10 ways to improve the Asian Diet

By Ninette Cheng
Northwest Asian Weekly

As 2013 kicks off, so do the New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. Yes, getting in shape means changing your diet, but that doesn’t mean that you need to give up your favorite Asian foods! After all, Asian cuisine can be great for you.

“Asian diets tend to be higher in variety of vegetables, fruits, and fish, which have a lot of benefits,” said Minh-Hai Tran MS, RD, a nutritionist and owner of Mindful Nutrition.

Here are 10 tweaks you can make to improve your culinary habits:

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An easy substitution to make, brown rice is much healthier and filling than white rice. (Photo by Dan McKay)

Eating at home

1. Replace white rice with brown rice at least twice a week. White rice tends to be a staple in Asian cuisine. Unfortunately, as Tran points out, it is higher on the glycemic index, meaning that it spikes your blood sugar. Yuchi Yang MS, RD, nutritionist and owner of American Nutrition Counseling suggests switching to brown rice twice a week, which is higher in fiber and can make you feel more full faster.

“Eating brown rice can lower the risk of being overweight and type 2 diabetes,” she said. “You don’t have to eat it every day to see the benefits. Add a little bit more water to brown rice and it can still taste very good.”

2. Take the proper precautions to battle diabetes. Due to genetics, Asians tend to be more susceptible to diabetes. In addition to eating more brown rice, Tran suggests increasing consumption of whole grains overall, eating a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables whenever possible, getting enough sleep, and decreasing stress.

3. If you’re lactose intolerant, choose one of the many calcium alternatives available. Lactose intolerance is a common problem amongst Asians, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on the ever-important calcium.  Opt for calcium-fortified soymilk, almond milk, and rice milk as alternatives.Green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified tofu, and fish bones are also rich in calcium, Tran said. Yang also suggests that many with lactose intolerance may be able to handle yogurt and use Lactaid, an enzyme supplement that helps digest lactose.

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Kimchi and other fermented foods are great for digestion. (Photo by Craig Nagy)

4. Include fermented food in your diet. Many Asian cuisines are rich in fermented foods, such as kimchi and miso. “Those have probiotics and help with digestions and boosts immunity,” Tran said. Consider starting Japanese meals with a bowl of miso soup or keeping kimchi in your refrigerator as a snack or appetizer.

5. Read the nutrition and ingredient labels of processed foods. “I noticed that a lot of Asian parents are not accustomed to reading the nutrition facts and ingredient lists,” said Yang, who specializes in infants and children. “They purchase a lot more processed food than before.”

It’s best to choose fresh produce, but if you must choose processed food, make sure to read the labels keeping sodium, fat, and hard-to-pronounce words in mind as red flags.

6. Parents: when feeding children, keep the Ellyn Satter process in mind. Nutrition and eating experts, the Ellyn Satter Institute, reminds parents that the responsibility in feeding is on them. “Remember what, where, and when,” Yang said. “The parents are responsible for the meal time schedule, the food, where they will offer it, and how much they’re going to eat.” Yang also said there is nothing like a home-cooked meal. “One of the things that we encourage them to do is have a family mealtime,” she said. “Studies have shown that children who eat with families are happier, healthier, and perform better in school.”

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Japanese cuisine often for goes unhealthy red meat for seafood. (Photo by Mike Saechang)

Eating out

7. Keep sodium and MSG in mind. When eating out, meals can often be much higher in sodium and MSG. “Go easy on the soy sauce,” Tran said. Make sure to ask for low sodium soy sauce. “In Japan, they just lightly dip it in the soy sauce,” she continued. “In America, we just drown it.” Tran is cautious about tips regarding MSG. “There’s no definitive research that MSG is bad for you,” she said. “It doesn’t sound good. There are some people that are sensitive to it and react to it and get headaches and migraines.”

“If the restaurant is willing to modify their cooking, you can ask them to add less MSG or sodium,” Yang said.

8. Remember to keep the meal balanced. Don’t forget your goals just because you’re out on the town.

“First of all, nowadays, a lot of restaurants have big portion sizes,” Yang said. “Watch out for how much you eat. Look at their plates. When we go out, we often order a lot of meat and seafood and not enough vegetables.”

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Vietnamese food often includes shell fish and fresh herbs. (Photo by Geoff Peters)

9. When in doubt, go Vietnamese or Japanese.

Tran suggests these cuisines for the healthiest Asian options. Vietnamese cuisine contains less fried foods and Japanese food emphasizes healthy fish options.

While eating out, heed the advice of the Japanese as well.

“The Japanese have that saying, ‘Stop eating when you’re 80 percent full,’ ” Tran said.

Body image

10. Keep things in check. Asians have the stereotype of generally being thinner, but that brings even more problems. “It appears that Asians are less likely to be obese compared to white, Black, or Hispanic people,” Tran said.

“One thing I’ve noticed in the Asian culture is that there can be more body shame,” she continued.

“There are more fat jokes and idealizing thinness, which I think leads to more body shame. This can lead to dieting, which increases the risk for obesity, binge eating, and eating disorders. When people feel bad about their eating or weight, they actually have a harder time maintaining healthy habits.”

Whether cooking at home or eating out, there are easy ways to develop healthier eating habits for a lifetime. Keep these tips in mind at the grocery store, in the kitchen, or the next time you are scouring a menu. (end)

Ninette Cheng can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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