Who lives the longest? -- 2/15/23

Today's selection -- from How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. Life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world:
"Among the world's more than 200 nations and territories, Japan has had the highest average longevity since the early 1980s, when its combined (male and female) life expectancy at birth surpassed 77 years. Further gains followed, and by 2020 Japan's combined life expectancy at birth was about 84.6 years. Women live longer in all soci­eties, and by 2020 their life expectancy in Japan was about 87.7 years, ahead of 86.2 years in second-place Spain. Average longevity is an out­come of complex and interacting genetic, lifestyle, and nutritional factors. Trying to find out to what extent it is determined by diet alone is impossible, but if there are unique features to a nation's diet, they clearly deserve a closer examination.

"Is there anything truly special about Japan's food consumption that would provide a ready explanation of that diet's contribution to the nation's record longevity? All of its traditional ingredients con­sumed in substantial quantities differ only subtly from those eaten or drunk in abundance in neighboring Asian nations. The Chinese and Japanese consume different, but nutritionally equivalent, varieties of the same subspecies of rice (Oryza sativa japonica). The Chinese have traditionally coagulated their bean curd (dòufu) with calcium sulfate (shígāo), while the Japanese bean curd (tōfu) is gelled with magnesium sulfate (nigari), but the ground legume grain is identically rich in protein. And unlike unfermented Japanese green tea (ocha), Chinese green tea (lüchá) is partially fermented. These are not differences in nutritional quality, merely matters of appearance, color, and taste.

Nattō, Japanese soybean-based vegetarian food

"The Japanese diet has undergone an enormous transformation during the past 150 years. The traditional diet, consumed by most of the nation before 1900, was insufficient to support the population's growth potential and it resulted in short statures among both women and men; slow pre-Second World War improvements accelerated after the country overcame food shortages following its defeat in 1945. The consumption of milk, first introduced at school lunches to prevent malnutrition, began to rise, and white rice became abun­dant. Seafood supply expanded rapidly as the country built the world's largest fishing (and whaling) fleet. Meat became a part of common Japanese dishes, and many baked goods emerged as favorites in this traditionally non-baking culture. Higher incomes and hybrid­ization of tastes brought increases in mean blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body weight-and yet heart disease did not soar and longevity increased.

"The latest published surveys show Japan and the US to be surpris­ingly close in total food energy consumed per day. In 2015-2016, US males consumed only 11 percent more, and US women not even 4 percent more food energy per day than their Japanese counterparts did in 2017. The two countries diverged moderately in total carbohy­drate (Japan was ahead by less than 10 percent) and protein (with Americans less than 14 percent ahead) consumption, and both nations were well above the needed protein minima. But there is a major gap in terms of average fat intake, with American males consuming about 45 percent more and women 30 percent more than the Japanese. And the greatest disparity is in sugar intake: among US adults it is about 70 percent higher. When recalculated in terms of average annual dif­ferences, Americans have recently consumed about 8 kilograms more fat and 16 kilograms more sugar every year than the average adult in Japan.

"The widespread availability of ingredients, and easy access to cooking instructions and recipes on the internet, means that you too can minimize your risk of premature mortality and start eating à la japonaise -- be it the country's traditional cuisine, washoku, or its adap­tations of foreign meals (Wienerschnitzel appearing as pre-sliced tonkatsu; curry and rice transformed into gooey kare raisu)."

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Vaclav Smil


How the World Really Works


Penguin Random House LLC


Copyright 2022 by Vaclav Smil


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