The Myth of Aging

“ I’m getting old.” “I just can’t do what I used to do!” 

If you live in America, and you’re over 40, chances are pretty good you may have said something like that recently. More stiffness in the morning that we chalk up to getting older. Maybe a little knee pain during the day. Another painful sign. Or out of breath with a few flights of stairs. Simply struggling to do routine physical or mental activities. And then we blame it on our age. 

But what if I told you of a few other cultures from around the world that would put our model and concept of aging to shame? What if I told you about an 88 year old farmer who still works 11 hour days, 7 days a week? And happily, I might add.

Or the 78 year old Master Black Belt Karate instructor who still maintains a rigorous daily teaching schedule and has never even been to a doctor? Ever. These are not isolated cases, but regular occurrences in some other areas of the world.

The body just breaks down, right?

Well, sort of. There’s no question that our abilities decrease with age. But should we really be so quick to accept the model of aging that we have in America? I say no.

We tend to use the term 'aging' and 'getting older' interchangeably. But they’re not the same. We all get older. But aging, that is, the body degenerating, is very much dependent on what we do. Or don’t do. We have much more of a hand in how that happens than we might think.

By now, everybody knows that lifestyle and how we eat are the keys to healthy longevity. And there are other cultures in the world that prove it, whose population doesn’t just regularly live to a hundred, and even well beyond in some cases, but are also productive and actively engaged in their lives far beyond what the average American sees as possible.

It’s time to change how we think about aging.

The Hunza’s and the Okinawans

Asian Rice Farmer

The Hunza’s of northern Pakistan and the Okinawans of Japan are two such cultures.

The farmer and karate instructor I mentioned above are two examples from Okinawa, one of the most southern islands of Japan. They have by far more centenarians than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the Hunza’s. And they aren’t just living, they are thriving. The ancient Chinese even called Okinawa ‘the land of the immortals.’

The Hunza’s are an equally amazing culture. They are quite isolated in the Himalayan mountains of northern Pakistan. Stories of individuals living beyond 120 are legendary. And while they don’t keep birth records as we do; they mark their time/age by certain events that happen, there is still plenty of evidence that supports their longevity and productivity well beyond 100 years old. 

But there’s a not so happy ending to the Okinawa story. Over the last several decades, the younger generations have all but abandoned the diet of their ancestors in favor of a western diet, and have seen premature aging and degenerative disease rates that reflect our own. 

The message is pretty clear:

Wear our jeans and sneakers.
But please don’t eat our food!

Of course, there are other factors such as activity, a positive attitude and sense of community. But food choices are by far at the top of the list. These two cultures are the living examples of the power of food.

Success leaves clues

So how do they eat?

The base of their respective diets are starches, or complex carbohydrates. Yup. Those starches. Grains and tubers such as potatoes. I realize that this flies in the face of some of our contemporary ideas about what the best diet is.

But when you look at the biology of your body, starting with the starch digesting enzyme amylase found in your saliva, it makes sense. Amylase is the main digestive enzyme in saliva, which has to tell you something. I will be doing an article on how the body is constructed soon. 

In the case of the Okinawan's, about 85% of their diet is complex carbohydrates, or starch, with sweet potatoes comprising about 70% and rice about 12%. The foundation of the Hunza diet is also starch, but in their case, it’s grains: whole wheat, millet, buckwheat and barley. They eat chapatti’s, a type of flat bread, consisting of these grains at every meal. Sometimes, a little chickpea and bean flour are added.

Key: There are virtually no simple carbohydrates or processed grains found anywhere. 

Both the Okinawan’s, and Hunza’s are near vegetarian. Very little meat is consumed. Just 1% of the Okinawan diet is comprised of meat. Not much more for the Hunza. 

The Okinawan’s eat very little dairy, the Hunza’s a little bit more. In the case of the Hunza’s, their dairy is goat, with which they make cheese and yogurt. And it’s always raw and unpasteurized.

They both consume plenty of fresh untreated raw vegetables. This is a big one. Raw vegetables are a key to optimal health wherever you are, because of the sheer volume of nutrition that you get. And both of these groups eat plenty. (I drink mine. More on that soon.)

They both consume a low-fat diet. The Hunza get some of their fat/oil from apricot seeds that they press and use for cooking and salads. Otherwise, little fat from nuts or seeds.

You would think that the Okinawans, being surrounded by water, that they would eat a lot of fish. But they don’t. Only 1% of their diet consists of fish. This one surprised even me. A few 3 oz portions of fish a week is about it.

Neither group eats a lot of fruit. But when they do, it is fresh, whole, raw, and mostly local. The Hunza dry some fruit literally on the rooftops of houses for the winter. And, of course, nothing is added. No preservatives, pesticides, or any other additives.

Hara Hachi Bu

But it's not just what the Okinawan’s eat. It's also how much.

They practice a dietary philosophy known as hara hachi bu. Literally, eight parts out of ten full. Translation: they eat only to the point at which they are about 80% full.

That makes for a daily intake of about 1,800 calories, compared to the more than 2,500 that the average American male consumes. The Hunza’s also have a similar practice. Solid evidence is coming out that some calorie restriction can have a big impact on aging.

This practice tells us that they are also quite conscious and aware of their food intake, and eat just as much for health and longevity as for pleasure. 

Obviously, if we choose to live in America, we have some choices to make if we intend to stay strong and healthy into our advanced years.

But we could do no better than adopting and emulating as much as possible the diet and lifestyle of these two incredibly healthy cultures.

So instead of thinking about retiring at 65, you're thinking about your next project or your next career.