For years, experts have recognized that the typical Western diet, with its emphasis on processed foods, meats, refined grains, and added sugars, is not the healthiest. In contrast, the traditional diets of people living in the Far East tend to be linked to much lower rates of many chronic diseases. So what can we learn about how an Asian-style diet may help promote health and lower the risk for such diseases? Read on to find out what health practitioners and researchers think about the Asian diet's potential benefits.
As there are many countries in Asia, and the cuisines vary greatly from one region to another, there isn’t a single “Asian diet,” says Zhaoping Li, MD, PhD, a professor of clinical medicine and the chief of the division of clinical nutrition at the University of California in Los Angeles. That said, the diets of people living in these regions have several things in common.
More than two decades ago, researchers at Cornell and Harvard universities developed an Asian Diet Pyramid for Oldways, a food and nutrition education nonprofit based in Boston. Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the Asian Diet Pyramid focuses on plant-based and whole foods and minimizes dairy and red meat. Some of the foods included in the pyramid are rice and rice products and noodles, plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds, and plant-based beverages, including tea (especially black and green).
The Asian diet is currently ranked 13 out of 40 diets in the U.S. News and World Report’s list of best diets overall.
A typical Western diet is low in fruits and vegetables, and high in saturated and trans fats and sodium, according to a research article published in the November–December 2020 issue of Missouri Medicine. The authors note that the Western diet also includes large portion sizes, excess sugar, and high calorie counts. In contrast, the Asian diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats, and low in sweets, processed foods, and animal products.
“The Asian diet is a bit different from other diets in that it doesn’t focus on serving sizes,” says Alexis Supan, RD, MPH, who works at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Ohio. Instead, it outlines how often to eat specific groups of foods.
At the base of the Asian diet food pyramid are foods you’re encouraged to eat every day: leafy greens, legumes, vegetables, fruits, soy foods, whole grains, herbs, and spices. Moving up the pyramid, you have fish or shellfish twice a week; moderate portions of eggs, poultry, dairy, and healthy cooking oils; and “sometimes” foods like red meats and sweets. Plain water and unsweetened tea are encouraged, whereas sugary juices and soda are discouraged.
One interesting fact about the Asian diet is that, unlike many other diets, it allows for the occasional glass of beer, wine, or sake (traditional Japanese alcoholic fermented rice beverage). “It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, where they say red wine is acceptable a couple of times a week, and it’s actually good because of the antioxidants it offers,” Supan says.
One of the big benefits of the Asian diet is that you’re likely to get more antioxidants than in a Western diet. “You’re certainly getting a lot more nutrients than the food label captures,” Dr. Li says. Antioxidants are substances that protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals — molecules that are created when your body breaks down food or you’re exposed to cigarette smoke — may play a role in heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases, notes Mayo Clinic. In this way, a diet high in antioxidants may protect overall health.
As many antioxidants double as pigments, the natural color of your food is one way to tell what types of antioxidants you’re getting. For example, pink and red fruits like tomatoes and pink grapefruit typically have lycopene as their primary antioxidant, Li says. Animal and test-tube studies suggest that lycopene may lower your risk of cancer and heart disease, though more research is needed, according to a review published in August 2020 in the journal Antioxidants.
Unsweetened tea is a staple of the Asian diet, and is a big reason why the diet is thought to stave off chronic diseases, Supan says. “Any tea is going to be packed with a good amount of antioxidants.” Teas are especially rich in a type of polyphenol known as flavonols, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, according to a review published in September 2017 in Nutrition Bulletin.
Here are some more Asian diet benefits that research has uncovered.
Following a traditional Asian diet may extend benefits that lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. In a past randomized clinical trial, both Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans at risk of type 2 diabetes lowered their insulin resistance (a hallmark of type 2 diabetes) after following a rigorously controlled traditional Asian diet for 16 weeks. Those who switched back to a traditional Western diet for eight weeks after an eight-week stint on the Asian diet not only gained weight (up to 2 pounds [lb]), but they also increased their insulin resistance.
The Asian diet may help prevent diabetes because it emphasizes many foods that the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends to keep blood sugar under control: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, and healthy fats. It also limits foods that tend to spike blood sugar and increase your risk of diabetes-related complications like heart disease and stroke, which include sweets, processed foods, sweetened beverages, and animal fats.
The Asian diet may also help control type 2 diabetes, but you may need to pay close attention to your portion sizes, especially when it comes to whole grains, Supan says.
For a study published August 2018 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the eating patterns of more than 12,000 men from seven countries (United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Croatia and Serbia, and Japan) to see if there was an association between diet and death from cardiovascular disease.
They discovered a similar eating pattern between the Mediterranean group and the Japanese group: both favored seafood and vegetables and minimized their consumption of animal foods and animal fat. The Mediterranean and Japanese groups also had significantly lower risks of death from heart disease than the other groups.
One reason for this heart-health benefit may be the key role that fish plays in many Asian diets, particularly in coastal regions, Li says. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, a group of “healthy” fats that can help lower your risk of heart disease, heart failure, and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In an analysis of four international studies published March 2021 in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers revealed that two servings of fish per week — which is the frequency suggested in the Asian diet food pyramid — is associated with a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and death among people with heart disease.
According to Li, Asian diets typically include a lot of fermented foods like tempeh, miso, and kimchi. These foods are rich sources of probiotics, which are “good bacteria” that are beneficial to your gut.
Mainly, probiotics maintain a healthy balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in your body, helping support immune function and control inflammation, notes the Cleveland Clinic. They may also treat and prevent diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and H. pylori (the cause of ulcers), according to Harvard Health.
