The Karate Diet

Question:

Can you picture yourself doing Karate when you’re 70 years old?

How about when you’re 80?

One famous Karate master, Seikichi Uehara, trained till the age of 97.

seikichi_uehara

He was not alone…

History is filled with Karate masters who lived way beyond the average life expectancy.

For example: Itosu Anko lived to the age of 83 (as compared to the average Japanese life expectancy of 40.9 in the year he died), Gichin Funakoshi lived to the age of 88 (average: 65.4 years) and Motobu Choki lived to the age of 74 (average: 30.5 years).

What was their secret?

Okinawa.

The Okinawan Health Secret

Okinawa has the #1 life expectancy in the world.

It’s one of only five places in the world that qualify as a “blue zone”, which means that life expectancy is higher than average.

As you know – Okinawa is also the birthplace of Karate!

According to research, old Okinawans are good at avoiding heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and osteoarthritis. They also have youthful arteries and superb mental health.

How come?

Well, longevity is a combination of both genes and lifestyle factors (nature and nurture). Yet, only 20% of the credit goes to good genes.

The main reason Okinawans live longer is actually their diet!

How do we know they don’t have “super genes”?

Good question.

Historically speaking, every Okinawan who’s over a hundred ate the same way. This was despite insane improvements in prosperity and wealth. By eating and living the way they always did, they lived beyond 100.

Yet, life expectancy began to change for the generation born after World War 2. Younger Okinawans ate more than they needed by an average of 200 calories. They also consumed more rice, bread, milk and meat. The introduction of fast food also made things worse.

As a result, younger Okinawans have a higher risk of obesity. Their risk of chronic diseases heightened just by changing the way they ate!

Not convinced?

There was an interesting study made of 100,000 Okinawans who moved to Brazil. Upon adding pizzas and fast food to their diet, they cut their long life expectancy. Being an Okinawan and not eating like one, introduced many deadly health issues.

So, poor diet has a greater effect than good genes.

This is great news for us Karate Nerds – because we have the key to changing our lifespans!

(And, even better, be able to do Karate everyday!)

Nagamine Shoshin kata demo (age 85).

All we have to do is to eat like the old masters from Okinawa.

How?

I’m glad you asked…

8 Rules of the Okinawan Diet

The secret to eating like an Okinawan is simple:

Your meal needs to be low in calories, but high in nutrition.

If there’s only one thing you remember from this article, make it this.

This is a scientific observation of the traditional Okinawan diet.

To achieve this, there are 8 guidelines.

#1 Stop Eating Once You’re 80% Full

Old Okinawans follow the Confucian adage of “hara hachi bu”.

It means to eat until you are 80% full.

(I explained this in one of my Karate Nerd in Okinawa episodes.)

Why? Because overeating stresses the body and causes inflammation.

Longevity studies have shown that this is a quintessential factor.

Also, if you end up in a street fight, you’ll be more ready to fight if your belly is not full.

That’s what one Okinawan Karate master told me…

#2 Eat More Veggies, Herbs & Soy Legumes

Like mentioned, the Okinawan diet is low in calories, but high in nutrition.

The best way to achieve this is to eat more vegetables, herbs and soy legumes.

Below is a list of common ones in Okinawa.

(Note: If you can’t find these in your supermarket or Chinatown, use local alternatives.)

Sweet Potato

Based on the traditional diet (in 1949), sweet potatoes make up 67% of an Okinawan person’s daily meal. It effectively replaces rice (12%).

Moreover, the Glycemic Index (GI) score for sweet potatoes can be as low as 55. This means energy is released slowly, which allows you to feel full longer.

Benefits: Often seen as peasant food, the sweet potato is rich in many antioxidants. This includes vitamin A, C and E. It also contains vitamin B6, which lowers the risk of heart disease.

Preparation Suggestions: Wrap in foil and toss it in the grill. Or boil in medium heat to make mashed sweet potatoes.

I actually ate sweet potato just before publishing this article!

Love it with sea salt sprinkled on top.

Soy-Based Food (Tofu & Miso Soup)

Okinawans eat lots of soy-based food like tofu and miso soup. These are super rich in flavonoids and protein.

Benefits: Okinawan tofu contains lots of isoflavine. This helps lower the risk of breast and prostate cancer. Studies also established that soy legumes reduces bad cholesterol in your body.

