Demystifying the Asian Diet


Demystifying the Asian Diet

Surf the web these days on “Asian Diet” or “Asian Slimming Secrets” and you’ll see more and more research and articles from news institutions on the topic of what the Asian population eats to keep themselves slim and healthy when compared to the typical American diet.  The “10 Things You Need to Know about the Asian Diet” differs from site to site but the commonalities are:

  1. Limit drinks, especially cold drinks with meals
  2. Use small plates and chopsticks
  3. Consume rice (since more than 1 billion Asians eat rice almost every day)
  4. Eat more vegetables and less meat
  5. Limit on dessert.  Not every night is dessert night
  6. Consume more seafood, especially fish
  7. Avoid dairy products
  8. Include more soup with your meals
  9. Optimize food temperatures with seasons
  10. Eat until you’re 80% full

There are also books published and plenty of commercial/advertising sites on the web proclaiming that Asians don’t diet; Asians eat what they want and as much as they want; Asians eat plenty of rice and don’t exercise and still loose tons of weight, and so on and so forth.  And here’s a good one: “exercising can cause fat gain“.  Really?  I would not recommend to anyone a lifestyle that demotes exercise or a diet program that encourages the increase of white rice consumption.  There are enough studies out there to prove that these things just aren’t healthy for you.

So is there such thing as the “Asian Diet Secret”?  I think not.  After all, we’re not exactly trying to hide anything.  And if there is, I am here to demystify and debunk it for you. What you’ll be happy to know is that you don’t have to be Asian or to strictly follow an Asian Diet to be slim and healthy.  I certainly don’t eat and cook Asian food every day and I don’t live in an area where there is an abundance of Asian supermarkets. And while it may be true that the reason Asians are slimmer or healthier is due to the “Asian Diet”, you don’t have to follow all the “rules” to benefit from it.

Eat Fresh Food, Not Processed Food

When I say “processed food”, I mean chemically processed food.  I am amazed at the amount of processed food that is in the American diet: sodas, cookies, chips, pretzels, crackers, candy, cold cuts, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, cheese, canned soup, you name it.  Most American children have 3 or more of what I just mentioned on any given day.  Among other things, processed foods are:

  • High in sugar and high fructose corn syrup
  • Contain all sorts of artificial ingredients, preservatives and additives
  • Often high in refined carbohydrates
  • Often contains sodium nitrates & sodium nitrites
  • High in salt
  • Low in nutrients
  • Low in fiber
  • High in trans-fats or processed vegetable oils

All of these, eaten over time, day in and day out, will make you fat and sick.  With the increase of industrialized and convenient packaged food in the Asian culture, the trend is, soon enough, there will be as much of processed/packaged foods on Asian supermarket shelves as there are in Americans’.   Scan any Asian supermarket and you’ll find unhealthy foods such as instant noodles, shrimp chips, canned preserved vegetables, packaged sweets, preservative sauces that can sit on the shelves for years and so on.  So Asian or not, the key to good health is to not eat pre-processed food and instead eat freshly cooked food with fresh ingredients.  Period.

Limit the Amount of Dairy Products

This is one good thing going for the Asian population.  Most Asians don’t consume dairy products and most are lactose intolerant, myself included.  According to Dr. Mark Hyman, “Dairy is nature’s perfect food — but only if you’re a calf.”  Studies have shown that Vitamin D, not calcium, prevents bone fractures and countries with the least consumption of milk and dairy products have the lowest rates of osteoporosis.  Moreover, cheese and whole fat milk are full of saturated fat which have been linked to heart disease.  Dairy also aggravates irritable bowel syndrome and may contribute to other health problems such as sinus and ear infections, type 1 diabetes, chronic constipation and anemia in children.

Drink Green Tea

Green tea has been touted as the healthiest beverage on the planet.  Made from un-oxidized leaves and less processed among teas, green tea contains one of the most antioxidants and beneficial polyphenols.  Aside from water, green tea is what I drink daily and throughout the day.  I much prefer Japanese green tea over other green teas, but simply for taste preference.  According to Authority Nutrition – An Evidence-Based Approach website, 10 Proven Benefits of Green Tea include:

  • Increases fat burning and improves physical performance
  • Contains various bioactive compounds that can improve health
  • Compounds in Green Tea can improve brain function and make you smarter
  • Antioxidants in Green Tea may lower your risk of various types of cancer
  • May protect your brain in old age, lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
  • Green Tea can kill bacteria, which improves dental health and lowers your risk of infection
  • May lower your risk of Type II Diabetes
  • May reduce your risk of Cardiovascular disease
  • Can help you lose weight and lower your risk of becoming obese
  • May decrease your risk of dying and help you live longer

With such an extensive list of health benefits including fat burning and weight loss, green tea may be the number one Asian Diet secret.  Why not consider making green tea a regular part of your life. Just make sure you don’t drink it on an empty stomach as the tannins in green tea can make you feel nauseous or irritate your stomach lining.  Tannins aren’t bad.  They are a type of polyphenol that comes from plants, a strong antioxidant that helps boost immunity and provide protection from harmful toxins. And if you are taking any type of medication or are pregnant, make sure to consult with your doctor first.

Everyday Gluttony Is Not the Way to Go

Face it, we all have those days when all we want and think of is food.  It’s also not realistic for many of us to always stay on the healthy track.  Whether it’s a birthday celebration, Thanksgiving, stress from a project deadline, arguments with our loved ones, or simply “it’s that time of the month”, we all fall off the wagon once in a while and resolve to overeating or consuming not so healthy food.  It’s OK to splurge once in a while as long as you can learn to cut back and get back to making good food choices.  The key is to not make a habit of thinking that the unhealthy food you eat is OK because you don’t eat that same unhealthy food often.  It always makes me ponder when I hear an unfit person say “… but I don’t eat that everyday”.  Yes, maybe you don’t eat a half-pounder cheeseburger every day, but if the next day is a big slab of steak, and the day after is a full rack of BBQ ribs plus French fries or a big slice of lasagna, and the pattern keeps going, then it is everyday gluttony.

