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Tracy Shawn: Health Lessons from the Hawaiians

By Tracy Shawn, Noozhawk Columnist |

Several studies have pointed out that the average life expectancy in Hawaii is higher than any other U.S. state. It’s easy to guess that Hawaii’s clean air and abundance of fresh water and produce help contribute to this, but there are other factors at work here as well.

Master eco-tour guide of www.hikingoahuhawaii.com, Mitch Berger, who has studied Hawaiian health and customs with local medicinal experts for the past 30 years, explains how the Hawaiian culture and lifestyle increase overall health and longevity.

Berger says that 66 percent of Hawaii’s population is Asian based, and of that percentage, the highest longevity rates are attributed to women of Chinese, Korean and Japanese heritage. Berger feels that the influence of their traditional Asian diet, which emphasizes whole foods over processed fare, is a major factor contributing to Hawaii’s higher longevity rate.

According to an article put out by the UCSF Cancer Resource Center, nutritionist Sarah O’Brien, MS, RD, recommends adopting eating patterns from the Asian diet to decrease incidence of cancer and other diseases. O’Brien advices people to eat an Asian-inspired diet by incorporating cold-water fish, decreasing high-fat foods such as dairy and meat products (which upset hormone levels), increasing daily fruit and vegetable intake to 10 servings, and enjoying several cups of green tea a day.

One of the other factors that may contribute to the higher rate of longevity in Hawaii is how the Asian culture focuses on wellness rather than sickness.

“In general, Western society only wants to make the symptoms go away,” Berger says, whereas in the Asian culture, people are “always aware that health is important and will do anything that will keep that health.”

In Psychology Today, Leana Wen, M.D., mirrors Berger’s theory, saying that Eastern medicine focuses on wellness rather than just on disease, and that it’s an important lesson for both doctors and patients to also concentrate on whole-body wellness and prevention. This Eastern approach to health, Berger points out, helps people become more in touch with their bodies, which then influences them to eat the right foods, get enough exercise and rest, as well as avoid things that make them feel poorly.

The sound lifestyle that stems from this philosophy helps fight disease before it occurs instead of just medicating one’s body after the onset of illness, and thus increases a person’s well-being and, in turn, life span.

Beyond the focus on wellness and whole body connection, Berger also explains that a higher percentage of Hawaiian homes include extended family members. In an article by The Honolulu Advertiser, Sylvia Yuen, director of the University of Hawaii Center on the Family, says a strong family base contributes to longevity and that many more Hawaiian families physically and emotionally support their elderly, and thus, help increase the state’s average life span.

Generally, older people are treated with more respect in the Hawaiian culture, Berger notes, and are not “warehoused” off, feeling as if their usefulness in life has expired. Instead, grandparents who live in these multigenerational households are helping with the child rearing, as well as the cooking and cleaning.

“People live longer, don’t get sick as much, and have a better quality of life when they feel as if they have something to live for and things to look forward to,” Berger says. And in these big extended families (even trusted family friends are called “auntie” and “uncle” by Hawaiian children), there’s always a birthday, graduation, birth of a baby, etc., to celebrate.

So how can we Mainlanders better emulate the healthy Hawaiian way? We can be mindful of what we eat, incorporating more of the healthy Asian-based diet. Also, it helps to listen to our bodies, focusing on maintaining health through personal, responsible choices. According to Berger, it’s also important to get outdoors and allow our bodies to absorb the vitamin D from natural sunlight (they do get a lot of that in Hawaii!), as this helps maintain a healthy hormone balance. (The Mayo Clinic states that as little as 10 minutes of daily sun exposure can help combat vitamin D deficiencies and that recent research has suggested that vitamin D provides protection from a host of diseases, including cancer.)

Lastly, don’t forget to slow down and enjoy some time with loved ones and family.

— Tracy Shawn, M.A., is a freelance writer and author. Her debut novel, The Grace of Crows, will be released by Cherokee McGhee Publishing in October. Click here for more information about Shawn, or click here to visit her author page on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter: @TracyShawn.




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» on 05.10.13 @ 05:54 AM

Thanks for a nice article. Lots of good and wonderful things about Hawaii, both the state and culture.

Sometimes its hard to reconcile the obesity rate of Native Hawaiians with the longevity of the entire state population. This is an important focus of public health for the state of Hawaii.

From Wikipedia and CDC 2010 figures:
Obesity Rate Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
The obesity rate for Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander adults (over 30 BMI) in the US in 2010 was 43.5%.

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