Preparation Suggestions: Obviously, miso soup (include sweet potato leaves). Also – steamed tofu with soy sauce. Use firmer tofus (low in water content) as they contain more protein and isoflavine.

Bitter Melon (Goya)

Okinawans use the goya (bitter gourd) in various cuisine. Not only is it low in calories, but it’s also high in fiber and vitamin C.

Personally, I can’t stand the taste. Goya is one of those “hate it or love it” foods.

Benefits: Research suggests that bitter melon has antiviral and anticancer properties.

Preparation Suggestions: Before you cook it yourself, try an Okinawan or Chinese dish cooked with bitter melon at the restaurant. If you like it, ask for the recipe. You may find the bitterness difficult to handle.

Shiitake Mushroom

Shiitake mushrooms need no introduction, right?

Benefits: Shiitake mushrooms appear to boost the immune system. It also lowers lipid levels, which suppresses fat production. Shiitake also contains a form of lentinan, used in an anticancer drug in Japan. Patients undergoing chemo have a better chance of survival when lentinan is used.

Preparation Suggestions: Soak the dried shiitake in water first. Then, use it in brothy soups if you’re adventurous. I like to put it in meat sauce. Otherwise, stick to any Okinawan recipe you find online.

Seaweed

What we call seaweed, is actually algae of various types.

The ones eaten by Okinawans include; konbu, mozuku, suunaa, hijiki, wakame, shinomata, nori and gain. Common ones you find in your supermarket are the wakame and konbu seaweed.

Benefits: Seaweed helps to reduce blood sugar and regulates insulin levels. Good source of iodine also.

Preparation suggestions: Miso soup, seaweed soup or dried seaweed snack. Personally, I sprinkle it over seafood dishes.

Lastly, 4 Common Okinawan Herbs:

  • Tumeric (Ucchin): Tumeric entered Okinawa through the spice trade from India. Okinawans use it for its anti-inflammatory effect. Scientific studies suggest that tumeric can prevent cancer cells from forming. It also slows the rate of dementia from setting in. Many Okinawan restaurants serve turmeric tea.
  • Mugwort (Fuchiba): Mugwort is used a lot in Okinawan cooking. It’s rich in carotene, and often used as a remedy for insomnia, depression and anxiety.
  • Okinawan Pepper (Hihatsu): Often dried and ground up, Okinawan pepper is often used in spicy dishes. Some early research suggests that this pepper helps the body oxidize carbs.
  • Fennel (Ichiba): This is an aromatic herb that is part of the parsley family. Fennel suppresses spasms in the intestinal tract. Great on fish.

#3 Eat More Fish & Less Meat

Okinawans eat fish three times per week.

This gives them nice Omega-3 levels.

Make sure you cook your fish in a healthy way though. Consider steaming or grilling your fish. Avoid deep frying.

Okinawans also eat small servings of stewed pork.

At first, researchers thought the addition of pork was unusual in the Okinawan diet. They ignored it as they believed pork wasn’t contributing to their longevity.

After all, pork is high in unhealthy fat, right?

But, what they discovered was that Okinawans stewed pork for days, and skimmed off the fat. What was left was actually high-protein collagen.

Believe it or not – collagen helps with joint recovery!

So, if you want to eat pork the Okinawan way, simply remove as much fat as possible and stew your pork for days.

If that’s too much work, opt for lean meat alternatives, or even collagen supplements.

#4 Higher Proportion of Low GI Carbs in Your Meals

Okinawan food is high in carbohydrates (like most Asian diets), but low on the Glycemic Index (GI).

This is why a traditional Okinawan meal, of which 85% of the calories come from carbs, doesn’t induce massive weight gain.

For fun, check out this table that compares nutrition proportions between the Okinawan Diet and new generation diet:

okinawa_diet_comparison

PS. Guess what the most commonly eaten form of carbohydrates is?

Sweet potato! Remember to sprinkle the sea salt on top. 🙂

#5 Include Omega-3 in Your Diet

We covered this briefly in the “fish” section already.

Soy and fish products are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. This not only aids in brain function, but also lowers risk of heart disease.

So, add Omega-3 to your diet if you want to remember your kata in old age – and be able to perform them as well!

