Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Feb

The “Asian Paradox”: How Can Asians Eat So Much Rice and Not Gain Weight?

eatingriceHow the Primal community loves the concept of a dietary paradox. How we eagerly point to its various manifestations as supportive evidence for our way of eating, living, and moving. You know the French Paradox and how it confounds the experts. To mention all those smug surrender monkeys with their brie and their butter and their duck confit and their Gauloises and their seeming imperviousness to heart attacks is to make Dean Ornish binge on bran and pull out tuft after tuft of frizzy hair. And then there’s the lesser-known Israeli Paradox, which attempts to answer why Israelis have skyrocketing rates of heart disease despite a skyrocketing intake of “healthy” omega-6 fatty acids. In its wake, Walter Willet might be found weeping into a mug of safflower oil. There’s even an American Paradox – those who ate the most saturated fat had the least coronary heart disease – that had the minds of researchers thoroughly boggled.

All those paradoxes work out in “our favor.” Saturated fat gets off pretty much scot-free and omega-6 vegetable oils get raked over the coals (and, presumably, oxidized). And if people were honest about things, they would see these paradoxes not as paradoxes, but as reasons to reevaluate previously-held beliefs about health and diet.

But what about the Asian Paradox? How can Asian countries consume so much white rice and so many noodles and remain so thin? If carbs make you fat, how do they eat so many of them? This is a question I get from Mark’s Daily Apple readers all of the time, so it’s about time I gave a thorough response.

First of all, I want to confirm that Asia eats a lot of rice. It may be a “side dish” or not the main course, but there’s no dancing around the fact that a lot of rice gets eaten – the stats (PDF) are pretty clear on Asian rice consumption. I briefly covered the Asian Paradox in the rice post, but I think the subject deserves more than a brief paragraph. So, today, I’m going to explain why the Asian Paradox (like all “paradoxes,” really) isn’t actually a paradox, and why I consider it to happily coexist with all of the other Primal-friendly paradoxes. I’ll also explain why I think the Asian Paradox offers us Primals a chance to evaluate our own beliefs (because that’s the only honest thing to do).

They Move(d) Frequenty at a Slow Pace

Whenever I’m in a large city with a sizable Asian immigrant population, I notice a different approach to walking. For instance, Carrie and I were recently visiting San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. We spent the day just walking around and getting sort of lost, and we both noticed the difference. Of all the multitudes of people walking, jogging, and otherwise being active, everyone but the older Asian folks seemed to be actively exercising. Exercising on purpose. Trying to “burn calories” or “improve VO2 max.” We noticed as a young mother with strollered child powerwalked down the path, wearing compression tights, a baseball cap, and the latest running shoes, while the elderly Chinese grandma she passed wore some keds and a knit sweater. Two seemingly identical joggers (one in Vibrams!) with Bluetooth earpieces jabbed at each other with business-speak opposite a pair of old friends strolling along and loudly speaking (in another language) of politics and times long past (again, it was another language) in well-worn suits and loafers. A group of cyclists could have passed for pros with all their gear and advertisements and special cycling shoes, while an older Asian gentleman wearing a collared shirt and slacks cruised by on a simple ten-speed. I got the distinct impression that walking or cycling or just getting around using your own limbs as the vehicles was simply a way to get from here to there for the older Asian folks. It wasn’t a special occasion. It was an everyday occurrence. It was normal. For everyone else, it was exercise. It was a big event that you had to get geared up and spend money for. Exercise is great, and walking with intent of getting healthier is great – I do it all the time. But my observations speak to a huge cultural difference between the way older Asian folks who immigrated over (and, presumably, the cultures back at home) and Americans treat moving frequently at a slow pace.

People living in Asian countries have historically been more active than people living in the States. It’s not that they’re all lifting weights and running sprints and joining gyms; it’s that their average daily activity levels are higher. And as everyone here probably already knows, the simple act of walking on a regular basis does wonders for one’s health. Daily walking is consistently associated with (among other health benefits) improved insulin sensitivity (better tolerance of carbohydrates like white rice), better moodlowered blood pressure and triglycerides, and greater longevity. America is a car country, and has been for about a hundred years. We don’t – and haven’t for over 50 years – have to walk to get around. Heck, oftentimes we can’t walk to get where we want to go even if we wanted to walk, since many of us live in a kind of suburban sprawl that requires the use of cars just to buy groceries or take the kids to school. The result is a country that takes fewer steps per day than the rest of the world. As Asians start buying more cars, relying more on vehicular transportation, and moving further away from labor-intensive work, I suspect you’ll see more carbohydrate intolerance, fat gain, and general ill health begin to emerge. It’s already happening, as you’ll see.

