Diet for Longevity

Diet for Longevity

9 August, 2017
Eat your way to 100
Are these four ingredients in the traditional Japanese diet the secret to long life?
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They say you are what you eat. Can you eat your way to 100 years old? This year, with a life expectancy of 83.7 years, Japanese women are ranked first in the world for the longest life expectancy at birth in the World Health Statistics 2017 report. This is hardly surprising, considering that the statistics for both sexes jointly put the country top of the list since 2000. As the frenzy over the secrets to a long life continues, many believe there is a connection between longevity and food. Ever since Okinawa Prefecture claimed its title as the place with the largest proportion of centenarians—people who are 100 years of age or above—in the world, the Okinawa diet has gained international fame. But what exactly makes the traditional Japanese diet stand out from the crowd?

Four key ingredients keep cropping up

With varying climates and terrains, the local produce and diet widely differ across regions. Although there isn't a single silver bullet that does the trick, we have observed four recurring ingredients in washoku—"food of Japan".

1. Soy products

The debate on whether soy products are beneficial to our health is more heated than ever. But it is undeniable that their presence makes up a substantial part of the Japanese dining plate. Be it tofu, soy sauce, miso or natto (fermented soy beans), it is evident that soy has long played a crucial role in the traditional diet of Japan.

2. Fish and seafood

A geographic advantage has blessed this island nation with a thriving fishing industry. While coastal regions are greeted with fresh seafood every day, this protein essential is no less popular inland. Fish is deemed as a staple in the traditional Japanese diet, while red meat is relatively scarce. With salmon, tuna, mackerel, seaweed, prawn, octopus and eel all commonly found in local markets, the dinner table serves much more than mainstream delicacies such as sushi and sashimi.

3. Fresh vegetables

Apart from a booming fishing industry, rich and fertile soil spreads across rural inland areas due to the volcanic material that forms the islands. Depending on the regional climate, precipitation and temperature, various types of grain and vegetable abound the country. Quality rice, napa cabbage, radish, sweet potatoes, and other greens contribute to a wide variety of nutritious dishes on the menu.

4. Pickles

The role of tsukemono (or "pickled things") in traditional Japanese diets is often overlooked. There are many different types of tsukemono, with the most common being pickled raddish (takuan), ginger (gari) and plums (umeboshi). They are often served alongside sushi as a side dish, or on top of rice in a bento box. Sour and pungent, tsukemono add colour, taste and texture; improve appetite; clear the palate; and balance richer dishes. Their rather strong and unusual flavour are best to be taken in with small bites, which encourages slower and more thoughtful dining.

The philosophy of good food

Although these four key components of the traditional Japanese diet may play a major role in the longevity of Japan's population, cooking with them doesn’t guarantee you'll be celebrating a century. If anything, it's our attitude towards food that plays an even larger part of healthy eating. Learning from the traditional Japanese diet, here are three fundamental principles:

1. Fresh, regional, seasonal, real food: It’s all about the quality of ingredients and how they balance your body. Eating fresh, quality food in season may do you more good than chasing after magical exotic superfoods.

2. Small portions, large variety: By incorporating a wide variety in small portions, everything is appreciated: taste, scent, appearance ... even temperature. Not only would you be delighted by your elaborate plate, you would also be more fulfilled as you savour each delicious bite.

3. Eat slow, eat to nourish: Dining is an event, and it should be experienced thoughtfully. Food is more than just a combination of nutritional or calorie value. It's what sustains and nourishes our bodies and minds. Eat slow, eat well, and enjoy the delectable flavours fully!

By: Nicole Tang
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