Japanese Life Expectancies, Food

For another year, Japanese women have the longest life-span of any people in the world. Interestingly, among the top of longest-living groups of women in the world, some were Asian, some European. America obviously was somewhat lower.

Given that my wife is a Japanese woman, and I am an overweight1 American male, we often joke that I will go first. It’s a joke of course, but the way things are looking, she will very likely outlast me. I remember once in a World Populations class in college, studying about how women tend to live about 5 years longer than men on average, for reasons unknown, and the figures here seem to reflect that.

I asked my wife why she thinks Japanese women live so long. She attributed it to eating more vegetables and less butter/fat than a Western diet. I like her cooking a lot, and I definitely eat more veggies than I ever did before we married, so she may be on to something. Her parents are not vegetarian, but do eat very little meat in general and lots of veggies, especially tsukemono (漬物, pickled vegetables). That’s a good diet to emulate I think.2

On the other hand, since many of the top groups in the article are also European groups, European diets seem to work well too.

The lesson here I think is eating a balanced (read: lots of veggies) diet and reasonable portions. Also, not eating too much red meat, or cutting it out altogether seems like a good approach. Better yet, reduce meat consumption overall.

Anyways, I have my wife to thank for improvements in diet. If I keep eating like her and her family, perhaps I’ll still beat the odds and the two of us can have a nice long, life together. :)

P.S. Among Japanese, Okinawans supposedly have the longest lifespan of all. People attribute this to thinks like kurosu (黒酢) or “black vinegar” or their consumption of pork rather than beef. Also, the famous gōyā (ゴーヤー bitter gourd) is another one people attribute to Okinawan health. I tried black vinegar one time in Seattle with a good work buddy and it was pretty good but a little thick and strong. Possibly the good weather, lovely views and close-knit culture might help too to reduce stress. Who knows?

1 I used to be obese, as based on the BMI index, but a daily 45-minute walking commute (one-way) to work, plus lots of hackey-sack on lunch breaks, plus better food quality in the EU has helped me lose about 15 pounds, and my fat % dropped by 7%.

2 I tried being vegetarian for a bit while living here in the EU, but it was even harder than in Seattle. When I made a business trip to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, options were limited. A good friend in the UK told me he had similar difficulties in France. Fantastic food, just not a lot of vegetarian options in mainland Europe.

13 thoughts on “Japanese Life Expectancies, Food

  1. I think that seafood consumption also plays a significant role in longevity. Americans don’t eat nearly enough fish on average, with the exception of people who live in coastal areas with access to fresh fish. My Asian friends of all backgrounds consume more fish than most people I know. Fish is an even better alternative to Pork.

  2. Hm, I think you might be on to something there too. Of the European countries listed, some were Scandanavian countries that probably eat more seafood. I know there’s plenty of seafood in Seattle where I grew up, but somehow culturally we just don’t eat it that much. I think part of that is that we don’t really know what to do with it. Deep fried fish and chips is good, but not the best use of seafood.

  3. I watched a program on TV on this subject. They mentioned the possibility that people from Okinawa are getting so old because they only eat until they are 80% full.

  4. Yes, I think all of the factors mentioned so far play a part in Okinawan longevity. One that hasn’t been mentioned: ukon or turmeric. This is familiar as a component of garam marsala and other curry-type flavors. This came to Japan as the terminus of the Silk Road. The mainlanders in Japan never liked eating it, but it is used to give shamisen and koto strings their yellow color (if you have ever spilled curry on clothing, you can see its powerful dye effect). However, the Okinawans started cultivating it for culinary use, as well as tea, etc. They say it is very good for health and longevity.


  5. Seriously I think it it the anti-oxidant properties of green tea and all the fish. Also large numbers of heavy smokers in Japan and one of the smallest incidents of lung cancer in the world. Strange.

  6. Wow, great feedback everyone!

    @ Senshin: I never appreciated how much Americans eat until coming to the EU, where portions are quite reasonable, but not mountains of food like back home. I hope my new, healthier eating habits stick when I go back to the US in 7 weeks.

    @ Johnl: Huh, that’s a new one to me! I didn’t know about the use of tumeric in Japan/Okinawa at all, let alone its health benefits. Something to look into. :)

    @ Jishin: Now that is interesting too! I am thankful that I started up the green tea habit again lately, as well as eating less red-meat. Let’s hope it helps. Your wife is Japanese too, so I bet you got a lot of good Japanese home cooking too (you too, John😉 )

  7. In addition to reducing meat consumption, it is also adding the proper nutrients that make a low-meat diet healthy and nutritious. I intern with the non-profit Meatless Monday and it is this philosophy that it is centered around in its efforts to encourage cutting meat consumption to improve health and lower environmental impact. Working with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday has a strong nutrition focus and the website has myriad recipes on the website (like this one for the Creamy Pesto Pasta Salad featured this week: http://www.meatlessmonday.com/creamy-pesto-pasta-salad/)
    For more on the campaign, check out the Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpnKeYmR1NM
    Thanks! Ashwini

  8. One thing my vegetarian girlfriend found when we were travelling in Japan was how hard it was to get vegetarian food. Japanese may eat lots of veggies, and relatively less meat, but there seemed to be meat (mainly fish or fish broth) in everything. Admittedly the language barrier did not help. We learned a few phrases to suggest “vegetarian” or “no meat” but everywhere seemed cautious (fish broth seemingly the main culprit) We had a few occasions where she pretty much could not eat anything local (lots of pizza and pasta were had) and on other occasions had to trek to find specialist vegetarian places. I assumed a massive, cosmopolitan place like Tokyo would have lots of vegetarian places but we couldn’t find much ! (Kyoto was much better)

  9. Hi rubot and welcome!

    I didn’t realize you could find more vegetarian food in Kyoto. That’s interesting. Yeah fish broth (dashi) seems to be almost universal so vegetarians I’ve known either have to compromise a little or eat specialty places or eat at home.

    The notion of vegetarianism as we know it differs a little from what Japan normally assumes it is (i.e. no red meat or “land meat”). Foods that are vegetarian certainly exist, but outside monastic settings, a full meal is hard to come by unless you really know Japanese food well.

  10. Yeah – i think this is where the big problem was – what the definition of vegetarian is (And in fairness to the Japanese, here in Ireland a lot of people ask “But does she eat fish?” when I say she is a vegetarian! – AND – vegetarian options are fairly limited here too)

    Indeed, the only place we got and out and out vegetarian meal outside of a specialist restaurant was in the Buddhist monastery we stay in in Koyasan.

  11. Yeah me too. I went to Ryuanji in Kyoto years ago (the place with the famous zen garden) and had a good meal there too. That was probably my first genuine vegetarian meal apart from peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

    As for Ireland, when I used to live there in 2008, they had a lot of veggie-substitute options. Burger King on Grafton Street had a good veggie burger and even the local chipper on Thomas Street near the Digital Hub made a good veggie burger.

    But if you’re tired of potato and sweet corn, and Indisn curries from MandS, the options were a bit thin.:-)

  12. haha – yup. The veggie burger in Burger King has saved her a few times.
    Funnily enough I moved near Thomas St. recently and we have been lamenting the lack of a chipper that does a veggie burger (we tried a few places near by). Must go check that out…

  13. It’s the chipper with the big red Coca-Cola sign over it. The husband was Italian I think and the wife was Irish. I think Subway is really close (yet another place you can get veggie party foods yum).:-)

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