The one big distinction between modern day America and the traditional Asian lifestyle is in the way we think of food.  Traditional Asians eat to live, whereas Americans live to eat.  There is just way too much food for consumption in modern-day America; and let’s be honest, bad and unhealthy foods taste good and are addicting.  In contrary, with the scarce amount of food available in most Asian countries, eating for survival is the purpose when it comes to food and gluttony is a luxury most Asians cannot afford.

Include More Soup in Your Diet

I am sure you’ve heard that soup is good for you.  However, I find that more often than not, Western soup tends to be high in calories and fat.  The French Onion or Cream of Mushroom soup that accompany your meal is not only high in calories and saturated fat but also not all that good for you.  Asian soups, on the other hand, are made strictly for nutritional value.  Of course they taste delicious too.  There are many soups in Chinese cooking made for the sole purpose of taming or curing sickness or preventing diseases.  In Vietnam, soup base that accompanies noodles, as in our famous Pho, takes hours to cook to allow for the release of nutrients in bones, herbs and spices.  In most of Asia, soup is almost always a part of any meal.  Stay tuned and check out the many delicious and good-for-you soup recipes I am planning to post on Health Blox for Women.

Limit the Consumption of White Starch

Don’t let anyone fool you, white rice is considered refined carbohydrate and consuming it in excess amount will simply make you fat and unhealthy. Pregnant in the year 2000 with my first child, carbohydrate was all I craved for.  Thinking that it was good for me and my unborn baby, I consumed white rice almost every day and the result was I gained close to 60 lbs – going from a petite frame of 106 lbs to 162 lbs.  It is true that white rice and white starch are main staples in the Asian diet but it’s important to know that this may be the reason why Asians account for more than 60% of the world’s diabetic population.   When dissecting the Asian diet, you need to look at the whole package and not simply that Asians eat more rice.  Replace white rice with brown, red, black or purple rice.  It’s more nutritious for you and has more fiber so you feel fuller longer.

Know How to Cook Red Meat to Get Rid of Saturated Fat

As I mentioned in other articles, meat is considered more of a garnish in Asia rather than the main meal.  In modern-day America, red meat is far from scarce.  It’s hard for even Asian Americans to think of using meat as just a garnish.  Knowing the right cooking method, however, can mean the difference between a healthy meat dish and an unhealthy one.  Instead of grilling the meat as Americans often do, when cooking it as a stew or soup by simmering it slowly and allowing for the fat to be separated from the meat, any saturated fat can be skimmed off when the cooking is done.  Learn to cook this way and you can reap the health benefits of meat as protein and other essential vitamins while warding off the unwanted fat.  Of course, choose organic, grass-fed red meat and consume in moderation are key.

Include Lots of Vegetables, Both Cooked and Raw with Meals

Though I am not a vegetarian, if there’s one thing I cannot live without, it’s vegetables.  There are enough evidence out there to tell you why the nutrients in vegetables are vital for your health and maintenance for your body.  Though similar in culture, Chinese and Vietnamese cannot be more different when it comes to how vegetables are consumed.  Chinese do not eat raw vegetables as in salad, whereas most vegetables are eaten raw by Vietnamese.  Depending on the produce, some are most nutritious uncooked, while others need heat to maximize their nutritional content so eat vegetables both cooked and raw. Regardless of which method, vegetables (and nutritious food) do not need to be bland and tasteless and it should make up at least half of what’s on your plate in any given meal.

Dessert Is A Treat, Not An Every Day Necessity

If you want healthy, glowing skin and looking younger, sugar should be the first thing to get rid of in your diet regiment.  Of all the molecules capable of inflicting damage in your body, sugar molecules are probably the most damaging of all.  Aside from causing many diseases such as obesity, heart failure and diabetes, sugar and refined carbohydrates also disrupt the most powerful hormones in your body: insulin. Insulin is closely connected to all of the other hormones including estrogen, progesterone, thyroid and cortisol – (more on this in my other blogs).

According to the WashingtonPost, Americans’ love for sugar borders ‘lunacy’ compared to the rest of the world.  At the top of the chart,  the average person’s daily consumption of sugar in the United States is 126.4 grams compared to China at 15.7 grams, Indonesia at 15.2 grams and India at a meager 5.1 grams.  Just according to this statistic, avoiding sugar may be the “best-kept” Asian diet secret of all.

Be Active and Exercise Regularly

When it comes to exercise and fitness, I have a philosophy of my own and it will be the topic of another discussion.  For the purpose of this article, if you ever wonder if the reason Asians in Asia are thinner than Americans in the States is because Asians exercise more – the answer is yes, and no.  It depends on how you define “exercise”.   I was recently in Hong Kong and Thailand visiting with my family and throughout the trip, I ate with little regard – after all, I was there … for food.  I lost about 5 pounds after the trip, looking thinner and firmer.  It happens every time I travel to Asia and it’s one of the reasons why I love going there.  The reason for the tone body and weight loss was – walking.  We walked, on average 5 miles each day.  In Asia, most people take public transportation to get to where they need to go, and if it’s close enough, as in a few miles, they walk.  In developing countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, for most, the only transportation is walking and biking.  Unlike Americans with ‘planned’ exercise in the gym or scheduled running time, Asians simply exert more physical energy as part of daily life.

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