It was around the 1980s that international longevity statistics established Japanese males and females as the world's top. They have since continued their strong showing. According to World Health Organization statistics for 2018, Japan ranked second among 228 countries and regions in the world, at 85.52 years, after Monaco, with (89.37 years).
Clearly diet has a strong correlation with health and longevity. In Nikkan Gendai (Nov 8) Dr Masako Okuda reviewed the past and considered the figure.
"Some people may believe that Japanese will remain at or near the top in terms of longevity, but I disagree. I think they are eating too many animal products," she commented.
For various reasons, including the propagation of Buddhism, Japanese from long ago avoided consumption of meats, and of animal products in general with the exception of fish. After the Pacific War, Japan began receiving aid in the form of milk and dairy products provided to school lunches, and since then, has been weaned away from the traditional Japanese diet as their intake became increasingly Westernized.
This has led to more people developing the same lifestyle illnesses as Westerners.
"There are limits to caloric intake," says Dr Okuda. "Through consumption of proteins via meat, milk, dairy products, Japanese are consuming less rice, vegetables, mushrooms, sea vegetables and so on, which are rich in vitamins and minerals. So they are losing what was once a balanced diet. As a result, cholesterol builds up in their bodies and due to hardening of the arteries they suffer from more stokes or diabetes through obesity, with colon and breast cancers also on the increase."
These changes in the national diet have a brief history of less than 200 years, as opposed to well over 1,000 years of the previous native diet, and their consumption can't be considered well matched to the Japanese physique.
Dr Okuda is wary of the "power" of American influence, which obliges Japan to import more beef and also promotes its consumption through campaigns to "Eat meat because it's good for health."
"By the 1980s Japan had achieved the world's top longevity, so there's no need for Japanese to consume a greater portion of animal products," Okuda says.
Okuda points to longevity statistics broken down by occupation from 1926 to 1979 and noted that the longest-lived people were in professions related to religion. For instance, among 149 head priests at Buddhist temples aged 75, the average remaining lifespan was 4.2 years. Dr Okuda attributes this to their diet.
"As part of a study on the diets of priests, blood tests and so on were conducted. It was observed that while more meals were prepared in electrical appliances, such as rice cookers, they abstained completely from meat, fish, eggs, milk and other animal products. They consumed rice prepared in 17 varieties, and rice porridge in 20 varieties, and for side dishes they ate mushrooms on the average of 1.2 times a day, with a maximum of five times a day; sea vegetables were consumed 1.8 times a day, with a maximum of six times a day."
Normally the priests took two main meals, with occasional light evening snacks such as noodles or mochi (glutinous rice cakes). Their average daily caloric intake was 2,070 kilocalories.
That is not really such a big difference from the average Japanese daily intake of 2,330 kilocalories. But the average priest consumes only 65% of the protein of the average Japanese male, and 36% of the amount of carbohydrates, while at the same time taking in twice the amount of dietary fiber.
Needless to say, priests at Zen temples live a somewhat ascetic life without imbibing alcohol or smoking, and devoting much of their waking hours to activities like meditation and chanting sutras.
"The average elderly person has reached the point in life where he or she might ask, 'Why shouldn't I indulge, and enjoy the years I've got left? After all, I'm going to die anyway,'" said Okuda. "But as a doctor who has seen hundreds of patients die, I've seen many who were sick and passed on with agonized expressions while connected to an intravenous drip or life support. Those who died of natural causes bore peaceful expressions."
There is ample evidence to suggest that sensible living habits and a well rounded diet of traditional Japanese foods will not only make for a better life, but for a better end of life as well.© Japan Today