Amish Paradox

The Amish are another example of a dietary ‘paradox’ that only seems paradoxical because of dietary confusion in nutrition science and official guidelines. When we look closely at what people actually eat, many populations that are the healthiest have diets that supposedly aren’t healthy, such as lots of meat and animal fat. There are so many exceptions that they look more like the rule (Blue Zones Dietary Myth).

Besides a few genetic disorders, the Amish are a healthy population (Wikipedia, Health among the Amish). They have low incidence of allergies, asthma, etc. Some of that could be partly explained through the hygiene hypothesis (Sara G. Miller, Why Amish Kids Get Less Asthma: It’s the Cows). Amish children are exposed to more variety of animals, plants, and microbes that help to develop and strengthen their immune systems. This exposure theory has been proposed for centuries, as it was easily observable in comparing rural and urban populations. Raw milk might be an additional protective factor (Kerry Grens, Amish farm kids remarkably immune to allergies: study). Whatever the cause, the Amish are healthier than even comparable populations such as North Dakota Hutterites and Swiss farmers.

This health advantage begins young. They have low rates of Cesarean sections and few birth complications (Fox News, Amish offers clues to lowering US C-section rate). Despite lack of prenatal care, their infant mortality rate is about the same as the general population. Vaginal births, by the way, are known to contribute to positive health outcomes. On top of that, Amish mothers do extended breasteeding and that breast milk certainly is nutritious, considering diet of Amish mother’s is nutrient-dense. This early good health then extends into old age (Jeffrey Kluger, Amish People Stay Healthy in Old Age. Here’s Their Secret). They have lower rates of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia (Jimmy Holder & Andrew C. Warren, Prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease and Apolipoprotein E Allele Frequencies in the Old Order Amish). This might relate to lower rates of environmental toxins, food additives, etc, although it surely involves more than that. Considering their low incidence of allergy and asthma, that indicates there would be less inflammation and autoimmune conditions. And that would offer neurocognitive protection against mental illness (Eric Haseltine, Amish Asthma Rates Offer Clues to Preventing Mental Illness). Related to this, suicide is far less common (Donald B. Kraybill et al, Suicide Patterns in a Religious Subculture, the Old Order Amish).

Another intriguing example of health is that the Amish get fewer cavities, even as they eat a fair amount of sugar while few floss or brush regularly (Jan Ziegler, Amish People Avoid Cavities Despite Poor Dental Habits). Weston A. Price already figured that one out. Most traditional people don’t have dental care and, nonetheless, having healthy teeth. It’s because of the fat-soluble vitamins that are necessary for maintaining tooth enamel and promoting remineralization. The dessert foods certainly don’t help the Amish, that is for sure. Still, though hunter-gatherers, for example, eating more sugary foods (honey, tropical fruit, etc) show worse dental health, they don’t have as many cavities as seen among high-carb modern Westerners. High nutrition can only go so far, but it sure does help.

Along with far less obesity and diabetes, the low cardiovascular disease also stands out because the Amish do have high cholesterol, but recent research shows that mainstream understanding is wrong, as cholesterol is one of the most important factors of health (Robert DuBroff, A Reappraisal of the Lipid Hypothesis; & Anahad O’Connor, Supplements and Diets for Heart Health Show Limited Proof of Benefit). Yet because their cholesterol is high, mainstream doctors and officials are trying to get the Amish on statins (Cindy Stauffer, Why are Amish more at risk of having high cholesterol?). It is sheer idiocy. Cholesterol is not the cause of cardiovascular disease and, as most current studies demonstrate, statins don’t decrease overall mortality. In fact, reducing cholesterol can be severely harmful, such as causing neurocognitive problems since the brain is dependent on cholesterol. For cardiovascular health, what we need to be looking for is inflammation markers, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome, along with overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acids and deficiencies in the fat-soluble vitamins.

Cancer rates among the Amish further demonstrate how mainstream advice has failed us. In one study, researchers “found that Amish dietary patterns do not meet most of the diet and cancer prevention guidelines published by American Institute for Cancer Research and others (9). Most cancer prevention guidelines emphasize minimizing calorically dense foods, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day), avoiding salt-preserved foods, and limiting alcohol consumption. With the exception of limiting alcohol intake, our data suggest that the Amish do not meet these guidelines” (Gebra B. Cuyun Carter et al, Dietary Intake, Food Processing, and Cooking Methods Among Amish and Non-Amish Adults Living in Ohio Appalachia: Relevance to Nutritional Risk Factors for Cancer). Yet the researchers couldn’t believe their own evidence and still concluded that the Amish “could benefit from dietary changes.”

It didn’t occur to the researchers that the cancer prevention guidelines could be wrong, instead of the traditional foods that humans have been eating for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only do the Amish have few processed foods and hence not as much propionate, glutamate, etc (The Agricultural Mind) but also they have an emphasis on animal foods (Food in Every Country, United States Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch). Traditionally for the Amish, animal foods were the center of their diet. They typically eat meat with every meal and eggs year round, they are known for their quality raw milk and cheese (full fat), and even the carbs they eat are cooked in lard or some other animal fat. Interestingly, the Amish eat fewer vegetables than the non-Amish. Maybe they are healthy because of this, rather than in spite of it.

