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5 Misconceptions About the Okinawan Diet

by Christal Burnette 03 Apr 2024 0 Comments

Have you ever lived in or visited Okinawa? If not, the Okinawan diet is a tricky one to fully understand.

Even if you have visited or lived in Okinawa, you likely would not have experienced the true Okinawan diet. It is hardly practiced anymore and is being taken over by Westernized food and lifestyle. Fast food and fried food are everywhere now.
However, if you talk to the older generation in their native language, you will hear about the true Okinawan diet. Now, mind you, they do not talk about their past like it was a walk in the park. Most of these individuals grew up during or in the aftermath of war times.
Okinawa was the battleground between the Americans and Japanese and unfortunately, the Okinawans were innocent victims in the crossfire. Despite all this, the Okinawans have the highest number of the longest-living people this world has ever seen! Since Okinawa was made a part of Japan in the 1970s, many people confuse the Japanese diet with the Okinawan diet. Let’s take a look at those misconceptions.

Don't want to read? Feel free to watch!


1. WRONG: They Ate White Rice

Okinawa’s climate and environment are not suitable for growing rice. Rice needs lots of fresh water and all Okinawa can provide is salty water. No one wants to buy salty rice. Also, Okinawa is hit by multiple typhoons every year that destroys fields of crops. Many crops are hybridized and cultivated to withstand these typhoons but rice is not one of them. Not to mention that Okinawa is small without enough land space to grow enough rice to make a profitable and largely consumed product.

CORRECT: They Ate Purple Sweet Potato

Potatoes are the crop that thrived here. Purple sweet potato was a huge part of the diet as well as multiple yellow sweet potato varieties. Purple sweet potato, or ‘beni imo’, is full of anthocyanins, which give them their rich, deep purple color, the same thing that makes blueberries a blue-ish purple color. This means that they are a powerful antioxidant and are found to increase longevity, help cardiovascular health, and the most sensitive topic, cancer prevention. They also help with vision and brain health.
The first beni imo (purple sweet potato) sapling was said to be brought over from Fujian, China in 1605 by a general. Its cultivation was then spread throughout the island and widely cultivated. It was easy to grow and is a satiating starch thus making it the staple of the Okinawan diet.
White potatoes did not make their way into the Okinawan diet and were more difficult to grow in Okinawa’s environment. White potatoes are most well known to come from Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern and coldest prefecture.
If you have seen rice being used in your Okinawan Diet Cookbook, that is because rice was introduced by the Japanese during wartime. Japanese soldiers would bring onigiri, or rice balls, as their snack to eat while trekking through Okinawa’s forests. This is not the smartest food to bring since rice molds easily. The Americans had their highly preserved, but safe-to-eat spam and other foods in comparison. Alas, both Japanese and American food made their way into Okinawa and is widely consumed due to their taste and availability.

2. WRONG: They Used Lots of Soy Sauce

I often see on social media that people think the Okinawan Diet is flawed because of the excessive use of soy sauce. However, Okinawans could not really afford soy sauce. Affluent families could afford one bottle while other families could not afford it at all.

CORRECT: Small Amounts of Soy Sauce, if Any, Were Used

If soy sauce was used in a dish at all, very small amounts are added. Usually, teaspoons or 1-2 tablespoons.
Popular foods we see in Okinawa today like soki meat or tebichi meat which are pork meats that are slowly boiled in a mixture including high amounts of soy sauce were not commonly available back in the day. Those foods were for special occasions like yearly festivals and a very, very special treat that was to be savored.

3. WRONG: They Were Vegan

There is some information spread around that the Okinawans had no access to meat on the island and that animals were hardly present on the island to eat at all. This is not true.

CORRECT: They Ate Meat Whenever Possible

They were not vegan at all. They were trying to survive like the rest of us before common development.
Pork was a part of the diet, albeit small. Pork was usually saved for festival times and eaten by everyone as a tasty enjoyment they only get to experience a few times a year.
There were also families who could afford to have and raise chickens at home. These families would eat their chickens and eggs and likely share with neighbors as sharing is a large part of Okinawan culture and mindset.
Sometimes individuals recall looking for and catching frogs or rabbits as children to eat. This does not sound like the most pleasant of meat choices, but they did not have plenty of options on their isolated island like today and were trying to satiate their hunger whenever they could.

4. WRONG: They Ate Lots of Fish

This misconception you would think is a good one, however, it is just not true. Eating lots of fish is a good thing for your health, but the Okinawans did not have access to fish. Yes, they lived on an island, but some lived in the middle of the island or on a steep hill. Without a car, you are going to spend more calories than it is worth to hike over to the seaside, sit, and fish hoping to catch anything at all.

CORRECT: Only Fishermen Had Access to Lots of Fish

If your Okinawan family lived right near the shore, you would have the ability to fish every day, but it was mostly only the fishermen who could do this. The average Okinawan family was not close enough to the shore and therefore did not usually eat fish. Plus, if you are living near the shore, your house is likely to get pummeled by waves from typhoons and be washed out making it not the most ideal place to live.
Also, the hot Okinawan sun would make sure that fish would not last long. Fish would spoil in the heat making it a race against time to consume this type of meat.

5. WRONG: They Ate High Amounts of Bad Soy

Soy has a bad rap in Western society because some think it mimics estrogen, increases risk of certain cancers, affects thyroid function, and more. Many of these are unsupported by concrete science. However, many soy products on the shelf today are not manufactured like those in Eastern Asia where soy has been consumed for centuries. Some soy products have questionable additives and can have added sugar.

CORRECT: They Ate Compact Whole Tofu

Okinawans ate whole, unprocessed soy tofu called ‘Shima Dofu’. Shima Dofu is made differently from mainland Japan’s tofu. Japanese tofu is made by boiling soaked soybeans in water and then straining the juice. Shima Dofu, or Okinawa’s Island tofu, is made by straining raw soybean water and separating it into okara (bean curd) and soy milk. The soy milk is then mixed with bittern to coagulate it. This makes Shima Dofu higher in soy protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Since ocean water was (obviously) more plentiful for those living on the island, Shima dofu was often made with ocean water which naturally had more vitamins and minerals.
I hope I cleared up some misconceptions people have about the true Okinawan Diet. If you would like to watch instead of reading, please see me talk about these conceptions in my video. Feel free to ask about any other misconceptions or questions you have about the Okinawan Diet. Nifedebiru!
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