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Food & Health

Is the “Asian Diet” Inherently Healthier?

When I go to Asia, it’s hard not to notice that most people there are incredibly skinny, especially in comparison to the average American. The difference in body types is apparent when I shop in Asia, and I find myself having to buy clothing in a size large, instead of my usual small or medium sizes. Then there are the remarks I hear from relatives about how “healthy” I look, which is their polite way of saying I must be eating a little too well.

Much of what accounts for why Asians are generally more slender and healthier than Americans — who are currently dealing with widespread obesity — lies in the differences in diet. By comparing the eating habits in the U.S and East Asia (mainly China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan), we can understand why and how the typical Asian diet can translate into a healthier lifestyle.

Let’s first look at the general types of foods consumed on a regular day in the U.S. and East Asia:

Foods Typically Consumed in Asia Foods Typically Consumed in America
Breakfast Rice porridge/sticky rice/white rice with pickled vegetables/seaweed, bread/specialty breads in Asian bakeries, meat/vegetable buns, soymilk Cereal with milk, eggs, ham, cheese, bagel with butter/cream cheese, toast, pancakes, waffles, sausage, croissants, donuts, coffee
Lunch White rice with a small portion of vegetables/meat/pickles, a variation of noodles (soup or stir fried), wrapped rice in seaweed/sushi Sandwiches with turkey, ham, roast beef, tomatoes, salads with chicken/cheese/dressing, pizza
Dinner Bowl of white rice, fish, tofu, soup, pork/beef/chicken Pasta, salad, pot roast, chicken, peas/corn/broccoli/celery, steak, sandwiches, bread, potatoes
Dessert/snacks Fruit, dried fruit, nuts, rice crackers, salty crackers Chips, cake, pie, ice cream
Drinks Tea (green, oolong, black), soymilk Coffee, soda, juices

From the table above, we see that the main ingredient in the Asian diet is the beloved white rice. According to Oldways, rice provides 25 to 80 percent of the calories in the daily diet of 2.7 billion Asians. It’s typically eaten with every meal, in the form of steamed, sticky rice. As author Jason Bussell of “The Asian Diet: Simple Secrets for Eating Right, Losing Weight, and Being Well” explains in an interview with, “White rice is the most hypo-allergenic, easily-assimilated and energetically neutral of the grains.” Since it’s so easy to digest, rice can be eaten frequently throughout the day. On the other hand, the main ingredient for Americans is white bread, which in large amounts causes carb-overload, and unnecessary weight gain.

Another major ingredient in the Asian diet is soy, frequently consumed in the form of tofu, which contains large amounts of iron, calcium and protein, while being low in carbohydrates and fats. Since many Asians tend to be lactose-intolerant, they often drink soymilk rather than whole milk. Soymilk is a healthier option, as it has the same amount of protein as cow’s milk, but with smaller amounts of saturated fat and no cholesterol.

Besides food products, a major contribution to the healthy diet of Asians comes from their frequent consumption of tea, particularly green, oolong or black. Tea is drunk throughout the day, especially after meals. Its health benefits have long been lauded, as it’s known to help prevent heart diseases, intestinal disorders and cancers as it contains antioxidants. In the U.S., on the other hand, coffee, whose health benefits are often questionable, remains the preferred source of caffeine.

Eating Style

While Americans usually eat from separate dishes, Asians are accustomed to family-style dishes, where there is typically one small dish of each food group for everyone to share, paired with a bowl of rice and sometimes a bowl of soup. Instead of having to finish one’s plate, Asians are more concerned with finishing one’s bowl of rice, while consuming bite size portions of various types of dishes, which consist mostly of vegetables. Instead of worrying about eating a certain portion size, you simply stop eating once your stomach’s half full.

Overall, Asians mostly consume foods that are lower in carbohydrates and cholesterol. Sweets and processed foods are rarely ever eaten in Asia, as fruits usually suffice as dessert.

With high mortality rates and lower cases of heart diseases among Asians (particularly the Japanese), it’s no secret that the traditional Asian diet has numerous benefits both physically—helps maintain a healthy weight—and internally, as your body lower levels of unhealthy toxins.

Though it’s easy to eat as Americans do, given we live in the states, you can try adhering to the eating habits of your parents and grandparents, since it seems to be working out quite well for a few billion people halfway across the world.

Header credit: Hazel Hyon for

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