Hi, my name is Ai Nguyen. Welcome to my blog! To learn more about me, click here.
In this article, I am going to talk about my philosophy on food and what I eat to keep myself healthy and fit. Before I do, it’s important to also talk about the general Asian diet so to make comparison and to put things in perspective. Since I am an Asian American, the ‘we’ in this article refers to both ‘we’ as American and ‘we’ as Asian based on which context it is in.
Traditional Asian diet, in general, is considered healthier than the American diet. Statistically, we Americans suffer more from cardiovascular risks and diseases such as cancer, obesity and Alzheimer’s than Asians. Generally speaking, Asian women are also known to be slimmer than typical Western women. The secret? It all has to do with the relationship we have with food, what’s on the dinner table and how we consume it. Of course, the Asian way of life itself also plays a part in the overall health of the Asian population.
In Asian culture, food is a way of celebrating life. Food is about bringing people together, whether it’s with families or friends or neighbors. Every day dinner time is about sitting down together as a family and enjoying a meal, sharing the day’s events and connecting with one another. In Vietnamese, meal time is considered ‘sacred’ time. There’s a saying “Troi danh tranh bua an” which translates into “Lightning strikes avoid meal times“. Since it is the time to savor the food we eat and appreciate what we have, even God should not interfere with it. Done this way, eating may take longer, but it’s not about how much food we consume, it’s about taking the time to connect, share and appreciate what we have around us. A typical dinner conversation, as I remember back when I was a child living in Vietnam would be how my brother caught the fish that was on the table that very day or what type of mushroom my sister picked after the rain. This is very different from how we Americans associate with food and eating. In the fast paced, modern world we live in, dinnertime in the US is less about the food and celebration but more about how quickly we can fill our bellies so we can move on to more ‘interesting and productive‘ things.
For most of Asia, food is never in abundance. It is a means of survival. Meat is often scarce, and what is usually at the dinner table are rice, fish, seafood, tofu and lots of fresh vegetables. Drinks consist of only water and tea. Food is not just about filling our bellies either; it’s also about what we can put in it that nourishes our health and cures our sickness. Our meals are often filled with herbs and spices to aid in all sorts of ailments – from indigestions and insomnia to prevention of more serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
In Asia, there are typically three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Snack is rarely consumed, and if there is, it’s usually fruits. Meals are almost always accompanied by some sort of soup cooked with phytonutrient ingredients that can nourish the body. Meat is mostly treated as a garnish. And if you’ve ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant or been invited to a typical Vietnamese home, the first food set on the table is usually a plate full of fresh vegetables and herbs. There’s also another saying “an rau nhu trau an co ” which means “we eat plants like cows eat grass“. Well, that’s when cows do eat grass. The point is, the Traditional Asian diet consume a lot more plant based food than the American diet.
Unfortunately, contemporary Asian diet today isn’t all that healthy. As the food environment becomes more industrialized and processed, Asian traditional way of food preparation and eating habits are being compromised. According to the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine, Asian countries contribute to more than 60% of the world’s diabetic population. The prevalent consumption of white rice and white noodle, which have high glycemic load, plus the increased consumption in red meats and processed and packaged foods contribute to the increase in poor health. Moreover, salt and MSG are also ubiquitous ingredients in Asian cooking, so are unhealthy cooking oils such as those containing trans fat and animal fat. When considering to adopt the Asian diet, it’s important to differentiate between the traditional way of eating and food preparation verses modern day Asian cooking and lifestyle.
My philosophy on food is to draw the ‘good’ out of the Asian diet (or any other cultures’) and omit the ‘bad’. I avoid white starch such as white rice and white noodles as much as possible and try to substitute them with brown, red or black rice and only in moderation. White noodles don’t usually make it to my ‘noodle’ soup dish. I am a big fan of coconut oil and have been using it long before it became trendy. Olive oil is also something I use generously in my cooking. I am a strong proponent of good, healthy fat; it’s what keeps away those wrinkles. When a recipe calls for sweetness, instead of sugar, I will most likely substitute it with fruits, vegetables such as carrots, jicama and those with sweet taste, and/or honey or coconut sugar. I am an avid Japanese tea drinker and I don’t eat processed food. As much as I love cheese, dairy is no longer a part of my diet.
It’s next to impossible to follow the traditional Asian lifestyle living in modern day America. In most Asian countries, the day’s work is surrounded around what’s for food on the dinner table. Women would start the day by going to the farmer’s market to buy fresh food to cook for that same day. Sometimes dinner requires another trip to the fresh market. Food often takes hours to prepare and patience is a virtue in the kitchen. Unfortunately, with the modern life in the US, it’s impossible for working women (or men) to spend hours in the kitchen to prepare for meals. Patience is most times not a virtue we can afford in the kitchen. I am no exception. I try to draw as much ‘goodness’ out of my heritage, take what I can afford to take, and alter what I need to alter to fit the hectic, fast paced schedule in which we live, sometimes even if it means having to compromise. For example, if I have the time, I prefer to prepare homemade chicken stock from scratch; but since time isn’t a luxury I always have, organic chicken stock from a box will suffice. You will find this is the case in most of my recipes that require chicken stock or other ingredients of similar nature. It is all about balance, moderation and how far you are willing to go before compromising your health.
Lastly, if you haven’t heard me mention already, I LOVE to eat. I don’t count calories – EVER. And I am never on a diet. I love food too much. Diet for me isn’t about eating bland, tasteless food or depriving my body the fuel it needs to function optimally. As it is important not to put into your body the kind of food that is detrimental to your health, it is as important to nourish your body with enough nutrients for it to thrive. It’s important to make a big distinction between being slim and being healthy and fit. The goal is to create wellness. This, to me is the best form of medicine.