Friday, August 22, 2008

A week of Zen hell on the Okinawa Diet

My sister, that guru of body wellness, put me on to the Okinawa Diet recently. The Okinawans are reportedly the happiest, healthiest people around.They're not only the longest-lived people on the planet, but they have a good time while they're here—reportedly, they have great centenarian sex. And if that's not a reason to hang around Earth for a long time, what is?

Unlike in the United States, where youth is worshipped and age is shunned, Okinawan elders are revered. Women in particular are the keepers of the spiritual bonds between the present and the past. In Okinawa, age is celebrated with healing rituals. They promote lifelong health through the practice of dance and martial art, which they believe nurtures your chi.

This was all sounding very good to me. I could do with less stress, more chi, and I could definitely do with more exercise and a better diet.

But then, I tried living the Okinawan way.

I read that the Okinawan diet staples include green tea (good), seaweed sheets (not so good), tofu, and eggs.

So I launched myself on Week 1. The first day’s breakfast was actually pretty decent: Toaster waffles, orange juice, and jasmine tea. Hmm…not that different than what I usually ate, if you substituted four cups of milk-laden coffee for the cup of tea.

Lunch was a bagel with nonfat cream cheese, salad, and more juice. By now, I was hankering for a little protein. Was the whole day going to taste like breakfast?

Dinner was much better. Beef Teriyaki with brown rice, ¼ cup low-fat vanilla ice-cream with strawberries (for which I substituted a scoop of Light Phish Food by Ben & Jerry’s), and papaya.

I enjoyed a newfound emphasis on exercise and de-stressing techniques. I bought little stones that say “Peace,” “Harmony,” “Positive Energy.” But was I supposed to carry the rocks around with me all day, or just arrange them on a shelf where they’d emanate good vibes my way?

My hometown lacks shamans, which are evidently critical to the Okinawan health practices. But there is a local masseuse in town who acts a tad shaman-like—she hums Zen-ish ditties as she shakes drops of tutty-fruity oils on your back during her aromatherapy special. She also does a nice ritualistic laying-on of cucumber slices over your eyes. So I payed sixty bucks to be turned into a fruit basket, and chalked up the fee to the cost of going native.

I have to say, after a few days on the program, I did feel more relaxed, centered, and I’d lost a few pounds. But honestly, the whole thing was a lot of work. Every day involved different menus, various healing stone messages to study, plus a valiant struggle to down something called Mugwort tea. I also confused some of my friends, who were surprised by my newfound, desperate desire for social connection, which is something else that helps the Okinawans live a long life. Ufortunately for the diet, my friends and I always do our social connecting at Houston's, where we wouldn't dream of bonding without our ritual of a shared pot of spinach-artichoke dip and tortilla chips. Probably real Okinawans let their hair down over something healthier, like stirfried sea horses.

Exercise, on the other hand, was a roaring success all week. I walked down to the beach each day and chatted with a guy who does Falun Gong exercises every morning on the sand. He’s a mondo harmonious, peaceful fellow—or at least he became peaceful after he made a running escape from mainland China. Evidently in China, they feel threatened by too much harmony. I'll bet anything they don't live as long in Beijing as they do in Okinawa.

Frankly, I don’t know if the Okinawa lifestyle is right for me. That’s my problem with diets. I’m stellar for a week or two, and then suddenly, I never want to see a sheet of seaweed or a “Joy” stone in my pocket again. And next thing you know, I’ve slipped back into American fast food slumming, which involves hanging around the corner of 31 Flavors and Mrs. Field's. And those good ole Yankees always welcome me back with open arms and a free cookie.

Kathryn Lilley is a mystery writer and a recovering journalist. She recently broke the Okinawa Diet by diving into a pint of Brownie Madness. If pint-diving qualified as an Olympic event, the judges would have given her solid "10s" for angle and speed of entry.


Sheila Connolly said...

Then there's the ubiquitous Cabbage Soup Diet. Its virtues are that (a) it lasts only a week, (b) every day is different, if a bit weird, and (c) you can eat all you want of the permitted foods. Of course, facing steak and raw tomatoes at breakfast can be daunting. But it does work. And no massages or stones required.

Monica Ferris said...

I hate diets, the more restrictive, peculiar, laden with weighing and measuring, and having to shop in grocery stores at obscure addresses and that smell funny, the less I like them. On the other hand someone in my writers group has lost over 100 pounds in less than a year following a draconian diet that involves daily phone calls to confess failures and plans for the day to someone.

Camille Minichino said...

I think the philosophy behind all those diets Monica mentioned is that you're so busy calculating and looking for the health food store that you don't have time to eat.

Kathryn Lilley said...

I didn't last a day on the Cabbage Soup Diet, Sheila--couldn't stand the smell of cooked cabbage! Monica and Camille, I think those draconian diets have a rebound effect--one tends to rebound to one's starting weight, plus ten pounds or so, when the diet "ends." I have done well in the past on the three-day, ice-cream and Merlot Fandango diet. Contact me for details (grin).

Betty Hechtman said...

I think diets that make you eat and do weird stuff or destine to flop.

I find it hard to NOT do something as in putting a nice pat of butter on my pancakes. I find it easier to take an active approach and do something. So I go to the gym almost every day.

Anonymous said...

Actually I follow a similar diet and it's great.
I've been doing it now for about two months and I've
lost 12 lbs. It really is about changing your
mental attitude more than your diet especially
if you're concerned about your health. I also
don't eat fast foods, dairy, sugar, salt or alcohol plus I do yoga and I couldn't imagine
going back to eating those foods again.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "diet" is the correct word to use. The way that Okinawans eat is based on their liefstyle. It's not a way of eating to lose weight. It's a way toeat that helps maintain your helth. Apparently, not only do Okinawans have along life expectancy, but diseases that we associate with aging - Parkinson's and Alzheimer's - are not found in this community.

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Anonymous said...

Diets never work for long. Lifestyle changes are functional dietary propreities. The Chinese as well as other cultures state the problem is with our food AND as a cultural anecdote..."Americans cannot eat bitter."

lingling45 said...

Im a personal chef (used to live in Maui and back in Houston) and I incorporate alot of the principles found in the Okinawan and Macrobiotic Diets for my clients. There is absolutely no better diet plan in the world. But you have to completely change the way you eat. If you think a poached chicken breast, steamed veggies, or a bagel with lowfat cream cheese is healthy eating you have a long way to go. It might be healthIER but you will not get the results you want. Focus on changing your palate, your taste buds regenerate every 2 weeks, you can learn to like different things. The American palate is so limited and is used to refined sugars, salt and fat. Stick with traditional asian and mediterreanian cusines. It will be easier to find the products and to eat out. Eat like the natives including the condiments (like kim che, pickles, and daikon) it will create a balanced eating experience that will be satisfying. Stay away from Americanized recipes and crazy fusion items. Eat complex carbs, veggies, lean proteiens and the right fats preppared properly. Also give yourself 1 free day, it will keep you from binging. Don't think of it as absolutes and that you'll never get to enjoy those cheese enchiladas again. Just start educating yourself and start making deposits to that nutritional bank account (there will be withdrawls!) Its not just what you eat but how you eat. Where the mind goes the body will follow. Lots of Aloha Spirit, Chef Anthony
ps: chew your food well and eat slowly