If fish is not your thing, you can supplement with O3 pills.

But natural is best (more bioavailable)!

#6 More Vitamin D & Calcium

Okinawans maintain their bone density from consuming calcium.

Actually, their water has naturally more calcium. This, combined with high vitamin D levels (from daily sun exposure), delays osteoporosis.

This might be the reason why Okinawans have less hip fractures than others. Vitamin D also helps testosterone production, which is good for physical performance.

In other words – get sunshine and calcium!

#7 Reduce Your Dairy Intake

There are some “blue zones” that incorporate dairy as a longevity food.

However, Asians have a different food culture, which means they are often lactose intolerant. This explains why old Okinawans don’t consume milk.

It simply gives them the “geri” (diarrhoea)!

As a Westerner, you might tolerate dairy products better than Okinawans. So this is a grey area. If you want to consume dairy, make sure it has the right nutrition/calories proportion.

Basically, avoid sugary milkshakes.

#8 Consume Alcohol Moderately

Wanna drink booze? Drink moderately.

Too much alcohol may actually reverse the benefits of the Okinawan diet.

The main benefits of alcohol consumption are the social aspects, which have been shown to contribute to a happy life.

So, drink with your buddies, in moderation. But don’t expect it to directly improve your Karate performance, health or recovery.

Personally, I’ll have a glass of red wine sometimes.

#9 BONUS: Don’t Stop Karate!

Okay, so we covered the main points of “The Karate Diet”.

But what about having the stamina, mobility, strength and mental health to train Karate at old age?toyama

Other than eating right, the most important thing is to keep practicing Karate!

Because – if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan said it best:

“Karate is like boiling water – without heat, it returns to its tepid state.”

Continue practicing Karate, because the moment you slack off, you’re doomed.

Studies show that regular physical activity reduces stress and promotes cardiovascular health.

So, make sure Karate remains a habit even in old age.

It’s a key to long life!

Conclusion

As a committed Karate Nerd, here’s what you need to do to live a long and happy life:

  • Eat like an Okinawan (The Karate Diet)…
  • …and refuse to hang up your gi until you’ve passed on.

That’s it. 🙂

Follow the 9 steps above for guidance.

Good luck & live long!

