If you think the longest life expectancy in the world is a coincidence — think again.
If you look at the World Health Organization’s list of countries ranked by highest life expectancy and compare it to the list made by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, you’ll notice a striking similarity between the two — Japan locked down the number one spot for longest life expectancy on both.
Averaging in at living 83.7 to 84 years depending on the list, Japan is unarguably doing something right to boost health and longevity among the general population. While it can’t be boiled down to one golden behavior that helps extend life, we know that maintaining a healthy diet is a huge factor.
The Japanese government introduced dietary guidelines in 2000, and a new study suggests that this diet may have played a crucial role in boosting the health and longevity of the Japanese population since then. Those who have followed the diet have shown a lower risk of death from all causes, including death from cardiovascular disease and stroke.
"Our findings suggest that balanced consumption of energy, grains, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, eggs, soy products, dairy products, confectionaries, and alcoholic beverages can contribute to longevity by decreasing the risk of death, predominantly from cardiovascular disease, in the Japanese population," researchers from the National Center for Global Health and Medicine (NCGHM) in Japan wrote in the BMJ.
Based on the 2000 guidelines, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries created the “Spinning Top,” which is a graphic that represents the Japanese version of the food pyramid.
Photo credit: Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare & the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries
It’s kind of like an upside-down version of our food pyramid in the West, and there are some similarities between the two — but also some notable differences.
According to Japanese guidelines, individuals should aim to consume daily:
5 to 7 grain dishes (rice, bread, noodles, and pasta)
5 to 6 vegetable dishes
3 to 5 fish and meat dishes (meat, fish, egg, and soy-bean dishes)
2 servings of milk or milk products
2 servings of fruit
The serving sizes are relatively small. For instance, a serving of vegetable servings is only 70 grams or less.
Plus, take note of the top of the Spinning Top — the Japanese guidelines highlight the need for exercise and lots of water or teas. Our Western food pyramid makes no mention of either.
In the new NCGHM study, the researchers analyzed data from food and lifestyle questionnaires of nearly 37,000 men and 43,000 women in Japan aged 45 to 75. All male and female participants had no history of cancer, stroke, heart disease, or chronic liver disease, and they were followed up with health checks for 15 years.
The results revealed that the men and women who followed the dietary guidelines had a 15 percent lower mortality rate over 15 years — a pretty significant difference! There were a number of protective benefits from the diet, but the researchers say that the risk of cerebrovascular disease (commonly signifying stroke) was particularly reduced.
However, as mentioned above, there are a bunch of factors that can contribute to longevity, so we can’t assume that the Japanese diet is the guaranteed life-extender — the way of life in Japan is different to our lifestyles in the West in many ways, so it could be a combination of various things.
Nonetheless, using the guidelines to make healthy changes to your lifestyle could make a huge difference. A 15 percent reduced mortality rate doesn’t sound so bad after all.
You might also like: Soon We May Live Longer Than 120 Years, Scientists Say