One of the greatest markers for the achievement of "civilization" in any culture is longevity, a mark of the proof of the health and wellness of a country or a group of people. (Hopper, 1999, p. 443) With this mark comes a responsibility, for both the individual and the culture as a whole. With regard to longevity the world recognizes that of many, industrialized nations as outstanding among all, and surprisingly many are concerned about the average longevity of the United States population, especially in comparison to places like Japan. (Quinlivan & Davies, 2003)
As you can see the difference between these two like countries on the issue of longevity is significant. Both men and women, in Japan live significantly longer on average than do those in the United States. In fact they live more than three years longer. In fact in Japan can be found the highest concentration of centurions, those who have lived to be older than 100 years, in the world. (Robine & Saito, 2003)
The number of persons aged 100 years and older in Japan increased from 154 in September 1963 (20 men and 134 women) to 13,036 in September 2000 (2,158 men and 10,878 women). Thus, the number of centenarians grew by a factor of 100 in 38 years. The increase appears exponential (see Figure 1). In fact while there are large yearly fluctuations, the rate of increase itself tends to increase. The centenarian doubling time (CDT) decreased from nearly 6 years in the 1960s to around 4.8 years at the end of the 1990s. (Robine & Saito, 2003)
The relative level of longevity in Asian countries, especially in Japan, has long been a fascination to westerners. The issue has raised many questions about quality of life and the necessity of allowing for the striking exponential growth of this aging population yet has also become a mark of cultural pride and status. Furthermore there has been growth in the same statistics in the United States, but not nearly at the same rates as those in Japan and little has been done in the way of studies to determine the reasons for such phenomenal differences between the longevity rates of these two relatively similar nations.
The measure of human development focuses on three essential elements of human life: longevity (approximated by life expectancy), knowledge (approximated by literacy), and living standard (approximated by the "log" of real GDP per capita based on purchasing power parities). (Huang, 1995)
Another mark of success is the relative ease with which individuals can provide for their own basic needs. (Quinlivan & Davies, 2003) The basic needs of the individual are said to be met, in part when the individual is able to access food without a great deal of energy or time expenditure.
For many Americans, though far from all, food has become a very minor consideration in the fight for survival. Food is available everywhere, often 24 hours a day, in astonishing quantity and variety. Most Americans would likely make controlling excessive calorie intake, rather than finding enough to eat, their number one food-related concern -- almost one in five adult Americans is obese, and, increasingly, our children are too.  (Murphy, 2001, p. 36)
Though tere are other issues at stake, largely socioeconomic statis, "longevity and infant mortality can be influenced by both health care and nutrition, caloric and protein consumption figures are functions of nutrition alone." (Quinlivan & Davies, 2003)
There is no place where it is simpler to access food than in the industrialized nations, and this is especially true of the United States, "U.S. eaters are in fact inundated by choice -- in cuisines, cookbooks, gourmet magazines, restaurants, and, of course, in food itself." (Roberts, 1998) Choice is abundant and relative expense to the total earnings of the individual are well met within the United States and yet longevity is significantly lower within the United States than in Japan.
Many are in a quandary to find the answer to this phenomena, as Japan and America are comparable nations in almost all other ways. Some would say lifestyle is the culprit, as the Japanese lifestyle is more conducive to longevity, e.g. more leisure and less stress. Yet, this cannot be the case if one evaluates the pressures of an extremely urban and fast paced culture, like Japan's, as it compares to the United States. Others would like to blame genetics, e.g. The Asian has a gene or group of genes, which feeds longevity. Yet, this cannot be the case in isolation as there are other Asian nations, which cannot boast the level of longevity of the Japanese, as well as the example of Asians who have immigrated to America, as significant rates exhibiting comparable and growing diet related disease rates. (Williams & Collins, 1995)
The most logical focus for any credible research should then be not ease of attainment of food but food quality. Not simply the nutritionists mantra, the food which we, as American's choose to consume is a major source of the limitations of our lifespan.
For all our abundance, for all the time we spend talking and thinking about food (we now have a cooking channel and the TV Food Network, with celebrity interviews and a game show), our feelings for this necessity of necessities are oddly mixed. The fact is, Americans worry about food-- not whether we can get enough, but whether we are eating too much. Or whether what we eat is safe. Or whether it causes diseases, promotes brain longevity, has antioxidants, or too much fat, or not enough of the right fat. (Roberts, 1998)
It would seem though that our fears are not unfounded and that much more attention needs to be paid to the issue of food with regard to its contribution to declining longevity. There is significant evidence that demonstrates that the source of the problem has less to do with, race and lifestyle than with the quality of food consumed by Americans vs. The Japanese, who eat significantly more fruits and vegetables and less fat.
In all countries, even at the present time, inadequate nutrition affects the quantity and quality of the population to an extent which, however, varies in different countries ... In all countries, it is probable that some lives are shortened as a result of malnutrition in infancy. Such is the situation still, even in the countries where standards of living have risen most. (Penrose, 1934, p. 18)
The issue is not simply poor nutrition in infancy, as is reported in this 1934 text on the issue of the importance of nutrition to cultural viability and success. Yet, the answers in 1934 that attributed the challenges of the Japanese nutrition problem may well give a clue as to the current realties of the longevity increase. This is especially true given the more recent investigations into the dangers of milk and excessive meat protein in the diets of Americans.
The per capita consumption of milk is infinitesimal, and from the standpoint of welfare it should be greatly increased. In the life of the Japanese child, there is an unfortunate transition from human milk 2 to an overwhelmingly cereal diet, cow's or goat's milk playing no part whatever at any stage in the diet of the majority of Japanese children. (Penrose, 1934, p. 128)
There is evidence that the consumption of cow's milk and meat is not the only problem with the American diet. Cow's milk consumption has been linked to reduced longevity.
As a group we eat far more fast food than almost any other culture, fast food that often consists of little more than empty calories from processed and refined foods. Americans eat far less whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables than their Japanese counterparts. Additionally, the Japanese have often taken part in replacing meat proteins with processed soy proteins, which provide the most well rounded form of protein available outside of meat and in the legume family.
"The meat without bones" and "the meat of the field" are ancient phrases that capture nicely the historic role of soyfoods in the life of the Asian poor. As a source of oil, protein, calories, and other nutritional benefits, there has probably never been a more important Asian crop than soybeans. (Mintz & Tan, 2001, p. 113)
Though there has been a recent introduction of processed soy products into the world market they still have far to go to fundamentally replace or subsidize meat in most American's diets. Culturally, processed soy products are still a relatively foreign concept to most Americans.
Americans also consume an amazing amount of sugary drinks like soda pop as apposed to a more healthy choice like tea. Tea is still consumed in large amounts in Japan and other Asian cultures and is a cultural mainstay, associated with longevity and general good health.
"Science writer Ellen Ruppel Shell notes that from 1970 to 1997, annual soda consumption rose from 21 to 56 gallons per…