Adventures in Gerontology


THE OKINAWA DIET PLAN by Bradley J. Willcox, D. Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki. Three Rivers Press, 2005, 432 pp., $14.95/2,300 yen (paper).

In works like “Awakenings” and “The Island of the Color Blind,” neurologist Oliver Sacks showed how serious medical subjects could, in the right hands, be turned into a damn good read.

Blending science and medicine with storytelling is something that doctors (and twins) Bradley and Craig Willcox, along with cardiologist and geriatrician Makoto Suzuki, have succeeded in doing with “The Okinawa Diet Plan,” a sequel to their best-selling “The Okinawan Program.”

As we review what we already know about the Okinawan elders, the facts speak for themselves: While age-related diseases common to the West have not been eliminated, they have been kept to a minimum; older Okinawans have astonishingly clean arteries and low levels of cholesterol; breast, prostrate cancer, and heart disease are rarities.

A staggering, disproportionately high number of the world’s super centenarians live in these islands. As Okinawans have no particular predisposition to longevity, the reasons are assumed to be a combination of diet, regular exercise and low-stress lifestyles.

The authors make the very good point that longevity loses its luster if it is synonymous with infirmity. And that’s where the Okinawan model again surprises, with the elders not only living longer, but surviving with robust constitutions.

Unlike the shelves of self-help pot-boilers added to publisher’s lists every month, “The Okinawan Diet Plan” is the result of solid research; almost 30 years of it, along with interviews and examinations of over 700 Okinawan centenarians and “hundreds of ‘youngsters’ in their seventies, eighties, and nineties.” Seeking out commonalities in diet, genetics, exercise habits, social structures and even psycho-spiritual practices, the authors have found many indicators to healthy, vital longevity.

Among their startling discoveries is the realization that, unlike other sizable populations, the elders have not put on significant amounts of weight with aging, that the Okinawan diet has enabled them to remain biologically and physiologically far younger than their actual ages; and that, while the elders have actually consumed far fewer calories in their lives than Americans, they have eaten more food. The answer of course, is taking meals, which are low in caloric density, but high in satisfaction. That means opting for foods rich in protein, fiber, flavanoids, and so on.

All of this, of course, means giving up the treasured freedom to eat whatever you like. The authors, however, are not really talking about deprivation, but substitution: switching to foods that may ultimately prove far tastier than what you have been eating up to now. Following the Okinawan diet, you can safely ignore Cicero’s adage, “To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.”

This is not to say that a degree of self-discipline is not required to follow the Okinawan way. The writers frequently invoke the expression hara hachi bu, which means leaving a little bit of room left in your stomach after a meal. The saying may remind some of the comment made at the ripe old age of 90, by the Okinawan karate master Gichin Funakoshi: “I eat sparingly, never to the point of being full. Vegetables are a favorite item in my diet, and although I am fond of meat and fish I eat both with restraint.”

An engaging writing style helps to chew over and digest this weighty book. Describing glycation, a cell-damaging process related to high-calorie intake, the authors tell us, “sugar sticks to cells and their components, sort of like an old sticky piece of candy in your pocket would, literally gumming up the works.”

A hands-on approach, with recipes and food definitions, the book provides three diet tracks: an Okinawan-Eastern one, an East-West fusion approach, and a more Eastern track. Its extensive listing of recipes for stir-fry dishes, sweet-potato orange muffins, turmeric-marinated tofu with chard, and fusion preparations like wakame asparagusu, Ryukyu fish curry, shima tofu and vegetable terrine, and Okinawan coq au vin whet the appetite.

Part of the joy of the book is reading about the author’s encounters with elders, sprightly folk who embody the Okinawan concept of nuchi gusui (the healing power of food). The expression crops up regularly in the book, reminding us of the words of Dr. Tokashiki Tsuka, a physician to the King of the Ryukyus, who wrote in his 1832 “Textbook of Herbal Medicine,” that “If we nourish the spirit through proper food and drink, illness will cure itself.”

Some readers may feel that, after a lifetime of sublimely oblivious eating, it is too late to switch to a healthier diet. Given that an average person consumes roughly one ton of food a year, though, it is never too late for a touch of damage control.