The traditional Asian diet is a plant-dense diet with rice and generous portions of fish and seafood.
If you’re interested in embracing the health benefits enjoyed by millions of people spread over a large and densely populated part of the world, you may want to give the Traditional Asian diet a try.
Since the concept of a Traditional Asian diet encompasses the cultural habits and customs of many separate countries, you may not be surprised to find out there’s no hard and fast rules about what’s on the menu. And there’s no calorie counting or fussing over portion control.
The unifying components of all Asian diets probably won’t surprise you either: rice is one (eaten at every meal, and sometimes the only available dish in poor households), and a truly generous amount of plant foods is the other.
Of the estimated 350 million tons of rice produced annually, 90% is eaten in Asia. (1)
Most Traditional Asian diets aren’t vegetarian; animal protein is consumed mostly in the form of fish and seafood. In the year 2000, the average consumption of fish in Japan was estimated at 154 pounds per person. (2) Beef is eaten rarely; chicken and eggs are included on a somewhat more frequent basis.
A visual representation of the Traditional Asian diet in the form of a customized pyramid has exercise at its foundation.
Rice, noodles and whole grains rest at the base of food groups; fruits, vegetables and legumes comprise the next layer up, with fish and seafood on top of those. Higher levels, or foods eaten less frequently, include oils, poultry and sweets.
The tip of the pyramid is occupied by red meat. (3)
Asian cultures have always relied heavily on plant foods for nourishment. This means they eat smaller quantities of saturated fat, as well as getting loads of fiber in their diet. Fiber can help protect against chronic disease, including cardiovascular disorders and cancer. (4)
Plant foods also play a large role in satisfying protein requirements. Soy foods like tempeh and tofu are staples in many Asian cultures, along with other beans and legumes, which are commonly added to a variety of dishes, like stir-fried vegetables.
Root vegetables and tubers are big in Asia; they’re easy to grow and distribute, they’re filling and nutritious, and a Traditional Asian diet wouldn’t be traditional without them, whatever the local favorite for each area.
Yams, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, and winter squash are often featured in Asian cuisine. High in fiber, these foods don’t cause spikes in blood sugar and dense nutritional profiles help protect against disease. Rich antioxidants and generous levels of vitamin A and C are also beneficial. (5)
And then there are the leafy greens (bok choy, tatsoi, napa cabbage and Chinese broccoli), the cucumbers, summer squash, peas, long beans, onions and garlic. Ever notice Asian food usually has more kinds of vegetables in a single dish than you’ll find in a week’s worth of most American meals?
Vegetables are often served lightly cooked, which prevents the destruction of delicate nutrients and also helps preserve fiber content. Judiciously applied heat enables your body to extract more goodies from certain veggies, including carrots, asparagus, mushrooms, peppers, cabbage and spinach. (6)
Some of the strangest-looking fruits you’ll ever see are standard fare in Asian circles. Ever heard of durian? It’s considered “King of Fruits” in that part of the world. The sweet flesh of a rambutan is hidden beneath hairy-looking skin, and evidently worth the effort to extract.
More familiar fruits like bananas and apples are also on the Asian Traditional menu, along with pineapple, orange, plum, bitter melon (tagged as an acquired taste), lemon and many others.
Besides rice, other commonly used grains are corn, millet, amaranth and barley. One recent study explored the potential of ancient grains for decreasing the incidence of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease among Asian populations who had begun eating more refined grains like wheat and white rice. Experts believe re-incorporating whole grains for use in traditional breads like Indian chapatti may have favorable results in correcting these particular health issues. (7)
In a clinical trial conducted by the Joslin Diabetes Center, both Asian and American participants at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes improved insulin resistance by strictly following a Traditional Asian diet. (8)
Dietary fiber is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (9), and a Traditional Asian diet delivers with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A recent study conducted by the National Institutes of Health verified this benefit in a group of more than 50,000 Japanese men and women followed over a 14-year period. High fiber intake was clearly associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. (10)
The World Cancer Research Center recommends a plant based diet for decreasing the risk of developing cancer, noting that high fiber intake is especially important in preventing bowel cancer. (11)
Turmeric, an Asian Indian herb containing curcumin, is part of the spice blend used to make delicious curries, and its medicinal properties have been long recognized in Eastern medicine. As an alternative approach to treating neurological disorders, curcumin has shown promising results in improving the overall memory capacity of Alzheimer Disease patients. (12)
The antioxidant properties of green tea are well documented, and researchers believe the catechin in tea may be the key to its beneficial effects in protecting against heart disease, some types of cancer and liver disease. Ongoing studies may pinpoint the role green tea can play in preventing metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity. (13)
The Traditional Asian diet offers a plant strong approach to cultivating vital health. Patterning your diet after the customs and habits from a part of the world where researchers continue to document the secrets of sharp and active centenarians could be a smart move.
For people who enjoy eating fish and seafood regularly, and can live with skipping dairy and nibbling on red meat only once a month or so, the Traditional Asian diet could be an excellent fit.