44 Comments

  • Graziela
    That's a really good diet! I think you could completely stop drinking alcohol at all, because it has no good aspect, except the social one. Since I'm not old enough to drink alcohol and don't want to do it, I don't know who my "drunk me" is, but I think it won't be a good feeling. Maybe, a glass of wine or something with really few alcohol might be ok every or every second week, but 1.) Don't make it a habit and 2.) don't get peer pressured(if you can say it like that, I'm also not a native speaker). And another diet tip is: Don't eat anything sugary or fatty!
    • Graziela
      Correction: anything too sugary or too fatty
      • Akshat
        Same here, don't feel like touching the damn alcohol!
        • Graziela
          And a lot of people die ever year because of alcohol, sometimes because their liver is failing, sometimes because they get into a car accident, because they have too much blood alcohol, etc. And imagine being really drunk and then attacked by some guy because he heard, that you do karate/some other martial art! Slower movement, slower reaction, getting dizzy really fast... nah, nothing I want to experiance!
          • Graziela
            *too high blood alcohol, again, I'm not a native speaker and sometimes rethink what I wrote the whole day
    • Thanks for chiming in Graciela-san! Glad you liked the article :-)
    • alamp
      I also don't drink alcohol, because I simply don't like the taste of anything I tried up till now. Plus, I also don't think I need it in order to have fun, probably because my main source of fun is practicing martial arts. However, wine (for example) is supposed to be a very strong antioxidant, which is most likely why French have relatively low pct of cardiovascular diseases despite eating a lot of foods rich in fats. At least that's what I heard.
  • Akshat
    The problem with me is i train like hell and eat like hell. Though i have a good physique and functionality it's still hard to just eat healthy. So, now along with karate i even have diet to work on!Thx for sharing, great article as always.
    • Graziela
      A tip when starting a diet: Imagine the food you want to stop eating(unhealthy stuff) is really really awful, the worst thing you've ever tasted! For example: "Ew, chocolate is the most disgusting stuff i've ever eaten!" That'll help for the start! It works better when you are home alone and say it out loud. And while being with others, say it in your head all over again. Another example: Your best friend eats some ice cream, your favorite flavour, and you don't want to "break" your diet. I hope it will also help you, it got a long way for me
    • Akshat-san, training and recovery go hand in hand. Make sure you eat (and sleep) properly to optimize your Karate results. Good luck!
  • Daniela
    Hi Jesse, good and meaningful diet. I have some doubts regarding soy: while the soy-based food are rich in proteins, low in fats and lactose-free, soy is known to alter, in some way, your thyroid function (especially because, as westerners, we often have a low-ioidine intake) so if you don't balance this effect with algae - rich in iodine, and that's the reasion why Japanese people has no problems with thyroid - or with other iodine supplements (usually the "normal" salt with supplemented with iodine), you risk to arm your thyroid. We observed a number of cases in the last few years, since the soy usage is growth also due to its use as an alternative to dairy foods. So, in my opinion, always use some good sense! Keep eating healthy! (...and practicing Karate, of course!!!) :-)
    • Yes, this is one of the reasons I personally try to avoid soy based foods as a staple. I suggest people find the diet that works best for themselves. Cheers!
  • H
    "Also, if you end up in a street fight, you’ll be more ready to fight if your belly is not full"Haha very good point!!
    • And, like my mom always said: "Don't go swimming immediately after eating!"
  • Chantal
    Karate-Diet!! Way to go, Jesse! For people who lift or love a sport that is very demanding (like Martial Arts), the right nutrition is essential. Two things I'd like to add: Fish is awesome and super delicious. However, due to overfishing and by-catch of marine life, our oceans are slowly dying. So not sure about the 'Eating-fish-three-times-a-week'-thing. Moreover, in terms of diary products, I highly recommend buttermilk. It's high in proteine and overall very healthy. Same with Green Tea (you missed on this one, Jesse ;)). Skip Soda and add Sencha or Kukicha to your diet. Maybe as a ritual after your training session. It boosts the metabolism and comes with a variety of benefits for your body.
    • Absolutely! Fish and meat consumption is a difficult matter these days, as we continue to overpopulate the earth. Bonus Karate Nerd point for the green tea Chantal-san! ;-)
  • Kyle
    How much are eggs used in the Okinawan diet, as I consume eggs for protein at almost every meal.
    • They eat egg, usually raw on top of a yummy rice bowl.
  • James Kent
    Check out anabolic men website it is chalk full of good scientific evidence about eating the right fats and carbs to produce proper hormonal balance.
    • James Kent
      Oh and it's not just for men .
    • Diet and nutrition is key to hormonal balance, along with physical cultivation and a host of other lifestyle factors. Hormones should definitely not be ignored. Thanks for your input James-san!
  • Richard
    Does anybody Know who the awsome looking sensei is with the white beard I would like to know more about him!
    • Robert
      I believe he is Seikoh Tohyama, the 10th dan master of Uechi-ryu
    • Seiko Toyama, RIP. One of the most badass men on the planet.
  • Arno
    Thanks for this great advice :) we are also keen on good and healthy food! We are a family of four and three practice Karate and we love training and eating the good things :) ! Cook fresh all days yourself, do not use the pre-mixed sauces and packages and all that stuff. Making fresh food every day keeps the doctor away and you're feeling good :) !
