Asian diets for weight loss?

While writing about Korean cuisine recently, I came across an interesting statistic: Korea has the second lowest obesity rate in the world — 5.3%.  Wow!  Only Japan’s is lower.  By comparison, it’s 38.2% in the US.  So they must be doing something right in Korea and Japan?  Is it the plant-based diet?

Korean cuisine is famously vegetable-centric.  Other than the Korean BBQ dishes, most of the traditional foods are all about vegetables, from the classic Bibimbap to kimchi, which I’m told is absolutely everywhere.  By coincidence, as I was reviewing and cleaning out old posts on this website, I came across one titled “Is Asian food the next big thing in dieting?” from January 2013, almost 6 years ago.  Apparently the foodie trend watchers predicted that Asian food would take over weight loss diets.  Interestingly, that didn’t happen, at least not in any noticeable way.  Too bad it didn’t.  Meanwhile, our interest in plant-based diets increased during the past 5++ years.  Will foodie trend watchers predict a take-over by Asian food in 2019?

One driver of that trend might be the recent US-North Korean summit.  Korean food was in the spotlight, which is why I wrote about it.  It might be the least known Asian cuisine in the US and other Western countries.  You’ve probably heard about Korean BBQ, but Indian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and various Chinese cuisines may all be more familiar, thanks to a wide variety of restaurants.  Malaysian food blends many of those influences.  Compared to these, Korean flavors are unique, from the garlic/red chili gochujang sauce to the ubiquitous fermented vegetables known as kimchi.

So I’m going to suggest that, yes, Asian cuisine should take over the weight loss diet scene in Western countries.  There are plenty of very good reasons for that suggestion:

Plant-based

All Asian cuisines focus on vegetables, from broccoli to zucchini to seaweed to mushrooms and everything in between.  Indian cuisine includes far more legumes and nuts than other Asian cuisines.  Peanuts and spicy peanut sauce  are a feature of Southeast Asian recipes, such as from Vietnam or Thailand.  Korean and Japanese dishes may have more seaweed and unusual vegetables like fernbrake and Daikon radishes.  Then there’s kimchi, a decidedly acquired taste.  It’s a general way of describing the variety of fermented vegetables, which are served at meals and included in some recipes like soups or savory pancakes.  Some kimchi has a very strong flavor; some is milder.  All these vegetables mean a diet that’s rich in nutrients and fiber, and meals that are filling and satisfying.

Small portions of meat/fish

As with the traditional Mediterranean diet, Asian diets typically use only small portions of meat/fish/poultry at meals.  There are exceptions of course.  Special meals might feature a whole duck or fish, but those are intended for several people. Most of the meal will be composed of vegetables, rice/noodles and perhaps fresh fruit.  There is a great tradition of vegetarian cuisine in India (which can also be found in Malaysia).  And unlike other Asian food traditions, Indian food incorporates dairy, such as yogurt and fresh cheese.  This means protein intake for vegetarians can be substantial.  Tofu and soy are used throughout Asia, and as noted, peanuts are commonly used in some Southeast Asian recipes, so with careful planning, those cuisines can be provide sufficient protein for vegans and vegetarians.

Rice

We don’t normally think of rice as a “diet” food, but it is low fat and low sugar.  It’s the basis of meals throughout Asia.  Noodles are another option.  Bread, in the Western sense, is not used, so foods that include bread or bread-like items would not be available in an Asian-style weight loss diet.  That means no hamburgers, no sandwiches, no toast or bagels, no garlic bread, no pizza.  It also means no traditional bakery products like doughnuts, cake, cookies or crackers.  So even if your Asian weight loss diet includes rice or noodles, that’s a pretty minimal amount of carbohydrates compared to all those other foods you’ll be avoiding.

Soups/Hot pots/Buddha Bowls/etc.

Whatever you call it, a bowl that combines rice/noodles with a flavorful hot broth, a variety of vegetables and a modest amount of protein food is great for diets.  It’s filling, satisfying and nutritious.  You don’t need to eat anything else.  No sweet dessert, no picking at second helpings.

Generally low fat and low saturated fat

While this isn’t always the best approach in terms of satiety, the emphasis on vegetables and rice makes the food filling as well.  Certainly some dishes are higher fat.  Indian food is typically cooked with ghee, which is clarified butter.  Oils are used in many Asian recipes, from stir fry to sesame oil used as a flavoring agent.  The absence of high fat dairy foods and the use of small portions of meat also helps to limit fat intake.

Lack of desserts

Speaking of dessert, Asian cuisines have no tradition of dessert as Westerners understand it.  So no emphasis on sweets.  Also no emphasis on ginormous sugary coffee or tea drinks topped with whipped cream.  And use of sweetened soft drinks is minimal.

Great flavors

Of course you can theorize about the healthfulness of a diet all you want, but if it doesn’t taste good who cares?  Luckily, Asian food is loaded with flavor, from soy sauce to garlic to hot sauces and flavorful herbs and spices, in particular curries.

These are all positive aspects of Asian cuisines in general, making them particularly useful for weight control.  There are some other general features of these diets that are more neutral:

No dairy foods.

No milk, no cheese and no yogurt (except in Indian cooking).  You can survive on these — Asian people have for thousands of years.  Tofu and many green vegetables can also be good calcium sources.

Eggs

Eggs are used in some of these cuisines.  Korean Bibimbap famously is served with an egg on top.  Most vegans would not eat eggs, although I actually advocate for something I call “VEGG-an”, which is a primarily vegan diet that includes eggs, to enhance protein quality and provide a source for certain other nutrients like B12.

Fermented vegetables

Kimchi and other pickled/fermented vegetables add interesting flavors to meals and have the potential to add probiotics to the diet.

Convenience, or lack thereof

Unless you have plenty of Asian themed restaurants or other resources in your neighborhood, you might have to do a bit of cooking to follow a mostly-Asian diet.  This might be difficult for cooking novices or people who are time-crunched.

Here’s a sample menu for a day of Asian-style food:

Breakfast: rice, scrambled egg, steamed vegetables, pickled vegetables and/or citrus salad

Lunch: Buddha bowl or Bibimbap-style bowl: rice topped with 4-5 different chopped/sautéed vegetables and tofu or chopped cooked meat, seasoned, fresh fruit on the side, perhaps pickled/fermented vegetable condiments.

Snack: fresh fruit

Dinner: Buckwheat noodles with sautéed/steamed vegetable and tofu or meat/fish, garnished with chopped peanuts. OR dal (lentil curry soup) with rice or naan, and a vegetable curry garnished with cashews.

Filling and delicious.  No wonder Asians are the least obese people.

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