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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Diet and Longevity: Okinawa's Secret

For some us, numbers just make sense. So when I learned that inhabitants of Okinawa, Japan (one of the Blue Zones harboring a disproportionate share of centenarians with low levels of obesity and chronic diseases) apply a principle to eating known as Hara Hachi Bu, I became curious…

In 2005, Dan Buettner created a concept explained in a National Geographic cover story that led to a decades-long research endeavor into the secrets of a long, healthy life. This led to the study of five, so-called Blue Zones. These five regions have high rates of centenarians and low rates of obesity and chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and dementia. These locations included the Barbagia region of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, Ikaria Greece, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda California, Okinawa Japan.

Among 8 other interesting similarities, diet composed their 9th discovery. These regions are geographically spread apart, and as you could imagine contain different foods and eating customs. For example, Sardians drank Grenache-derived Cannonau wine every day, while Seventh Day Adventists don’t drink any alcohol at all. Okinawans have a diet that is roughly 80% carbohydrates, Nicoya Costa Ricans primarily eat large quantities of corn, beans, and squash, and both Mediterranean communities ate a substantial proportion of their calories from dairy in the form of goat’s milk and cheese.

But among some commonalities like low meat consumption, was a general lifestyle of preventing overconsumption best explained by Hara Hachi Bu.

Pareto pondering Hara Hachi Bu.

The Hara Hachi Bu principle essentially states that one should stop eating when they feel 80% full. I was immediately reminded of another principle - that of Pareto.

Pareto’s Diet and Longevity

Pareto’s Principle (the 80/20 rule) can mean, stated in a few different ways, that roughly 80% of an output derives from 20% of the input. This principle has been applied to many things. One report briefly reviews that,

“Power-law distributions occur in an extraordinarily diverse range of phenomena. In addition to city populations, the sizes of earthquakes, moon craters, solar flares, computer files and wars, the frequency of use of words in any human language, the frequency of occurrence of personal names in most cultures, the numbers of papers scientists write, the number of citations received by papers, the number of hits on web pages, the sales of books, music recordings and almost every other branded commodity, the numbers of species in biological taxa, people’s annual incomes and a host of other variables all follow power-law distributions.”

Pareto’s Diet and Calories

First some assumptions. I’m not accounting for any changes in exercise routines or changes to basal metabolic rate. This analysis compares caloric intake to a consistent, 2,000 calorie burn rate. So, ready for some graphs?

Pareto's Law and Weight Loss.

The amount of extra calories you consume per day (the amount of calories you consume that exceeds your energy balance, expressed as a percentage) against their contribution to total, yearly calorie consumption increases as it rises (above). But not just linearly. It rises faster as in increases. The fitted line certainly isn’t perfect (compare the two lines), but it’s not too shabby (R2=0.99). This fitted line follows what is called a power law. Plotting a power law function on a log-log plot should look like a line. Not too bad either (check out the chart to the right). Pareto’s Law is essentially a statement regarding power law functions. So it looks like we have a good match!

This suggests that 80% of persistent overconsumption of yearly calories (and ultimately, weight gain), comes from roughly 20% of your dietary choices.

Said differently, you might not need to worry so much about all of your diet. It may help to think about that troublesome 20%.

“Focus on 20% of your #calories to impact 80% of your diet.”

A few others have made some Pareto-Diet suggestions, like suggesting that 80% of dieting information is not necessary, or you should switch 20% of your diet to healthier foods, like plants.

But this suggests the law applies to general weight management. So when thinking about cutting calories, that last 20% can make an out-sized difference over time.

The Okinawans seem to have stumbled upon an application of Pareto’s Principle to their dieting lifestyle with fantastic epidemiological health trends to show for it.

Of course, diet was just one of nine components of a Blue Zone way of life. Leading an active, purposeful, and community-based life are just a few of the other similarities I recommend investigating. But with extremely low rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, some cancers, and other chronic diseases, it’s worth paying attention to their fuel source.

So think about quitting meals before you are 100% full. The exact numbers are likely unimportant (our beloved Pareto shouldn’t ponder so hard). What’s important is likely the conscious effort to prevent over-consumption on a regular basis. But if you stick to this marriage between diet and longevity, you might just make it into the centenarian club.

So before your next meal, try whispering to yourself, Hara Hachi Bu!

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