I've just spent the last four weeks eating seaweed, bitter melon, leafy green vegetables, tofu, fish, a little brown rice and more sweet potato than anyone could consider normal. I've become used to miso soup for breakfast, drinking nothing but green tea and water, and adjusted to the Okinawan mantra of only eating until I'm 80% full. I've also spent a large percentage of the month being totally, utterly miserable.
In the first instalment of the 12 Diets In 12 Months series I introduced you all to my horrendous eating habits, and how I felt they were getting in the way of my life-long goal to healthily live as long as possible. Okinawans are in one of the "Blue Zones" — a pocket of the Earth where people have an incredibly long life expectancy. They have the largest concentration of centenarians of anywhere else in the world, so following their diet seemed like a logical choice.
On a positive note, the results of the diet look great on paper. My BMI has dropped from 24.7 to 23.1. My RealAge has gone from being 4.4 years older than my biological age to 2.5 years older. More nuts and — tellingly — more variety are needed to improve on that last score.
Don't get me wrong, the food is delicious and fresh. I feel lighter, I've been sleeping better, and after the initial "detox" period (my first week was filled with lethargy and headaches) I had much more energy than usual. It wasn't difficult to buy ingredients, and I haven't missed soft drink or juice at all. It was quite easy to follow during the work week, with a wholefoods cafe and fish place nearby. But even a vegan diet is less restrictive than this. Okinawans get their joy from something other than their food, surely. And that's where the problem lies.
Please, no more.
I've realised we live in a culture where we have an abundance of choice. If we "don't feel like" Chinese tonight, we can order some Indian, or pick up ingredients for a BBQ steak dinner. Our diet is varied and interesting, and we use most mealtimes as a celebration of that. We use food for comfort. PMSing without comfort food is hard. I know I sound like a massive whinger, I'm sorry, but I have to be honest with you all. I watched on with not even thinly-veiled jealousy as friends and family ate pasta, ice cream, even Vegemite on toast. Sure, I love some wakame as much as the next person, but not every day. That's what makes this diet unsustainable.
What do the experts say?
I consulted clinical and sports dietitian/nutritionist Gabrielle Maston of Changing Shape, who analysed my diet and had the following conclusion:
"The diet of the Okinawa people is quite restrictive because they grow their own crops and had very little access to alternate food supplies. Which inadvertently helped them generally eat less, eat healthier foods and maintain a lower BMI, free from chronic disease. On the surface it seems like a healthy diet.
"During Rae’s experiment with this diet there were a few things that were red flags. Although she was eating what seemed was a large volume of food, calories for the day often dipped under 900kcal — Which is defiantly not recommended for good metabolic health.
"In addition to this, protein intake was subpar. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the protein options in the Okinawa plan are vegetarian protein, which has less bioavailability. If you exercise a lot, are recovering from injury or have a strenuous job, 50g of protein per day is not going to cut it for your muscle and body recovery. There are a couple of other nutrients that I would also keep my eye on. Iron and calcium levels are also low. This is due to it mainly being a plant-based diet and lacking in dairy products. Particularly for females who do this diet, this makes it difficult to meet daily requirements and may start to impact menstruation and bone health in the long term. You may need to use supplements to boost daily requirements.
"All in all although you may achieve weight loss, for someone not used to those food flavours it’s probably going to be unsustainable over the long term and may result in deficiencies if you're not diligent with food variability and potentially supplementation."
Did I cheat?
...yes. I used my designated "cheat day" four days in. I know, I know — but my partner was cooking three different styles of tequila-marinated beef fajitas and I'm only human, after all. But caving this early meant I was tempted for the rest of the month. And I failed. One day I devoured peanut butter on wholemeal toast for dinner. Another time I ate a BBQ Maryland chicken dinner, complete with maple bacon sauce, collared kale and a side of my beloved mac and cheese.
I regretted nothing.
Pros: Improved BMI and RealAge score, inexpensive produce, made it easy to give up junk food and soft drink. Cons: Tricky to source some ingredients, lack of variety, very low calorie intake, potential deficiencies without supplementation. BMI: From 24.7 to 23.1 RealAge: From 4.4 years older to 2.5 years older.
I won't only be following the diets of communities with this challenge, I'll also be following the diets of individuals. Marge Jetton was healthy, happy and active up until she passed away at age 106. She followed the Seventh Day Adventist religion, rode her bicycle everywhere, lifted weights 6 times a week, ate a vegetarian diet and treated her body as a temple. No alcohol, no caffeine, no junk food, nothing processed, nothing from a packet. Homemade treats only, like the amazing apple pie I devoured as soon as I began this diet. (Yes, I'm good at baking. No, I'm not modest about it.)