Should We Follow the Okinawan Diet? Probably Not....

But at least in western countries, we might consider the Seventh Day Adventist way of eating.

But first, I want to mention terminology. I was looking at the demographics of my blog's readership. I've now reached over 170,000 page views on my blog site, and yesterday's post was read by well over 7,000 people on every continent in the world except Antartica. In fact, it was read in every country except for a couple. The heaviest readership was in the United States, followed by England, Germany, Egypt and Australia.

While the heaviest readership is in the United States, there's still enough of a readership outside the United States that I've decided to no longer refer to the standard American diet. Instead, when referring to the SAD diet I will be referring to it as the standard awful diet. Every country has its standard awful diet, and while thanks to the American food industry, that way of eating is becoming more Americanized every day, I still want to give deference to each of the cultures where I am writing.

Today's posting will be a bit long because I'm going to cover three subjects. I could do it over three separate postings, but I've decided for continuity-sake to do it all in one posting. And besides, I write best when something is fresh in my mind. And once I write it, I want to hit the Publish button and get it out there. So, the three topics will be addressed in this one posting. First, I want to talk about the Blue Zones in general. Then I will to talk about the Okinawan diet. And finally I will talk about the Seventh Day Adventist diet, which I believe is the most extraordinary and the one that gives us the clearest evidence yet as to the healthfulness of a whole food, plant-based way of eating.

The Blue Zones

As I think most of us know, the Blue Zones are five regions in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. The idea for studying the Blue Zones is to see if we can gain some knowledge from them about how we might live longer, healthier lives. Dan Buettner, the National Geographic writer who came up with the Blue Zones concept has suggested that we may be missing out on 10 good years of healthy life by following things like our country's standard awful diet. The key words there being "healthy life." Most of us don't care to live an extra 10 years if it means declining health and mobility. And that's why healthy living and the whole food, plant-based way of eating are about much more than longevity; they are about staying healthy right up to the end.

So, the question comes up, can we learn from the lifestyles of people in the Blue Zones, and I believe we can. But we also need to be careful about subscribing too much to any given segment of a Blue Zone lifestyle or diet. Just as we can get into reductionist thinking about food, as explained by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, we can also get into reductionist thinking when it comes to the Blue Zones. We need to remember that for any given Blue Zone, it is the entire lifestyle that contributed to the healthy longevity and not simply the diet or eating one particular thing common to each Blue Zone (with the one exception of the Seventh Day Adventists, which I'll explain later). Let me give a couple examples.

Physical activity plays a major part in every Blue Zone. People did not sit at desks all day. They did not have landscapers take care of their lawns or housecleaners take care of cleaning their homes. They did not sit and watch TV or play computer games for several hours on end. I think this is signifiant, because regardless of how we eat, the more sedentary we are, the more damaging to our health and our longevity prospects it is. Just yesterday, there was a study announced that found that even among people who exercise a lot, sitting is still harmful. The more we sit, the less healthy we will be.

I believe that is why Dr. Greger has a treadmill desk. When I was working, I was fortunate to work for a good company and I had a good boss who at my request put a standup desk in my office. I worked standing up for a good part of the day --- sometimes pacing, sometimes at the computer standing up and sometimes thinking at the whiteboard. I was fortunate in that respect. I've also been a big advocate for standup meetings in the workplace. It's amazing how much shorter meetings become when they are standup meetings. Unfortunately, since I've retired I've become more accustomed to sitting. While I walk several miles each day, bike, play pickleball and do yoga, I still sit way too much. And I know that's taking years off my life.

So, we need to acknowledge that for most of us, we are at a disadvantage right away to the Blue Zone populations because we are not as active as they have been.

A second point is we need to be careful of correlation. Correlation does not mean causation. While I believe very strongly in eating beans, they are a resistant starch and full of fiber, the fact that every Blue Zone population eats beans does not mean that there's something special about eating beans. Every Blue Zone population also drinks water and breathes air. So, while I am totally onboard with the healthy benefits of beans, I'm there because of the science behind beans, not because every Blue Zone population eats beans. Beans are eaten in the Blue Zones because they are widely available and they are filling and can be made tasty.

