7 Foods to Live to 100

Goya bittergourds are abundant in Okinawa.
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  • Okinawa, Japan has an unusually high rate of people living past 100.
  • One key to Okinawa’s ‘Blue Zone’ status is the region’s traditional cuisine.
  • Okinawans fill up on foods rich in antioxidants, fiber, & complex carbs, like purple beni imo.

The warm, tropical islands of Okinawa, Japan are home to a stunning number of healthy, happy, and spry centenarians, who are living past the age of 100.

Journalist Dan Buettner has been investigating what makes Okinawans so uniquely long-lived for more than two decades, trying to uncover their secrets, and learn from them.

He is convinced that one major factor in the longevity of Okinawans is their plant-heavy diet, full of nutrient-rich vegetables and leaves.

On a recent trip to the area, Buettner was curious whether there might be some single food, or a specific ingredient that is a longevity seeker’s silver bullet, the magic elixir of Okinawan life. Could the secret to longevity be hiding in a humble purple potato, he wondered?

“There is no one ingredient that is best,” Yukie Miyaguni, a cooking teacher from Okinawa told Buettner, in the forthcoming, four-part Netflix docuseries, “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.” (Premiering August 30.)

Instead, Okinawans’ unique approach to food dates back hundreds of years, to when their cluster of islands was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and food was considered medicine. Okinawan chefs will tell you: unlike conventional medicine, there’s no single, secret sauce, no straightforward pill to pop here. Instead, there are at least seven key diet staples which help promote health and longevity in the Japanese subtropics.

Purple sweet potatoes are a staple of the Okinawan diet

Purple sweet potatoes are fiber-rich, and packed with antioxidants.
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In the 1950s, when the rest of Japan was subsisting on a diet of about 50% rice, Okinawans were getting 67% of their daily calories from the skinny purple sweet potatoes they call beni imo.

These “typhoon-proof,” healthy complex carbohydrates are filled with fiber, Buettner said, and come packed with more antioxidants than blueberries.

“Okinawa had a period of food shortage, and we were saved by these potatoes,” Miyaguni said, agreeing that sweet potatoes are one aspect of the equation. “But all foods have potent medicinal powers.”

Locals rely on a variety of longevity-boosting ingredients and dishes

Beyond sweet potatoes, Myaguni & Buettner highlight several other staples in the series that effortlessly help Okinawan elders stay healthy, by virtue of their naturally fortifying properties.

“When it comes to diet, there’s no single ingredient or compound responsible for Okinawan longevity,” Buettner said.

Instead, their longevity diet is centered around a whole buffet of healthy, whole foods, which naturally stave off issues like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. These unique ingredients, readily available around Okinawa, include:

Green mulberry leaves

Miyaguni said mulberry leaves are good for soothing sore throats. Studies suggest nutrient-rich mulberry leaves may also help combat inflammation and regulate blood sugar and cholesterol.

Squid ink soup

This savory broth includes enzymes, amino acids, and hormones that may boost immunity, and improve blood pressure. Miyaguni said it is good for “detox.”

Asa seaweed

Seaweed is packed with nutrients like iodine, and antioxidants that keep our cells healthy. Okinawan people eat this particular variety to help cool them down on hot days, Miyaguni said.


The leaves of this plant have a bitter flavor which pairs well with pork, and may aid digestion.


This Japanese bitter gourd (sometimes called bitter melon, because it’s softer and more melon-like than the gourds Americans are accustomed to) is one of Okinawa’s favorite vegetables for stir-fry.

The Okinawan stir fry dish ‘chanpuru’ is loaded with green goya.
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Like many of the other plants Okinawans traditionally enjoy, goya is loaded with compounds that may help lower blood sugar, which could help explain why Okinawans traditionally have lower diabetes rates than other Japanese people.

Okinawan tofu

Like other tofus, this is a soybean-rich food which is good for the heart, and may help lower cholesterol. But Okinawan tofu, pound for pound, provides even more protein and healthy fat than other tofus do, because the soybeans are squeezed raw, before boiling, instead of after. This style of tofu is called shima dofu, which means ‘island tofu’ and it is very firm, being traditionally made with a more salty coagulant than tofu makers on the mainland use.

While it may be difficult, or impossible, to find these exact foods in your local market or specialty produce store, there are things that Americans can do to mimic an Okinawan diet. People in Okinawa consume, on average, about 1,500 fewer calories per day than Americans, living by an old, Confucian eating rule called hara haci bun me. The phrase basically translates to: eat until you’re 80% full.

There’s also little room for red meat or processed foods on their plates. Instead, their bowl is filled with plants — medicinal foods rich in fiber and essential nutrients which, while delicious and savory, also keep chronic diseases at bay.