Jiroemon Kimura: Discipline Through Diet
Episode #2 of the course Secrets to a long life: A study of the world’s oldest people by John Robin
Welcome back to our course on long life!
Yesterday we met Jeanne Calment and learned about her determination, and how that helped her hone over a lifetime a daily routine full of healthy habits that pushed her forward. Today, we are going to continue learning about supercentenarians by way of studying another record holder.
This will take us to Japan, to learn about him.
Jiroemon Kimura: The Oldest Man to Live
When he died on June 12, 2013, Jiroemon Kimura, of Kyoto Prefecture in Japan, didn’t just set the new record for being the oldest man to ever live, he also brought to end an era, for on that date in 2013, he was officially the last person alive to have seen the 1800s. Born on April 19, 1897, he made it 54 days past his 116th birthday. He died with 7 children, 14 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and 15 great-great-grandchildren.
He broke records as he aged. First, just after his 112th birthday, he became the oldest living man in Japan, when Tomoji Tanabe died at age 113 and 274 days. From that time on, only one other man in the world was older: Walter Breuning, from the US, and he died April 14, 2011, at age 114 and 205 days. Jiroemon was nearly 115 and still going strong as he claimed that new record, and he broke another record that year when on December 2, he became not just the oldest living man, but the oldest living person in Japan, when Chiyono Hasegawa died at age 115 and 12 days.
He still wasn’t done breaking records!
Next year, on December 17, 2012, he became the oldest living person in the world when Dina Manfredi, also from the US, died at age 115 and 257 days. And then, in the same month, just after Christmas, he became not just the oldest living man in the world, but the oldest man ever, of those living and dead, when he surpassed the record held by Christian Mortensen, who died in 1998 at age 115 and 252 days.
And he didn’t stop there. The only record Jiroemon didn’t break was that of the oldest person to ever live, since Jeanne Calment, with her staggering 122 years, is hard to beat.
But he does remain, to this day, with his 116 years and 52 days, the verified oldest man to ever live. Of the oldest men living today, the top 4 are all age 111, as of December 2020, which means Jiroemon’s record will hold for years to come.
Jiroemon’s Longevity Lesson
Jiroemon’s life might seem ordinary on the surface. He was born in a fishing village, married his neighbor after working in 1920s Japan-ruled Korea, and worked in the post offices until his retirement in 1962, at age 65.
But after retiring, he kept working until age 90 on his family farm. He was very interested in his health and remained active for the sake of maintaining it. He woke early every day to read the newspaper, even when he had to use a magnifying glass. He filled his day with activities, along the lines of a Japanese principle called ikigai, which is the practice of living each day infused with deep purpose.
He also practiced a Confucian diet habit all his life, called hara hachi bun mi, which involves eating until 80% full, usually in small portions. He swore by it as a source of his long life and excellent health right up until his final days at age 116.
Although he admitted in an interview, in his last year of life, he spent most of his day in bed, he had no outstanding health issues until, in his final month of life, he was hospitalized for pneumonia. Even then, he recovered but remained in hospital, and soon after died of natural causes.
If you think diet might have been a key to Jiroemon’s longevity, you might be onto something. In fact, this observation matches other interesting statistics.
Japan has the greatest density of centenarians, at 60 per 100,000 citizens. Its top 100 list of longest-living people ranges from age 113 to 118, with the greatest number at 112 and 113, only 6 of which are men.
Studies done on Japanese centenarian men found three particular traits that match those you might notice in Jiroemon’s life:
• A controlled diet, usually high in fish, grains, vegetables, and low on meats, eggs, and dairy.
• A low-stress lifestyle.
• Being highly active, especially lots of walking and gardening.
As you can see, our hunch about Jiroemon’s diet isn’t just isolated to him. There’s something to be said about the fact that, not only did he set such a staggering record, but that the long-lived among Japan, with its unique culture, diet, and geographic characteristics, also hold another sort of world record as being generally the longest-lived as a group relative to other groups of non-Japanese individuals.
To learn from Jiroemon and other Japanese supercentenarians, consider how to develop discipline in your diet. There are lots of studies to suggest that reducing meat and increasing vegetable intake will improve your health.
It’s also good not to eat until you feel full. We can draw on simple science to support this point. There is a delay between the signals your stomach sends to your brain. When you feel “full” your stomach already was full some time ago. This means if you rely on feeling “full” you are actually waiting until you’ve overeaten.
But it’s also true that undereating so that you always feel hungry, is a problem, because you might be depriving yourself of vital nutrients, protein, and energy your body needs to stay healthy.
We need to strike a balance, and it turns out that Jiroemon’s lesson contains the key!
Shoot for 80% of what you normally eat, and be sure in your reduction, that it’s still balanced.
This 80% target ensures you still are eating a substantial amount, and if you’re a bit hungry, then you can trust you aren’t depriving your body.
I’ve been practicing this for some time and have actually learned to enjoy the slight feeling of hunger, particularly at bedtime. It usually gets me excited for breakfast the next day.
And if you find 80% is still too low, try 85% instead. Experiment to find your sweet spot. 80% is just a ballpark figure.
Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll meet our next supercentenarian, this one from the US.
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