The traditional Asian diet, based on plant foods such as vegetables, beans, legumes, fruits, nuts, and vegetable oils, has been followed across the continent for thousands of years. Although specific diets vary among different countries and regions, they have many components in common. Rice and/or noodles are staples. Although fish and/or seafood are common where available, meat is rarely a main course but may be used in dishes for accent and flavor.
Approximately 60% of the world's population lives in Asia, and more than 43 countries follow some form of Asian diet. Food is an important part of daily life across Asia, and meals are an essential component of family relationships. Although varying religious practices and traditions dictate the types of foods eaten in specific Asian diets, and each country and region has distinct ingredients and cooking styles, there are many common elements. The Asian diet is based on fresh plant foods served raw, steamed, stirfried, or deep-fried. Fish and seafood are common in island nations and along coastlines, but meat is relatively rare. The Asian diet generally focuses on balance, with an ideal daily energy (calorie) content of about 1,200–1,400 calories.
The base of the Asian food pyramid consists of daily rice, millet, corn, barley, other whole grains, noodles, and breads. Rice is an important part of almost every meal across most of Asia, although its preparation and uses vary. Rice also has religious significance, having saved many lives in times of famine. Rice is used as a main ingredient in candy and cakes and is fermented for wines, Japanese sake, and beer. Noodles may be made from rice, buckwheat (soba), wheat (somen and udon), or other grains. Breads take the form of dumplings, chapatis, roti, mantou, and naan.
The second tier of the pyramid consists of daily vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. The last three serve as the primary protein sources in Asian diets. Soybeans, the seeds of a member of the pea family, have been integral to the traditional Asian diet for thousands of years. Soybeans are cooked or made into products including tofu, miso, tempeh, soy sauce, flour, and milk. Soybeans are high in protein and healthy isoflavones. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) are also important. They are a good source of carbohydrates; dietary fiber; high-quality protein, meaning they contain almost all of the essential amino acids; and several vitamins and minerals, especially potassium. Chickpeas are low in fat but contain important unsaturated fatty acids such as linoleic and oleic acids. Chickpea oil contains important sterols. Other beans include adzuki, edamame, lentils, and mung. Nuts and seeds include almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, lentils, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Common vegetables and tubers include bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bok choy (cabbage), broccoli, carrots, chilies, daikon (radish), eggplant, leeks, lemongrass, lettuce, lotus root, peppers, kale, mushrooms, mustard greens, scallions, seaweed, snow peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, taro root, turnips, water chestnuts, and yams. Common fruits include lemons, kumquats, limes, apricots, bananas, cherries, coconut, dragon fruit, dates, grapes, kiwi, longan, lychee, mandarins, mangoes, melons, mangosteen, milk fruit, oranges, papaya, pears, pineapple, rambutan, and tangerines.
The other tiers of the Asian food pyramid are, in ascending order:
Common Asian herbs and spices include amchoor, asafoetida, basil in Thai food, cardamom, chilies, cloves, coriander, curry leaves, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, ginseng, lime leaves, masala, mint, parsley, pepper, scallion, star anise, and tumeric. Tea is widely consumed throughout Asia.
China, the world's most populous country, has many regional cuisines. Although rice is a staple throughout most of China, in some regions noodles are the main staple. Chinese food is generally prepared by mincing and cooking in a wok with a small amount of oil. The traditional southern Chinese diet features more rice and vegetables, with moderate amounts of seafood, pork, and poultry. The northern Chinese diet uses more refined wheat products and potatoes. Shanghai is known for its hot and spicy chili pepper flavorings and distinctive red-colored meats. The Cantonese and Chao Zhao regions are associated with flavorful meat and vegetable combinations. In the Beijing, Mandarin, and Shandong regions, noodles and steamed dumplings, rather than rice, form the foundation of most meals.
As an island nation with extensive coastline, Japan cuisine features fish and fish-based ingredients. Rice and soy products are staples. Vegetables are sliced and salted. Sushi, meats with teriyaki sauce, and tempura—lightly battered and fried meats, fish, and shellfish—are common. The Japanese diet features onions, ginger, soy sauce, and black pepper, which are all rich in phytochemicals. Mirin is fermented rice used as a sugar substitute that contains B vitamins and probiotics.
The Korean diet is comprised of a blend of Chinese and Japanese influences with its own distinct flavors, including soy sauces, garlic, ginger, chilies, pine nuts, and sesame seeds, among other spices. Traditional Korean meals include meats and seafood. Most meals include a vegetable dish called gimchi made of grated vegetables pickled with garlic, chili, and ginger.
