• The traditional Japanese diet is rich in plant foods, fish, soy foods, seaweed and green tea. (Taxi Japan/Getty Images)
Japanese women have the world's longest average life expectancy. Experts say their longevity is the result of Japan's unique dietary guidelines, what they eat and how they eat it.
By
Yasmin Noone

1 May 2019 - 9:06 AM  UPDATED 1 May 2019 - 9:06 AM

If you want to live a long life, perhaps it’s time to borrow a few food traditions from older Japanese women.

Of all the people of various cultures living across our globe, Japanese women live the longest. According to the latest World Health Organisation figures, their average life expectancy is over 87 years. To put that figure in perspective, Australian women are expected to live until 84.8 years old. In the USA it’s 81, in Sri Lanka it’s 78.5 and in Syria, the average woman is expected to live until 69.

Around 68,000 people living in Japan are now aged over 100-years-old.

Japanese men fare a little worse than their female counterpart with a life expectancy about equal to Australian men, hovering around the 81 year old mark. In the USA, men may live until 76, in Sri Lanka it’s 72 and in Syria the average man will live until 59 years old.

Japan is also famous for its large number of centenarians. Last year, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare announced that the country had broken its own world-record for the number of people living past their 100th birthday. Around 68,000 people living in Japan are now aged over 100-years-old.

Given our Western fascination with longevity, the famed Japanese lifestyle has been studied closely. It turns out that the secret to long life can be found in what Japanese women eat.

Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, Charlene Grosse, tells SBS the traditional Japanese diet is rich in plant foods, fish, soy foods, seaweed, and green tea.

It turns out that the secret to long life can be found in what Japanese women eat.

“Traditionally, Japanese diets have very little processed or discretionary foods like chips, chocolates or lollies,” says Grosse, a spokesperson Dietitians Association of Australia.

“So incorporating elements of a Japanese diet is a great step towards healthy living – and we know on average Japanese people have good health.”

Two years ago, researchers released a study looking at the Japanese diet and its impact on mortality rates. The cohort study, which spanned over 15 years, involved almost 37,000 men and 43,000 women aged 45-75 who had no history of cancer, stroke, ischaemic heart disease or chronic liver disease.

The researchers measured how well men and women adhered to the Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top – despite differences in the details, the spinning top is the national equivalent of Australia’s food pyramid.

The study showed that older Japanese women adhered to the spinning top guide better than most men. “Individuals with closer adherence to the Japanese dietary guidelines had a lower risk of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease, particularly cerebrovascular disease,” the study concludes.

These women were more also likely to be working in a primary industry, drank green tea and had a higher energy intake.

“Our findings suggest that balanced consumption of energy, grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, soy products, dairy products, confectionaries, and alcoholic beverages can contribute to longevity by decreasing the risk of death, predominantly from cardiovascular disease, in the Japanese population.”

These women were more also likely to be working in a primary industry, drank green tea and had a higher energy intake.

Grosse, who looked at dietary patterns while visiting Japan, adds that the Japanese diet has a few other intricacies that are clearly conducive to a long, healthy life.

“The Japanese Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming at least 30 different foods each day,” she says.

“While Australia doesn’t have a strict guideline of foods to include, it’s estimated we only eat 15-18 different foods per week, so there’s huge improvements to be made.

“Aiming to include plenty of different foods each day means you’re more likely to eat an abundance of different nutrients – eat a rainbow and reap the benefits.”

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The guidelines also specify that you should enjoy your food. “That means you’re more likely to eat mindfully, tuning into the taste and texture,” says Grosse. “By paying attention to your food, you’re more likely to eat to your appetite and avoid overeating to the point of feeling uncomfortable. The Japanese recommend eating until you are 80 per cent full. Less is more. “

Grosse explains that the Japanese tend to eat from smaller plates and bowls, reducing their meal portion size. Light cooking methods, like steaming and simmering, are also favoured.

However, there is one downside to the Japanese diet: it can be quite high in salt.

“This is because of condiments like soy and oyster sauce, as well as smoked or pickled foods, which are often eaten.

“We know too much salt can put people at risk of health conditions like high blood pressure – which is a health concern in Japan.”

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