Sunday, May 25, 2008

Thoughts on Japanese Longevity

It's common knowledge that Japanese people never die. Take a stroll down any street in Japan and you'll see old hunched women who look like they tottered right out of the Edo period. Or chain-smoking 200 year-old grandfathers out for a 4-hour hike in the mountains--look in front of you, because they're probably kicking your ass and are about a mile ahead on the trail.

How do these people cheat the reaper, you may ask. It's certainly not due to a lack of bad habits. Washing away your stressful 16-hour workday with a handle of sake and a few packs of cigarettes seems like a recipe for a chest-clutching death by major organ failure at age 55, but most of these guys do exactly that. Fried foods? Hell yes they eat fried foods here. Deep-fried pork is like its own food group in Japan.

And yet they keep on chugging. Here's my theory why:

1. The diet. Yeah, they eat a lot of different fried foods, but always in relatively small, maybe 100 grams of meat. The non-fried stuff includes a lot of different vegetables in pretty big quantities, and of course a stronger emphasis on fish instead of red meat. This low-meat, low quantity, high variety, high vegetable, high fish diet leads directly to number 2.

2. No fatties.

Of course there are plenty of fat Japanese people--maybe more and more as their diet continues to get westernized. But according to whichever group ranks world obesity, only like 3% of Japanese people are considered obese, compared with 33% of Americans!
Most people are pretty damn lean around here, and they walk a lot, cycle a lot, and generally do things to help out their heart. Even the old grandmas are out shopping on their bicycle.

3. Onsen

Japanese people love to take group baths. Strange? Perhaps, but a weekly dose of super-hot mineral water surely dilates your veins and helps with blood circulation, right?

4. Tea

They drink a lot. All the time, all day. Green, black, oolong, you name it.

5. Social pressure

To live in Japanese society is to navigate an ever-changing web of interlocking social pressures and obligations. You have to buy gifts for people for a thousand different occasions, you have to use different verb conjugations and vocabulary based on the status of the person you're talking to..Take the word "I." In Japanese, you can say "watashi," which is usually for formal situations or for women. Or you can say "boku," which is more boyish and casual, but not super casual. Only to be used by men. Then there's "ore" which is much more casual and usually just said to friends, but only by men. There's also "oi," which is casual but also specific to the Tohoku region, so you can say that if you're trying to curry favor with someone you know is from there.

I think you get the picture. The Japanese mind is constantly calculating, assessing, trying not to offend, moving moving moving. I would love to see the dementia rates in older Japanese people compared to the western world...I bet it's lower for a given age group. The best way to keep your brain from aging is to keep using it a lot, and they do. In fact, there's just no avoiding it.

Anybody else have any thoughts on the matter?


Tom said...


Nate said...

ohhhhhh damn! you hear that dad? it's time for a soy/no-soy showdown at the lamesville corral.

I have no horse in this race, I'd just really like to hear 2 grown men argue passionately about soy products.

Tom said...

It is not all about soy, but since you hit the biggies in your list I thought it needed to be thrown in.

Tom said... is more about what soy replaces than how good it is for you. Edamame vs. potato chips, tofu vs. red meat. Natto vs....Ok, nothing similar in the American diet. (slowly back- stepping out of the coral before the guy with the six-gun intellect and deadliest comeback in the West can draw a bead on me....)

Nate said...

Yeah, I'm convinced that there's an inverse relationship to how much you want to eat something and how healthy it is. Thus, epic natto consumption should result in a 200-year lifespan.

Also, I agree on the soy argument. Anytime you're replacing deep-fried starch and fatty red meat with low-calorie plants in your diet, you're on the right track, in my opinion.

Since my dad isn't man enough to weigh in, I will state his argument by proxy. Basically, he and his anti-soy ilk fear the phytoestrogen in soy beans.

The thought is that eating soy will decrease testosterone production in men, causing fun stuff like breast tissue production--or, as it's tactfully called in the bodybuilding community, "bitch tits."

Here's what the oracle of truth has to say on the matter if you're interested:

Tom said...

In your original post you mentioned your dad was anti-soy so I read further and found out about phytoestrogen. Though a totally boring response is "everything in moderation" it generally works for cases such as these.

I think the small portion sizes over the life of the body has lots to do with longevity. Your body and organs simply have to work less to digest less food so you get longer and better use out of them.

Of course, everything I believed about healthy eating went out the window when we moved here. Few fresh veggies, tons of red meat, lots of wine and coffee, ample fried food and large portions. The standard breakfast is coffee and a couple of croissants. However, people are not fat and they produce great athletes.

Again, moderation in everything. Boring.....

d said...

Was it Oscar Wilde who said "everything in moderation, including moderation"?

As for the soy thing, I have read lots from people who espouse the argument that moderate consumption is good, especially if it is fermented (like miso, soy or natto), but that massive quantities are quite likely to be unhelpful.

My own impression was that Japanese ate soy in moderation, but we did have that "white" dinner in Kyoto...

I expect the problem, if it is a problem, is how pernicious soy has become in the US diet. It's in a lot of unexpected places. And it's not the whole food, rather chemically-isolated parts of it. And most of the soy here is GMO. Then there is the soy latte phenomenon. I don't think those trends bode well.

Michael Pollan has good advice: "eat food, mostly plants, in moderation". He defines food as something your grandmother would recognize.

The CD said...

How much of the 33% of overweight Americans do you account for?

David said...

While Japanese people might be a mystery, I'm taking a paper reading class in systems with a prof who was second place in mr. junior california and has a PhD from MIT. I think I figured out his secret yesterday when I saw him lifting, he drinks sparkling water while lifting. Maybe both his intelligence and massive muscles come from carbonated water.

d said...

>How much of the 33% of overweight >Americans do you account for?

You mean with the soy hypothesis?

I'm sure there are a few who got fat drinking sugary soy milk, all right, but maybe because of the sugar more than the phytoestrogen.

Current thinking is the types of foods we eat, being almost unrecognizable by the body, cause unhelpful hormonal changes (read decreased insulin sensitivity) that results in the retention of fat.

There has been some recent stuff about diet sodas, HFCS, etc. in this vein.

Also, the USDA might have an explanation here:

(i.e. we are driven to eat increased amounts of food just to make up for the reduced amounts of nutrition contained therein)

Then, of course, there is BPA (still have those Nalgenes?):

Nate said...

>How much of the 33% of overweight >Americans do you account for?

d, you are being wayyyy too generous with the cd's comment in assuming that he wants to know the effect of soy on that statistic.

rather, I think he was asking, out of that 33%, what chunk I represented all by myself.

the 10-mile run is still on the table old man. any time you want. I'll be back in August.

d said...

so you are challenging cd or d?

hopefully cd