South Asian or Indian cuisine is the only type of Asian diet that regularly includes dairy products, primarily in the form of lassi, ghee, and cheese (paneer), as well as milk. Rice is a staple, and dairy products, legumes, and nuts are the major protein sources. Hindi, the predominant religion in India, holds cows sacred and forbids the consumption of beef. Curry is a ubiquitous dish, commonly prepared with vegetable oil, turmeric, black pepper, chili pepper, cumin, onion, garlic, and coriander, all of which are high in phytochemicals. Saffron, cardamom, ginger, tamarind, mustard, and aniseed are also common spices. The cuisines of other Southern Asian countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, have been influenced by Indian cooking.
Southeast Asian countries—Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines—all have unique cuisines that tend to be ancient fusions of East and South Asian diets. Rice and vegetables are the foundation of Vietnamese cooking, with meat and fish used sparingly. Fish sauces called nuoc mam are the primary source of flavoring. Fruits such as bananas, mangoes, papayas, coconut, and pineapple are an important part of each meal.
Malaysia and Singapore share a spicy cuisine that incorporates Chinese, Indian, and Muslim influences. Rice and Chinese noodles are eaten daily. Traditional foods include meat kebabs called satays that are served with a spicy peanut sauce. Curry is added to meat and marinades. Desserts made from coconut milk, green noodles, sugar syrup, and sweet beans are local favorites.
Filipino cuisine is a unique blend of Japanese, Chinese, Islamic, Spanish, and American influences. The typical day includes three main meals and a light afternoon snack. Rice and noodles are served with most meals, along with vegetables such as broccoli, bitter melon, mung bean, bean sprouts, and okra. Unlike in other parts of Asia, meat is very important in the Philippines. Meats consumed include pork, beef, and chicken, as well as water buffalo in rural provinces.
The Asian diet is nutritionally balanced and provides ample phytochemicals and micronutrients, with fewer calories and less saturated fat than the typical Western diet. Spices, herbs, fermented vegetables, sprouts, and healthy fats make the Asian diet highly flavorful. Vegetables, broths, and spices provide satiety with fewer calories.
The traditional plant-based Asian diet is considered to be very healthy. It is high in fresh fruits and vegetables and fiber and low in fat and calories. The traditional Asian diet is also high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other micronutrients. Antioxidants help to prevent oxidative damage to the cells of the body from free radicals. Free radicals are the byproducts of normal metabolic functions as well as environmental toxins that are ingested and inhaled. Antioxidants may reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer and heart disease. Saturated fats, which contribute to chronic illnesses, including obesity, coronary heart disease, and cancer, are almost completely absent from the Asian diet. Asians following a traditional diet are among the healthiest and longest-lived peoples, with lower rates of many illnesses common in the Western world, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and obesity. Death rates from cardiovascular disease in Japan are less than half the rates in the United States. Residents of Okinawa, off the Japanese coast, are one of the longest-lived populations on earth. An increase in Western-style diets in Asia has correlated with increases in heart disease, cancer, and obesity rates across the continent.
Low calcium can contribute to osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones, especially in women who are postmenopausal. Nevertheless, there are lower rates of bone fractures from osteoporosis, as well as lower rates of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease, among Asian women compared with Western women. This has generally been attributed to the high soy content of the Asian diet, although scientific evidence for this claim is lacking.
Many Asian restaurants in Western countries have adopted Western tastes, altering the authentic meals by adding high amounts of fat and sodium to foods. Likewise, many people in Asia have adopted Western diets, resulting in an increase in chronic health problems that are traditionally more common in the West. Throughout Asia, overweight and obesity are becoming significant problems, as many people turn to fast food instead of home-cooked meals and sedentary work and lifestyles replace manual labor.
Research supports the health benefits of the traditional Asian diet, which is comprised primarily of fruits, vegetables, and fish; is high in fiber and micronutrients; and is low in fat. Such a diet can lower blood fat and cholesterol levels and blood pressure and help prevent cardiovascular disease. Studies also have identified specific health benefits for various foods that are common in the Asian diet, including soybeans, viscous vegetables such as Japanese yams and okra, red mold rice (a fermented product), and green tea.
A recent study found that increased consumption of hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza, and other American-style fast food among Southeast Asians greatly increased their risk of death from heart disease. A study of Chinese-Singaporeans found that those who ate fast food twice per week were 56% more likely to die of heart disease and 27% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Those who ate fast food four times per week were 80% more likely to die of heart disease. Research suggests that Asians may be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease at a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference than those that are considered risk factors for Westerners.
See also Antioxidants ; Cancer ; Fiber ; Ginkgo biloba ; Ginseng ; Green tea ; Prebiotics and probiotics ; Protein ; Sodium ; Soy ; Whole grains .
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Deborah L. Nurmi, MS
Revised by Margaret Alic, PhD