This is important because we want to avoid being reductionist about Blue Zone dietary habits unless there's science behind it. There is one Blue Zone food that I will get to with the Seventh Day Adventists where the science behind it is actually confirmed by the Blue Zone way of eating. But the Seventh Day Adventists are a unique demographic that because of their eating habits they are really easy to study and draw conclusions from. That's important because when it comes to food, it's hard to draw conclusions in scientific research because of the number of variables that exist (from genetics to the environment to exercise to people lying to researchers and on and on).

So, my message here is to be careful about quickly jumping to conclusions with respect to the Blue Zone populations. It's good to learn from them, but let's make sure that what we learn is in line with good scientific research as well. And for the best information on research relative to a whole food, plant-based diet, there's no better source for us lay persons than Dr. Greger's fantastically wonderful site.

The Okinawan Diet

I wanted to write about this diet in particular because after yesterday's post, one of my readers pointed out that the Okinawan diet flies in the face of what Dr. Greger says with his daily dozen and Dr. Fuhrman says with his G-Bombs. And it does in fact fly in the face of what they say, which means it really flies in the face of much evidence we have about following a whole food, plant-based lifestyle. It comes closest to complying with Dr. McDougall's program, but even there it falls short because Dr. McDougall says 20 to 45% of calories should come from non-starchy vegetables and 10% should come from fruit.

But the Okinawan diet is almost 70% sweet potatoes with the rest made up almost exclusively (but not totally) of rice and tofu (beans).  So, what gives? How could the Okinawans have been so healthy and lived so long without eating a lot of greens as Dr. Esselstyn says to do or without eating berries and cruciferous vegetables every day (as Dr. Greger and Dr. Fuhrman say to do) or without eating a wide variety of plant-based foods (as Dr. Campbell says to do).

Perhaps just going plant-based is enough in itself. And I think there's a strong argument for that. Every dietitian in the world, without exception I believe will tell their clients to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables. There's no doubt that the higher the percentage of plant-based foods we eat, the healthier we will be. But does that mean we should ignore what I wrote yesterday about certain foods being healthier than others. In short, I would say that answer is "No." And here's why.

First, the Okinawans do something that those of us in the western world would find very difficult. They leave their meals still in a hungry state. It's not stated that way. It's stated as they eat until they're 80% full. But how can anybody claim to know that they are only 80% full unless they are still feeling hungry after they eat?

This is a form of fasting. And there is a lot of science behind the benefits of fasting, and there are many different types of fasts that a person can do. I'm fasting right now, for example, in that I haven't eaten anything since dinner last night and it's now after 11 a.m. in the morning. Okinawans fast, even though they don't call it that, by stopping their eating before they are full. Most of us can't or don't do that.

So, that and physical movement and activity throughout the day are a couple key differences between most of us and the Okinawans.  Another key difference is environment. Those of us in western cultures are exposed to a number of chemical, pollutant and other environmental hazards every day. The Blue Zone cultures, except for the Seventh Day Adventists, are all cultures that are outside that boundary of carcinogenic subjects. And that's important because broccoli as a cancer-fighting food takes on less significance if there's nothing carcinogenic in the environment to get cancer cells started growing in the first place.

I emphasized that statement because I think it's key to why the Okinawan diet in particular might work for them, but would be less beneficial to those of us in western civilizations. They can have a more limited diet because they live lives that don't become exposed to the same things we get exposed to in our more modern, more pollutant world.

So, while you can eat the Okinawan diet and be healthier than you'll be on the standard awful diet, I don't believe that it's the healthiest diet for those of us in western cultures, which is most of my readership.

