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Asian Flavours. Looking Beyond the Mediterranean Diet for Taste, Nutritional Excellence & Health

Updated: Nov 6, 2023


traditional eating practices health

Asian eating practices, rooted in diverse ingredients and culinary traditions, have a well-deserved reputation for their taste and health-promoting qualities. Why? Abundant in aromatic herbs and spices, nutrient rich fruits, vegetables, wholesome grains, low in animal products and saturated fat, these diets contribute to longevity, heart health and weight management.


However, the healthiness of Asian diets, or any diet irrespective of region, can vary. While traditional Asian diets are both delicious and offer numerous health benefits, modern adaptations stray from their roots. Whether from global food corporations or local manufacturers, contemporary Asian diets dominated by processed products contribute to chronic illnesses like diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity.

 

A recent study from the American Heart Association (July 2023), looked at diabetes, heart disease, stroke (and their causes) for Asian Americans from diverse national backgrounds. In many respects these populations - their diets, their health issues, their lifestyles - mirror those of the populations in urban Asia.


A key issue addressed in the study, and our focus here, was to look at the shift in eating practices from traditional to modern, the 'nutrition transition'. Eating practices were split into three geographic groups; reviewed on their strengths, weaknesses and suggestions provided on how to improve them. To explore the dietary findings and recommendations of the study, use the drop down menu below to delve deeper. (1)

Southeast Asian Diet (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Singapore)

Regional diet highlights

  • Strong emphasis on aroma and incorporates the balance of grilling, stir-frying, braising, and deep-frying in palm and coconut oil

  • Use of discrete herbs and spices, including lemongrass, tamarind, cilantro, basil, mint leaves, and citrus juice

  • Dishes often call for coconut milk, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and meat broth

  • Animal protein, including beef, lamb, pork, and poultry

  • Staple foods include rice (glutinous sticky rice, rice vermicelli), fish (fresh and salted fish), vegetables, and animal protein

Diet weaknesses

  • Low intake of dietary fiber from refined grains such as white rice and products made from refined-grain flour

  • High intake of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol intake from animal protein and animal fat

  • Unhealthy fat from cooking oils such palm oil and coconut oil

  • High intake of saturated fat from high use of coconut milk and other coconut-containing products

  • High sodium intake from high-sodium condiments such as fish sauce, soy sauce, and sambal

  • Low intake of fresh fruits

  • Low intake of calcium and vitamin D

Dietary suggestions

  • Increase the use of whole-grain products, including brown rice and whole-grain flour

  • Increase the use of lean and plant-based proteins

  • Use low-fat coconut milk or substitute with other nondairy alternatives

  • Replace cooking oil from high-saturated-fat options to those with lower saturated fat and higher polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats

  • Cut down on sodium by using low-sodium alternatives or less per serving

  • Maintain the use of fresh herbs and spices

  • Increase the use of dairy or fortified nondairy products for calcium and vitamin D

South Asian Diet (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Burma)

Northeastern Asian diet (China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea)

 

In the West, the traditional Mediterranean diet has been promoted as a taste appropriate (suited to Western palates) and healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet in its traditional form is predominantly plant based: low in animal products, high in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and herbs. Note the word 'traditional' as this healthy eating practice bears little resemblance to modern eating practices in that region.


Looking to Asia, can traditional eating practices be in incorporated, re-incorporated, in the modern setting? Mediterranean flavours might be enjoyed and afforded by some, but certainly not by all. How can people be encouraged to revert to tasty, culturally appropriate and healthy dishes using real produce and whole foods? In one large scale Chinese trial, the DASH diet (a modified Mediterranean diet for hypertension) was adapted to local tastes and produced positive results for lowering blood pressure. The Blue Zone of Okinawa also provides an example to study, where the diet and lifestyle create the right conditions for a population of healthy, active centenarians to flourish.


But are busy people willing or able to revert to simpler, healthier, less convenient (?) eating practices? What will it take to get people to cook at home or to eat 'real' food in an increasingly fast paced life? Cooking doesn't have to be complicated, it doesn't have to take a long time - even after a busy day. But for many the reality is that they are unable to cook after a day's work. Perhaps healthy food services (by app or pre-ordered) are an option, but they are an expensive option.

Let's call for kampung cuisine! A return to eating that supports cultural heritage, taste and health. Felicia Koh (MA Human Nutrition) Co-Founder of The Whole Health Practice
 

Dietary related chronic illness, driven by modern eating practices and highly processed foods is a global problem. It needs local culinary solutions, in the home kitchen and when eating out.


You have to find eating practices that you enjoy and fit into your lifestyle. What steps can you take, at home or at the office, to meet the dietary suggestions made in the report? Apart from diet and nutrition, other pillars of health include exercise, sleep, addressing work-life balance and stress. These are all common areas that our clients choose to focus on as part of their own self-care practices for the promotion of health and longevity.


Stay Healthy,


Felicia and Alastair

  • A healthy diet addresses one of the pillars of health. What else can you focus on to maximise your health and longevity?

 

Achieve your Health Goals


Your health, physical – mental – social - is complex and affected by multiple factors within and outside of your control. Our consults and programmes address the whole person, the root causes of ill health and maximising your health, performance & vitality.

  • Take the first step. Contact us to arrange an introductory call, to discuss how we can support your journey to health. We are based in Singapore and work with clients globally.

  • Book a Whole Health Consult to assess, identify and prioritise key factors (known and unknown) that affect your health. And receive personalised recommendations on how to address them.

  • Want to put recommendations into action? Learn more about our programmes for individuals or teams.

 

Related Studies


(1) Kwan TW, Wong SS, Hong Y, Kanaya AM, Khan SS, Hayman LL, Shah SH, Welty FK, Deedwania PC, Khaliq A, Palaniappan LP; American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention; Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health; Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology; Council on Clinical Cardiology; Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; and Council on Genomic and Precision Medicine. Epidemiology of Diabetes and Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease Among Asian American Adults: Implications, Management, and Future Directions: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2023 Jul 4;148(1):74-94. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000001145. Epub 2023 May 8. PMID: 37154053.


(2) Yanfang Wang, Lin Feng, Guo Zeng, Huilian Zhu,Jianqin Sun,Pei Gao,Jihong Yuan, Xi Lan, Shuyi Li, Yanfang Zhao, Xiayan Chen, Hongli Dong, Si Chen, Zhen Li, Yidan Zhu, Ming Li, Xiang Li, Zhenquan Yang, Huijuan Li, Hai Fang, Gaoqiang Xie, Pao-Hwa Lin, Junshi Chen and Yangfeng Wu Effects of Cuisine-Based Chinese Heart-Healthy Diet in Lowering Blood Pressure Among Adults in China: Multicenter, Single-Blind, Randomized, Parallel Controlled Feeding Trial 11 Jul 2022 Circulation. 2022; 146:303–315, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.122.059045

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