The Amish have much higher energy intake and 4.3% higher saturated fat intake. Because they eat mostly what they grow in gardens and on pasture, they would be getting much more nutrient-dense foods, including omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins. Interestingly, they have nothing against GMOs and pesticides (Andrew Porterfield, Amish use GMOs, pesticides yet cancer rates remain very low), but there simple living probably would still keep their toxin exposure low. Even though they like their pies and such, their diet overall is low in starchy carbs and sugar, and the pie crusts would be cooked with lard from pasture-raised animals with its fat-soluble vitamins. Plus, I suspect they are more likely to be eating fruits and vegetables that comes from traditional cultivars that fewer people have problems with.

Also, because refrigerators and freezers are rare, their food preparation and storage is likewise traditional: slow-rising of breads, long-soaking of beans, and cooking of garden plants fresh from the garden; canning, pickling, and fermenting; et cetera. Look at Weston A. Price’s work from the early 1900s (Malnourished Americans; & Health From Generation To Generation). He found that populations following traditional diets, including rural Europeans, were far healthier and had low rates of infectious diseases, despite lack of healthcare and, of course, lack of vaccinations. Among the Amish, there may be some infectious diseases that could be prevented if there was a more consistent practice of vaccination (Melissa Jenco, Study: Low vaccination rate in Amish children linked to hospitalization), although exposure to outsiders might be the greatest infectious risk. The research on vaccinations overall is mixed and the conclusions not always clear (Dr. Kendrick On Vaccines). Even if their mortalities from infectious diseases might be higher, as is the case with hunter-gatherers, their health otherwise is far greater. When infectious deaths along with accidental deaths are controlled for, hunter-gatherers live about the same age as modern Westerners. The same is probably true of the Amish.

It’s hard to compare the Amish with other Blue Zones because places like Okinawa and Sardiniania don’t have the same kind of isolated farming communities. The Blue Zones are different from each other in many ways, but for our purposes here their shared feature is how so many of them are dietary paradoxes in contradicting conventional thought and official guidelines. They do so many things that are claimed to be unhealthy and yet their health is far above average. Once we let go of false dietary beliefs, the paradox disappears.

Blue Zones Dietary Myth

Blue Zones, as claimed 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). Similarly, the French have much more saturated fat in their diet and yet are healthier. This is called the French Paradox.

But there are so many of these so-called ‘paradoxes’ that they seem more like the rule than the exception (Hong Kong Paradox, Swiss or Alpine Paradox, Albanian Paradox, Cuban Paradox, Spanish Paradox, Greek Paradox, Italian Paradox, and more generally the Mediterranean ParadoxEskimo 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).

These 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 when saturated fats were replaced with industrial vegetable 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).

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 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.

Consider the Okinawans 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 Japanese populations that gorge 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). 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.

An old Okinawan was asked about the secret to longevity and she said, “some say its pork” (Japanese Food: Okinawa, documentary). This shouldn’t surprise us, especially not for Okinawa where the pig was highly revered as part of both diet and culture. 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.

Looking back at their traditional diet, Okinawans have not consumed many grains, added sugars, industrial vegetable 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 much olive oil until recently, Okinawans traditionally cooked everything in lard that would have come from nutrient-dense pigs, the fat being filled with omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins. Also, consider that most of the fat in lard is monounsaturated, 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 [7]” (Wikipedia, Longevity in Okinawa).

It’s not only the fat, though. As with most traditional populations, Okinawans ate all parts of the animal, including the nutritious organ meat (and the skin, ears, eyes, brains, etc). 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 I’d point out that it typically is fried in lard or used to be.

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 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: “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. [9]” (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. [5]” (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 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 Okinwans 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 originally meat-eating Irish, under 19th century British colonization, were forced onto a white potato diet. This wasn’t their normal 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 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 health and long life.

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.

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 vegetable oils and shortening.

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. The use of lard in traditional Okinawan cooking doesn’t come up at all.

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, 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.)

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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.

Comment by gp

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.

Italian Food
by Elizabeth David
(1954 Cook Book and History of Sardinian foods)

pp. 226-227

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 .)

Twitter Thread

Miki Ben-Dor
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.

Fabien Abraini
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

Twitter Thread

Miki Ben-Dor
‘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.

David Wyant
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

Miki Ben-Dor
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”.

David Wyant
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.

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.

Nourishing Diets:
How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate

by Sally Fallon Morell
pp. 263-270
(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[1]. 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.]

Okinawan Cuisine
(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.

Comment by Stan (Heretic)

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.

Comment by Janknitz

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”.

Comment by Angela Quattrano

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
p. 30

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.

p. 102

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
from r/ScientificNutrition


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.

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