The Seventh Day Adventist

The Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda are interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, their environment and lifestyles are very similar to that of the Mormons in Salt Lake City. And that allows for studying the differences between the two. Because the Seventh Day Adventists live longer and healthier lives, it's much easier to attribute the differences between them and the Mormons to being the basis for their healthier and longer lives. But the other thing about the Seventh Day Adventists is there are pockets within the church as to how they eat. So, some do eat meat while others don't for example. Some eat nuts (and I'll show how this is important in a minute) and some don't eat nuts. Given how everything else is the same, we can make comparisons between those who eat meat versus those who don't and between those who eat nuts versus those who don't and we can then draw some conclusions. So, the Seventh Day Adventists give us some really clear bases for scientific research that is really unparalleled in nutritional research.

And for those of us in western civilizations, the Seventh Day Adventists come closest of all the Blue Zones to being exposed to the same environmental, atmospheric and polluting substances as the rest of us in western civilizations. In fact, I remember when I lived in California, there was a large haze of pollution over the city of Los Angeles where Loma Linda is. I think it's gone now. But those who have lived long enough to be a Blue Zone resident were there when the pollution was heavy in L.A.

And significantly, of all the Blue Zones, the Seventh Day Adventists are the ones who have lived the longest and the healthiest. There are amazing stories coming out of Loma Linda of people over 100 years of age still driving on L.A. freeways and doctors in their nineties still working in the operating room. This is a population to pay attention to.

In fact, it seems to me that if there's one Blue Zone population that we in modern civilizations can come closest to emulating, it would be the Seventh Day Adventists.

So, what are the significant findings relative to diet that have come from the Seventh Day Adventists? Basically, the findings, and this post is getting long enough, so I won't go into all the research but it's easily searched out, are in the three areas of eating nuts, eating meat and eating plant-based foods. Again, because of the comparisons that can be made between different groups of Adventists and also between Adventists and Mormons, it's easy to attribute the successes to specific differences.

The findings relative to eating plant-based foods, including a regular diet of beans, and relative to eating meat are well established for those of us eating a whole food, plant-based diet. The findings relative to eating nuts were surprising to researchers, but they have been borne out by 4 separate research studies. And the findings are that Adventists who eat nuts live on average 2 years longer than those who don't eat nuts and also have half the risk of heart disease as those who don't eat nuts. And this finding was consistent across all segments of Adventists. It was true for women, for men, for those who eat animal products and for those who don't eat animal products. The Adventist population was looked at from 16 different ways and in every case, people who ate nuts had longer lifespans and less heart disease.

Now, I know some people object to nuts because they falsely believe that nuts cause weight gain. Scientific research has shown that not to be the case. Dr. Greger explains it this way. In his book, How Not to Die, he says there are three reasons for why nuts don't cause weight gain, and these reasons are also backed up by research. First, nuts increase satiety. You feel full faster as a result of eating nuts, so you stop sooner. Now, I'm not talking about sitting down with a can of salted nuts and snacking on them like potato chips. None of us can stop when we start doing that. I'm talking about putting walnuts on your oatmeal in the morning and walnuts on your salad at lunch time. I'm talking about blending cashews and water and adding that to soup or another recipe to make a creamy mixture. I'm talking about using almond milk in recipes calling for milk. There are lots of ways to use nuts that will provide satiety as opposed to causing a person to pig out on them.

Secondly, Dr. Greger says that some of the fat calories get flushed out in our feces. In other words, just because we eat a certain number of calories doesn't mean that's how many calories our bodies actually absorb. That's something that often gets missed by the calories in calories out crowd. And finally, eating nuts boosts our metabolism, which means we burn off the calories from nuts at a faster rate (as well as anything else we might be eating with the nuts).

This is all scientifically explainable and backed up by research that has been compelling enough for Dr. Dean Ornish to change his program to now allow nuts and for Dr. Campbell and Dr. Greger to write about it, both urging people to include nuts and seeds in their diets.

So, what can we learn from the Seventh Day Adventists? Eat lots of plant-based foods, including beans. Limit or eliminate meat intake. And eat nuts and seeds.