TOKYO/HONG KONG – Many people attribute longevity in Japan to the traditional Japanese diet. Yet even a balanced Japanese meal, full of health-enhancing elements such as taurine, magnesium and isoflavones, typically has two major flaws: too much salt and too little calcium, which can lead to stroke and osteoporosis.
“Japanese people do have long average longevity, but the problem is with their healthy life expectancy,” said Yukio Yamori, a pathology professor at Mukogawa Women’s University who has conducted extensive research on diet and health around the world. “Many people cannot live independently for the last 10 years or so of their lives.”
Yamori’s analysis of data from over 60 regions has found that people who frequently consume foods rich in taurine and magnesium have lower risks of lifestyle-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.
Taurine-rich seafood, such as squid, octopus and oysters, is are often consumed not only in Japan but also in southern China and throughout Europe, particularly along the Mediterranean coast in France and Italy.
Meanwhile, small fish, seaweed, nuts and soybeans are rich in magnesium, which helps maintain the balance of sodium and potassium in body cells.
Isoflavones in soybeans help to dilate blood vessels, thus minimizing blood pressure rises and facilitating circulation. Yamori believes isoflavones are part of the secret to longevity in places like Guiyang in southwestern China, where soybean is a staple diet.
But while traditional Japanese meals are ideal for the intake of taurine, magnesium and isoflavones, Yamori said he adds to his diet yogurt topped with kinako — a kind of finely ground soybean flour — to make up for the lack of calcium. The idea was inspired by local diets in Georgia, home to Caspian Sea yogurt.
Yogurt keeps in check the rise in blood sugar levels after meals and is likely to reduce the risk of becoming overweight, he said.
By merging the best elements of Eastern and Western diets, “Japanese people ought to be able to extend their healthy life expectancy as well,” Yamori said.
Another top contender for world longevity is Hong Kong, where “food is the key to health” is a deeply rooted notion. Crisp vegetables and live seafood line stores in fresh markets, while traditional Chinese medicine shops stocked with lily bulbs, lotus seeds, Chinese wolfberry fruit and the like are also popular as shoppers seek ingredients for homemade soups. Even desserts are carefully considered, traditionally served warm so as not to cool down the body.
“Hong Kong people pick their produce according to their physical condition and the weather. Even without any scientific knowledge, they know by nature to choose what is good for their health,” said Sachiko Yo, a resident well versed in Chinese medicine.