While the Asian diet is more of a healthy lifestyle than a fad designed to promote weight loss, there is some evidence that the diet is associated with lower body weight. Research published April 2018 in the Journal of Nutrition found that people in Singapore who follow a healthy eating pattern the most closely are more likely to have better health outcomes. These include a lower body mass index (BMI), smaller waist size, and lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood). These effects may come from the limited amount of sweets, processed foods, and animal products you consume, Li says.
Still, that research only showed an association and did not prove cause and effect. “If you have just 5 or 10 pounds to lose, simply switching to the Asian diet probably isn’t going to do that for you,” Supan says. As she explains, the less weight you need to lose, the pickier you have to be about the foods you eat. “If you only have an extra 5 or 10 pounds on you, there is a pretty safe bet you're already following a healthy diet, so that's why you really need to micromanage what you're doing.”
Once your weight loss stalls, you may need to incorporate calorie and macronutrient tracking into your approach.
Here’s a breakdown of foods to enjoy regularly and in moderation and foods to limit on the Asian diet.
Some experts warn against eating foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that’s often associated with Chinese food. It is believed that MSG can cause headaches, flushing, sweating, face pressure or tightness, numbness or burning in the face and neck, fluttering heartbeat, chest pain, nausea, and weakness, but researchers haven’t found a clear link between MSG and these symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic.
Further, while some people may be allergic to MSG, there is no scientific evidence that MSG causes lasting harm or that it is a primarily Chinese ingredient, per a February 2017 article in Poroi. In fact, MSG is found naturally in tomatoes, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese, the author adds.
If you notice a reaction after eating foods with MSG, you may want to limit or avoid them, suggests Mayo Clinic. Otherwise, there may be no reason to worry. Still, more research is needed.
According to Supan, here’s what a week’s worth of eating might look like on an Asian diet meal plan for someone following a standard 2,000-calorie diet.
Breakfast Vegetable omelet
Snack 1 piece of local, seasonal fruit
Lunch Soba noodles in sesame oil with scallions and cabbage
Snack Small handful of almonds
Dinner Tofu and vegetable stir-fry over brown rice
Breakfast Millet porridge
Snack Small handful of walnuts
Lunch Thai peanut chicken with broccoli, carrots, and peppers over brown rice
Snack Roasted edamame and a cup of herbal tea
Dinner Salmon with sautéed bok choy
Breakfast Chinese tomato and egg stir-fry
Snack Pineapple lassi
Lunch Paratha and chickpea curry
Snack Small bowl of fresh, local fruit
Dinner Stir-fried shrimp and vegetables over a bed of brown rice
Breakfast Millet congee
Snack Small handful of almonds
Lunch Steamed fish and side of mixed bean salad
Snack Small bowl of mixed fruit
Dinner Pho with lean beef, mung bean sprouts, jalapeño, and cilantro
Breakfast Egg fried rice
Snack Small handful of almonds
Lunch Roasted tofu, garlic green beans, and buckwheat
Snack Yogurt and berries
Dinner Vietnamese shredded chicken salad (shredded chicken, napa cabbage, matchstick carrots, scallions, bell pepper, mint, cilantro, and peanuts)
Breakfast Aloo paratha (a type of bread stuffed with potatoes and spices)
Snack Small smoothie made with silken tofu and mango
Lunch Soba noodles with chicken and snap peas
Snack Small plate of raw vegetables
Dinner Salmon and tuna sushi, cup of miso soup, and seaweed salad
Breakfast Kimchi fried rice made with brown rice topped with fried egg
Snack Handful of almonds
Lunch Lentil soup
Snack Small bowl of fresh fruit
Dinner Chicken satay with peanut sauce, side salad with radish and cucumbers, and brown rice
A perk of the Asian diet is that it doesn’t outline set amounts of calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat to eat. So if you typically struggle to follow prescriptive meal plans, the Asian diet could be a good fit.
The Asian diet can be challenging to follow if you don’t have a lot of time to prepare food or if you don’t enjoy cooking. “A lot of the recipes are complicated,” Supan says. “They’re not meant to be a 30-minute dinner you cook when you get home from work.” If you meal prep and set aside one day to prepare your meals for the coming week, you might do just fine with the Asian diet.
Another pro of the Asian diet is that you don’t have to buy any specialty bars, shakes, or meal plans to follow it. All you need is whole food like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tofu and soy products, fish, eggs, and herbs and spices.
That isn’t to say that the Asian diet is cheap. Fresh, high-quality foods can be expensive. “That’s one big downside, as we all know the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables is going up, which can make it difficult for people to get those in their diets,” Supan says.
Oldways: Asian Heritage Diet
Oldways is a food and nutrition education nonprofit in Boston. Together with experts at the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment, they created an Asian diet food pyramid. You can find the pyramid here, along with tips and recipes for starting the Asian diet.
Asian Diabetes Prevention Initiative
Jointly run by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the National University of Singapore, the Asian Diabetes Prevention Initiative provides the latest research and strategies to help Asian populations prevent diabetes. The site includes information about the risks and benefits of traditional Asian diets, how to tweak the diet for better health, and other lifestyle strategies to reduce diabetes risk.
Just One Cookbook
Find hundreds of classic and modern Japanese recipes on this blog. Search recipes by course, dietary needs, ingredient, preparation method, and dish type. You can also find cookbooks, tidbits about Japanese culture, kitchen and cooking tips, and details about common Japanese ingredients.
This food blog offers recipes from a variety of Asian cuisines, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, and Thai. It also provides weekly meal plans, an ingredient guide, and an online shop.
Headquartered in California, this Asian-focused online retailer is a one-stop shop for groceries, beauty, home, and kitchen products. Shop Chinese, Japanese, and Korean products on the site or download the app.
Get fresh and traditional Asian groceries delivered to your door. This grocery delivery service offers free delivery for orders $35 and up across the United States in 48 states.
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