Did the Okinawans eat 'massive amounts of pork'?
“Blue Zones” are small pockets of peoples around the globe that contain a disproportionate number of individuals, relative to the general population, that live well into their 90’s and 100’s, fully functional and free from chronic diseases. For more information on Blue Zones, Dan Buettner has written a book all about what makes these areas special, what they have in common and what we can learn from them. A common observation is that the Blue Zones eat very few refined foods and little processed sugar and flour. Another commonality touted is that these zones all eat predominantly whole food, plant-based diets. Ever since learning about the Blue Zones, I have held this belief.
A recent discussion on Twitter made me stop and reconsider my beliefs on this fact. This article by Sho was presented to me as an argument that Okinawans...eat a ‘massive amount of pork and seafood’ (see tweet below).
This initial claim was puzzling, so I had to dig deeper. For starters, no one has ever claimed any of the Blue Zones, or any civilization for that matter, has ever been strictly vegan. Indeed, all cultures consumed animal foods. The argument that Buettner, myself and others make is that these animal products made up a small proportion of total calories and that this was likely 1 key factor that led to high rates of longevity.
In the Sho paper, it states that the civilization being examined (the Ryukyu) ate 93% of their calories from sweet potatoes. See chart below, far right column. Additionally, it states that these people ate vegetables at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
This Sho article also had quite an extensive section detailing pork consumption among Okinawans and this population, which may be the reason for the initial ‘massive’ claim on pork consumption. The articles explains that there were regular festivals as part of traditional Okinawain culture. The foods consumed at these festivals varied from district to district and that animal foods such as pork, fish, fish paste and goat that were “not normally available” were served regularly at these events. The article states these festivals happened ‘nearly every month’, indicative of less than 12 times per year, despite Table 2 listing 31 different festivals and gatherings.
This article doesn’t break down calories eating on a weekly of daily basis and their sources. Hypothetically, even if the difference in calories apart from sweet potatoes (93%) were made up by animal foods, 7% of calories coming from animals is still much lower than traditional western diets. In my view, this hypothetical is not realistic, as they also ate vegetables, soy and seaweeds. Thus the percentage of animal foods was likely much lower than 7%. If we go by the number of festivals and make extrapolations, even if amounts totaled 1 pound of pork per person per festival, a literal extrapolation may be 12 pounds of pork per person per year given 1 festival per month. Even if they celebrated all 31 festivals listed in Table 2, that would still only amount to roughly 31 pounds of pork per year, or 1.3oz/day, which is still much lower than Western cultures. In 2018, American’s were estimated to eat 222 pounds of meat per year (source), or 9.7oz/day source. Estimations for fish consumption should also be accounted for, but for the scope of this article have been omitted.
Despite this Sho article having a lengthy section outlining pork consumption patterns and practices in Okinawans, after examining the article in detail, I fail to see how animal products represented a significant portion, or ‘massive amount’, of their calories. And yes, they were almost 100% plant-based eating 93% of their calories from whole sweet potatoes, and likely a large percentage of the remaining 7% from other plants, too. Interestingly, the Sho article did point to the addition of pork, and all parts of the pig, as ‘health-giving’ and an “integral part of Okinawan longevity food” and “a major pillar of the longevity diet”. Worth noting, the article summarizes dietary practices by stating that with regards to pork consumption “saturated fats are carefully removed in the process of boiling or aku- nuki.”
In summary, pork and fish were certainly part of the Okinawan diet, but made up a very small percentage of total calories. What did make up the vast majority of calories were whole plants, notably sweet potatoes, vegetables, seaweeds, herbs, teas, tofu and soy. Large amounts of dietary fiber were eaten, as well as essential fatty acids, natural vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. The Okinawan diet consists of patterns that are either ignored, or outright refuted, in western society and small dietary circles (Keto and Paleo). These health promoting patterns include intakes low in saturated fat, high in fiber, high in fruits and vegetables and high in phytonutrients (Willcox). As a nation and western culture, we should incorporate more of these dietary and lifestyle methods into our daily habits to maximize longevity and health.