    • Absolutely! I always cook my own food (unless I'm on the road). Health is wealth!
  • Jim Smoak
    I read a fascinating book several years ago called the Okinawan Program (https://www.amazon.com/Okinawa-Program-Longest-Lived-Everlasting-Health/dp/0609807501). It was the result of a study of Okinawan centenarians (where the highest percentage of the centenarian population is). Diet was a large part of it, but not the only substantial contributing component. There were several others, but the one that stuck out in my mind (other than diet) was their social practices. The study basically said that Okinawans are a very social people group that are really laid back. Western society could certainly learn from that practice. We are A-type driven and living an ever increasingly isolated life as individuals (ironically, tech like this contributes to that isolation...), that we probably reverse many of the diet benefits we may strive for.
  • Joanna beattie
    Excellent tips! Eating right and daily last practice helped me FINALLY become a black belt in my 56th birthday! Health issues and 4 major surgeries made the road long and bumpy,but maintaining your health will ALWAYS help in the end. I look forward to continuing my journey as long as I can. Be healthy and safe everyone!!Joanna B.
    • Pleiades
      Well done Joanna! :-)PS To those above who eschew alcohol completely, I agree it's probably for the best. OTOH Small amounts of red wine have been proven to be beneficial to heart health, among other things.
  • Mark Whitt
    I'm a Vegan, so I'm already on board with nearly everything here except the fish and pork. For those wondering, I've found raw nuts and seeds to be a very valuable source for protein and Omega 3's. But be careful! Nuts and seeds are also very energy dense - which means that you can get fat off of them very quickly!
    • Pleiades
      TBH I think that's the way the world should go regarding diet, but it won't happen soon (or maybe ever) unfortunately. Though I'm (shamefully) still a keen meat eater, I'm aware of the horrific impact of beef & dairy farming on the environment, as well as on people's health (and on the animals themselves).Some interesting alternatives for the future are shown in this article from New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331180-400-tomorrows-menu-termites-grass-and-synthetic-milk/
      • Mark Whitt
        It’s great that you’re aware of the impacts of meat and dairy on our bodies as well as the planet and the animals. After I learned about these things, I felt that it was in line with my martial arts ‘upbringing’ to do what I could to minimize my own impact. I’ve learned a lot – but mostly about myself. If you decide to try it yourself, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. It does require a ‘budo’ type commitment, but we’re used to that!
        • Pleiades
          Haha I'm afraid I've given up Karate (for various personal reasons) and no longer have the 'samurai/budo' (or whatever you wish to call it) spirit!I do admire those that have made the switch to vegan, I know how hard it is to do in a world dominated by fast-food chains, packaged frozen rubbish and all pervasive advertising...
  • Christina
    I love this diet plan. I'm curious what an Okinawan breakfast would look like though. I tend to eat eggs in the morning usually in a breakfast taco (I'm from Texas...it's a thing) but I'm trying to ditch the tortillas and get some new ideas.
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    TO: Jesse-san,1. The best damn article you've ever uploaded and shared.Domo Arigato GozainasuOsu !
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Dear Jesse-san, Unsure WHY my previous post has uploaded with a spelling error WHICH DID NOT exist before pressing ENTER ! ??? ! And it is NOT spaced out as I had initially typed either ! ?? ! Anyways - your above article is excellent nonetheless. Domo Arigato Gozaimasu. Osu !
  • kenneth boyd
    great post good advice for anyone martial artist or not. a few more important herbs/spices used that were not mentioned. ginger often used in winter months to help with colds or during when someone has a cold to get over it faster. and as a tea or sweetener. burdock root is very commonly used in salads and in the miso soup and has a wide range of health benefits.
    • Pleiades
      I would add ginseng for overall health and energy, and turmeric (curcumin) for joints (and digestion, to a lesser degree). Cinnamon is helpful with diabetes too.
  • m.p. of london
    I agree with 90% of the comments, I have trained for over 30 years in Shotokan/ JKA lineage, SankuKai Karate, Aikido -Ueshiba and Yoshinkan , currently training in ITF/ TAGB Taekwondo. Studied other schools wushu, Tai Chi, JuJitsu , read extensively , my own library of 200+ martial arts books..... I firmly believe the main thing we slightly overlooked was eat until 80% full.... eat slowly, thoughtful, eat a balanced diet, hydrate, without denying yourself the odd treat but use common sense regarding fast food, fried and over prepared foods, I drink but in controlled moderation, never get drunk, avoid strong spirits or what I consider the greatest evil smoking. My life is aimed at balance , one day I might achieve balance but I love training and discovering .
  • Mark Laderwarg
    Interesting.I'm surprised by the moderation of alcohol. It seems like there are many stories of some of those masters mentioned that involve alcohol.-- ML
    • Yes, but drinking is not positively correlated with longevity.
  • WARHORSE BLUE
    Good Article
  • Sabine
    Great article and tips. Just put this up on my fridge! Should actually get Hara Hachi Bu tattood on my forearm so I never forget LOL! Thanks as always Jesse-San for sharing your knowledge!
  • Karl
    Why do you bother? No secondary gain - just great public awareness! My wife has difficulty with my absence but can appreciate what I bring back. Again, thank you for such great insight.

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