By the way, the rat park research is fascinating. I’ve written about it before:
There are other posts on related topics dealing with the social:
I’m perusing old posts about diet, nutrition, and health. And I happened upon your comments here again. You said, “the idea of exploring longevity + good health around the world is still a great exploration to consider”. I totally agree with that. There are a number of people doing this kind of thing and we are slowly getting a more clear picture.
I revised this post so many times that I don’t know what it might have included when you read it. But I would note, in case you didn’t see it before, Mary Ruddick’s work that gets mentioned in this post, along with the inclusion of some videos of her. She has followed in the footsteps of Dr. Weston A. Price.