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The Traditional Asian Diet

Overview

The aim: May include weight loss, disease prevention and optimal health.

The claim: You’ll lose weight, keep it off and avoid a host of chronic diseases.

The theory: Folks in Asian countries tend to have lower rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity than Americans do, and they typically live longer, too. Researchers suspect that owes largely to their diet: a low-fat, healthy eating style that emphasizes rice, vegetables, fresh fruit and fish, with very little red meat.

Rankings

The Traditional Asian Diet ranked #13 in Best Diets Overall. 38 diets were evaluated with input from a panel of health experts. See how we rank diets here.

The Traditional Asian Diet is ranked:

3.6

Overall

Scorecard

  • Weight Loss Short-Term
    3.2
  • Weight Loss Long-Term
    3.0
  • Easy to Follow
    3.1
  • Healthy
    4.1

Scores are based on experts’ reviews.

How does The Traditional Asian Diet work?

It depends – there isn’t one Asian diet. Working with the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment, Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank in Boston, developed a consumer-friendly Asian diet pyramid that revolves around the daily consumption of rice, noodles, breads, millet, corn and other whole grains, along with fruits, veggies, legumes, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. Fish and shellfish (or dairy) are optional each day, and you can have eggs, poultry and something sweet once a week. Red meat is allowed once a month. The pyramid also calls for six glasses of water or tea each day; sake, wine and beer are OK in moderation. Remember to stay physically active, and you’re set.

Examples of Asian diet veggies and tubers include bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bitter melons, bok choy, carrots, eggplant, leeks, sweet potatoes, taro roots, turnips and yams. Fruits range from apricots, coconuts and mangoes, to rambutans and tangerines. Oldways suggests getting your grains by focusing on barley, dumplings, naan, buckwheat, rice and noodles (such as soba, somen, rice and udon). Examples of fish and seafood are abalone, clams, cockles, eel, mussels and octopus. And don’t forget herbs and spices like amchoor, basil, clove, masala, mint, turmeric, curry leaves and fennel.

Because this is an eating pattern – not a structured diet plan – you’re on your own to figure out how many calories you should eat to lose or maintain your weight, what you’ll do to stay active, and how you’ll shape your Asian menu.

The Asian diet’s geographical base is broad, spanning Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, among other countries. Each Asian region has its own distinct flavors and cooking styles, but they all share one food in common: rice. It’s a widespread staple, though it’s prepared and eaten differently from place to place. It’s used, for example, as a main ingredient in treats like cake and candy, fermented to make wine or beer, and offered to the gods to ensure a good harvest.

How much does it cost?

It’s moderately pricey. While some ingredients (particularly olive oil, nuts, fish and fresh produce) can be expensive, bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable.

Will you lose weight?

Probably. Research suggests people in Asian countries who follow this dietary pattern weigh less than their Western counterparts. That’s likely because it’s high in healthy foods that keep hunger at bay: whole grains, vegetables and bean products, for example.

  • One study, published in Nutrition Reviews in 2012, analyzed the effect of turmeric, a common spice in Asian cuisines. It contains the active ingredient curcumin, which may help prevent obesity.
  • Even though the Asian diet is linked with weight loss, followers are often compelled to abandon their traditional ways when they move to the United States, conforming instead to the standard American diet. In one study, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley analyzed whether the desire to fit in might cause U.S. immigrant groups to eat fewer healthy foods. They found that Asian-Americans who were questioned about their ability to speak English were three times more likely to name a prototypically American food as their favorite. When their American identity was challenged, they ordered and ate more typically American dishes, consuming 182 extra calories and 12 additional grams of fat per day than they did when their identities weren’t challenged.

How easy is it to follow?

That depends. If you’re not big on rice, noodles, fresh veggies, and nuts and legumes, it might be tough.

Convenience: Recipes are difficult to find, unless you invest in one of a few Asian diet-specific books. Oldways’ consumer-friendly tips will make meal planning slightly easier.

Recipes: Surprisingly, a simple Google search doesn’t yield too many options. You’re better off investing in books like “The Asian Diet: Get Slim and Stay Slim the Asian Way” and “Feed Your Tiger: The Asian Diet Secret for Permanent Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.”

Eating out: Sure – there are no hard-and-fast rules, though you may have a tough time at standard American restaurants. Scan the menu beforehand to identify healthy choices. And don’t assume that American Chinese or Thai restaurants are serving traditional Asian fare; entrees are often cooked with fewer healthy ingredients and are higher in calories.

Alcohol: Sake, wine and beer are allowed in moderation. If you’re going to have a drink, stick with one for women and two for men, only once or twice a week.

Timesavers: None, unless you hire somebody to plan, shop for and prepare your meals.

Extras: None.

Fullness: Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. With so many fiber-packed whole grains and veggies (and without a calorie cap), you shouldn’t go hungry.

Taste: You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.

Health & Nutrition

Overall, experts deemed the Asian diet relatively safe and nutritious. Some panelists were concerned about dieters double-dipping into the soy sauce and downing heaps of refined white rice. One expert worried that because dairy isn’t emphasized, “adequate calcium intake will require some effort.” Another stressed that there’s little evidence to speak to the plan’s healthfulness or effectiveness.


See all Health & Nutrition »

What is the role of exercise?

The Asian diet is only an eating pattern. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. Being physically active lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes, helps keep weight off, and increases your energy level. Most experts suggest getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise – such as brisk walking – most or all days of the week.

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