What Okinawan Foods Keep Your Heart Healthy? What About that Fox0 Gene?

Kirk Hamilton interviews Dr. Craig Willcox on the "Heart Protective Foods of Okinawa" and discusses the importance of diet in conjunction with new research on the Fox03 gene which is involved in cardioprotection, and Okinawan foods that act as calorie restriction mimetics all of which increase lifespan and longevity. (Watch Kirk's interview with Dr. Willcox here 14:54 minutes)

Okinawan Heart Protective Foods


Natto is a fermented soybean product frequently consumed in Okinawa. It is a rich source of vitamin K2 which may be cardioprotective. Since its is a fermented soy food it releases enzymes that have been shown to protect against neuronal (brain) plaque and is beneficial for cognitive health. Fermentation of soybeans also increases B vitamins (which may be important in homocysteine lowering). Natto has the cardioprotective effects of other whole soy foods by being a high quality vegetable protein and can lower triglycerides and cholesterol. Soy has been allowed by the FDA to have cardioprotective health claims.

Natto can be purchased in small packets in a grocery store, which Dr. Willcox frequently purchases for his children. Its taste can be "mellowed" by mixing it with a vinegar-like flavoring. It can also be mixed with miso soup which tempers its taste.

Omega-3 Fats in the Okinawan Elder's Diet...

Elders grew up in farming or fishing communities. They would exchange food groups to balance their diets. Farmers would get fish from the fisherman and fisherman would get their produce from the farmers.  To get their omega-3 fats the elders consumed fish daily in small amounts. They also consumed seaweed and sea vegetables daily which are, and were, sources ofomega-3 fats.

Oils Used in Cooking by The Early Elders...

In the first half of the 20th century the elder Okinawans were very poor and used pork fat, not processed oils. This was a healthier type of fat the pigs were free-ranged and fed on sweet potatoes, sweet potato greens and other edible plants available in that environment.  
The early elders ate a very low fat diet of less than 10% fat even with pork fat being their main source of added fat to the diet. The pig fat was higher in monounsaturated, polyunsaturatedand even omega-3 fats than the commercially raised and fed pigs of today. This 10% fat diet is comparable to the fat content of some of the plant-based heart disease reversal diets of today which don't use added oils.

Post War and Modern Day Oil Consumption...

The consumption of edible oils has gone up in the last few decades. In the immediate post-war period, the 1950-60s, the sweet potato was the major calorie source and they were steamed. Then in mid 60s and 70s when oil became available the sweet potato was stirred fried.

In the mid 1960s and 1970s the total fat consumption went from <10% to 28% of the total calories. In the modern day elder’s diet fat is about 26% of the total calories consumed daily. Most of the fat today comes from edible oils used that are a mixture of canola and soy oil (salad oil). But today other kinds of edible oils are also being used in the Okinawan diet including olive oil.

The elders have gone through a period in their lives where they had very little oil used in their diet (<10% total fat) to the modern day were they are using more edible oils at a much greater amount (26% total fat).

Turmeric, the Fox03 Gene and Cardioprotection...

Is more well known for its neuroprotective effects but it stimulates the Fox03 (longevity) gene which is cardioprotective. It is a gene involved in the insulin signaling pathway involved in reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Curcumin, the active component in turmeric, upregulates the Fox03 gene which reduces inflammation and oxidative stress.

Fox03 Gene, Life Extension and Coronary Artery Disease...
There are four types of the Fox0 genes. There is a protective version of the Fox03 gene. If you were heterozygote for the protective version of the Fox03 (1 copy of the gene) you have double the chance to reach the age of 100. If you were homozygote for the protective version of the Fox03 gene (2 copies of the gene) you had 3 times the chance to reach 100. If you have the protective version of the Fox03 gene you had a higher chance of living longer because of not dying from cardiovascular disease through reducing your risk to coronary artery disease.

Longevity, Coronary Artery Disease, Diet and the Fox03 Gene...

If you had a good diet and the protective Fox03 gene you lived the longest. Those who had the good diet but didn't have the protective Fox03 gene lived longer than those who had the protective gene but who had the poorer diet (diet is more important than genes!). A good diet can activate the protective version of the Fox03 gene. So while it is good to have the protective version of the Fox03 gene because it reduces your risk to coronary artery disease, it is more important to have a good diet which can activate the protective Fox03 gene.

The protective Fox03 gene is a superintendent gene which controls downstream target genes that effect coronary artery disease risk. This study was done in a Japanese population that included Okinawans.

You can activate the protective version of the Fox03 gene by natural activators in the Okinawan diet such as curcumin, soy, tofu and sweet potatoes.

The Okinawa diet is nutrient dense, low in calories, with lots of Fox03 gene activators that are like calorie restriction mimetics. They activate calorie restriction biochemistry. So the Okinawans have the benefits of calorie restriction on longevity, without reducing the grams of food they consume by eating a reduced calorie, nutrient dense diet, with Fox03 activators, which is ideal for longevity and reducing your risk to coronary artery disease.

Pertinent References:
- The FoxO3 gene and cause-specific mortality.
- Caloric restriction, caloric restriction mimetics, and healthy aging in Okinawa: controversies and clinical implications.
- New Horizons: Dietary protein, ageing and the Okinawan ratio.
- Continuous decline in mortality from coronary heart disease in Japan despite a continuous and marked rise in total cholesterol: Japanese experience after the Seven Countries Study.
- Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: A focus on the Okinawan Diet
- An Okinawan-based Nordic diet improves anthropometry, metabolic control, and health-related quality of life in Scandinavian patients with type 2 diabetes: a pilot trial.

Craig Willcox, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Okinawa International University, Okinawa, Japan. His is a gerontologist and co-principle investigator of the Okinawan Centenarian Study. Dr. Willcox has been studying the Okinawan centenarians since 1994 working with Makoto Suzuki, MD, creator of the Okinawan Centenarian Study, and his brother Bradley Willcox, MD a researcher, internist and geriatrician in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Dr. Willcox is also co-author of the best selling books, "The Okinawa Program" (2002) and the the "Okinawa Diet Plan" (2005).

Be and Stay Well,


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