Want to live longer? Borrow these 6 healthy habits from the Japanese

Japan has more centenarians than almost any other nation on earth. Steal these 6 secrets to a longer, healthier life.
The Japanese diet is filled with nutritious plant-based foods and drinks like seaweed and green tea.
The Japanese diet is filled with nutritious plant-based foods and drinks like seaweed and green tea. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Want to live to 100? Take a page from the Japanese. Japan has the highest number of people per capita over the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world. There may be some genetic differences at play, but there are also diet and lifestyle practices that lead to longer lifespans with fewer of the chronic illnesses — like heart disease and type 2 diabetes — that are common in the United States. You can improve your health by borrowing these six habits that are rooted in Japanese culture.

1. Eat some seaweed

The Japanese diet is filled with many nutritious plant foods, but seaweed is a standout. There are many different forms of this Japanese staple and while they vary in the amount of nutrients they supply, most marine plants are packed with minerals, such as iodine, copper and iron, along with antioxidants, protein, fiber and beneficial omega-3 fats (which are also found in fish).

Americans are most familiar with nori, which is the form of seaweed used to wrap sushi and that’s dried and sold in packaged snacks. You can eat seaweed snacks instead of crackers or chips or crumble them over popcorn or roasted veggies for a pop of flavor and a nutritional boost. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try a seaweed salad, which is usually made from wakame, a form of seaweed that’s also used in soups.

2. Stock up on seafood

One thing that makes the Japanese diet so healthy is its focus on seafood. Japan has among the world’s lowest levels of heart disease and middle-aged Japanese men, compared to their white American counterparts, have much less cholesterol build up in their arteries, which is attributed to their high seafood consumption.

The Japanese diet includes about three ounces of seafood a day, or about 68 pounds a year, whereas, on average, Americans eat about 16 pounds of seafood annually. Fish and shellfish are high in protein and low in saturated fat, and while the amount of omega-3s differs among the various types of seafood, all seafood supplies this important nutrient.

Eating seafood just twice a week is not only linked to better heart health, but also better brain and emotional health. Seafood cooks up quickly and most types can be baked, broiled or grilled for a fast and healthy main dish. It’s a good idea to buy sustainable options and to include different types of fish and shellfish on your menu.

3. Drink green tea

Green tea is arguably one of the healthiest beverages and drinking it is a daily habit in Japan. Green tea is rich in polyphenol antioxidants that reduce inflammation, protect cells from the type of damage that can promote chronic diseases, and that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, where the majority of your immune cells and mood-boosting neurochemicals are produced.

Unsweetened green tea is a perfect drink on its own, but you can also use steeped green tea as the liquid base in smoothies, oatmeal or even brown rice or quinoa.

4. Eat until you're almost full

There’s a saying in Japan — hara hachi bu — which means to eat until you’re 80% full. With this mindset, you eat until you’re comfortable, but you still have room in your stomach. In essence, it’s a form of mindful eating and it makes it possible to eat enough to meet your body’s needs without overdoing it.

If you want to practice eating until you’re almost full, start by tuning in to your hunger and fullness signals. You might ask yourself, “How hungry am I?” at the start of a meal, which can help guide how much to serve yourself. Later in the meal, you might ask, “Am I enjoying this as much as when I started?” or “Am I hungry for a few more bites?” It’s a good idea to eat slowly, too, and to turn off your tech and limit any unnecessary distractions while you eat. These techniques can help you meet your body’s calorie needs better as well as get more enjoyment out of your meals.

5. Practice some forest bathing

In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates to forest bathing or taking in the forest atmosphere, is a form of nature therapy. Rather than heading outdoors for a walk or run, this practice is more about mindfulness and tuning into the natural setting. When you’re in nature, you use all of your senses, for example, by feeling the wind or sun on your skin, seeing all the shades of green in the grass and trees and hearing the leaves bristle. When you use your senses to tune into nature, it enables your mind and body to relax, much like they do during meditation. In fact, one study on forest bathing found that when compared to being in a city setting, being in a forest setting was linked with lower blood pressure, lower concentrations of the stress hormone, cortisol and an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity, which are all indicative of feeling more calm.

No forest nearby? No problem! Any natural setting will do. According to recent study, feelings of wellbeing and life satisfaction improved after spending just 20 minutes in a city park. Another study reported similar findings among people who spent two hours a week exercising or spending time outdoors. And whether that time was spent in one visit or several didn’t matter. So head outside — for short stints here and there or longer stints when time permits.

6. Maintain strong social circles

Staying socially connected is built into Japanese culture, and it’s a reason why Japanese people enjoy better physical and emotional wellbeing into old age. In Japan, social integration may take place in several ways. For example, adults may live in multi-generational households and in villages, it’s not uncommon to work past retirement age. And perhaps one of the most protective types of social engagement comes in the form of a moai — a type of Okinawan social circle that provides not only lifelong friendship, but even financial assistance when needed, so everyone in the circle knows they aren’t alone and they can count on one another during good times and bad.

If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, seek out ways to connect with friends, family, and your community. Carve out time to talk on the phone or over Zoom — or make new friends by joining Facebook groups or other online communities of people with similar interests. Religious groups are another way to connect with your community, combat loneliness and enjoy better health and wellbeing.

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