I think daily activity levels are probably the biggest determinant in tolerance to carbs. In American cities where walking is required or more convenient than driving, like New York, people are generally healthier, slimmer, and longer-lived. Things are changing, though. In 1989, 65% of Chinese performed heavy labor on a daily basis. By 2000, that proportion had dropped to 50% – still far more than in Western nations, but the downward trend is clear. You’ll notice on that same page that the proportion of overweight children also increased by the year 2000.

An Otherwise Unprocessed, Nutritious Diet

Traditional Asian food is highly nutritious. Go to a Vietnamese noodle house and the signature dish is pho, a big bowl of homemade beef marrow bone broth, tripe, tendons, brisket, and rice noodles. Go to a real Thai restaurant and get bone broth soup with cubes of pork blood, greens, rice noodles, and a duck egg. Go to a Chinese restaurant and get sauteed (alas, in soybean or corn oil these days) pork kidneys with Chinese broccoli and rice on the side. Go to a Japanese restaurant and get wild caught salmon eggs rolled with seaweed and rice, mackerel sashimi, and some fermented miso soup with kelp strips. Go to Korean barbecue and eat a dozen different kinds of kimchi, grilled short ribs, beef tongue, and liver all wrapped in lettuce, with rice on the side. In all these foods, rice is present, but so are real bone broth, fresh meat, fermented cabbage, offal, and vegetables. The presence of rice does not invalidate or negate the presence of every other nutrient.

Of course, that’s restaurant food. If you want to get an idea of how Asian folks cook at home, go to their supermarkets and note what people are buying. It’s not as fancy or flavorful, but it’s just as nutritious. Stand by the register and you’ll see twenty kinds of whole fish; live oysters, mussels, clams, crabs, snails, and sea urchins; a pig’s entire digestive tract; buckets of chicken feet; bags full of strange leafy green things and exotic vegetables like bitter melon; all sorts of herbs, roots, and teas; fermented, pickled foods; a dozen different kinds of root vegetable; and yes, rice. If you want to isolate the rice from that list of nutrient-dense offerings and say “What about that?” be my guest, but not me. I’ll be admiring the handsome beef foot oozing collagen and marrow and imagining all the wonderful dishes it could make (while I mentally compare the contents of shopping carts in Asian markets to the contents of shopping carts in standard American grocery stores… guess who wins).

Before recently, Asians ate less refined sugar and used animal fats for cooking. Sugar intake is rising now, of course, and cooking oils made from corn and soybean have largely replaced lard and tallow, but rice in the context of a low-sugar, no-HFCS (remember, the oft-cited 55/45 fructose/glucose breakdown for HFCS is highly misleading and actually quite often incorrect), low-vegetable oil, nose-to-tail nutrient-dense diet is (or was) acceptable. You can’t reduce a food down to its constituent parts and focus on, say, the bit of fructose in a blueberry and then condemn the entire berry because of it. Similarly, you can’t reduce a diet down to a single constituent food and condemn – or praise – it based on that single food. You have to look at the entire picture, and the Asian diet is largely a nutritious one.

More Rice, Less Wheat

Thanks to regular monsoons, 90% of the world’s rice production is located in Asia. It’s been cultivated in the region for close to 10,000 years, so the region’s occupants tend to eat a fair amount of the stuff.

Luckily for them, rice, especially white rice (the favored type across most of Asia; as a Thai friend of mine who grew up there and came to Hollywood in the 60s told me, “rice bran was for the chickens”), is a mostly non-toxic source of glucose. On the grain spectrum, where wheat and other gluten grains reside at one end, rice relaxes at the opposite end. It’s not “good,” but it’s also not “bad.” It just is. It’s pretty much neutral. Whether you can handle (or need) the glucose load is another thing, but you can rest assured that white rice will be generally free of gut irritants, phytic acid, and deleterious lectins. If you’re eating wheat, on the other hand, you have gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, and a host of other antinutrients with which to contend. And, as Ned Kock’s masterful (and under-appreciated) series of stats posts on the China study data suggests, rice intake is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease while wheat flour intake is associated with an increase in cardiovascular disease. The upper level of rice intake did correlate with a slight increase in CHD, however, but not a major one.

All else being equal, people will be healthier on a rice-heavy junk food diet than on a wheat-heavy junk food diet.

Is Asia Even All That Healthier Anymore?

Healthy, long-lived Asia isn’t so healthy and long-lived. Both China and India are facing diabetes epidemics. In Taiwan, KoreaVietnam, and Thailand, diabetes is also increasing. The perfect storm – of sedentary living, processed junk food full of carbs and bad fats, and poor sleep – that has ravaged America and other industrialized nations for almost a century and led to a host of debilitating illnesses is beginning to descend upon Asia. Cooking oils have displaced traditional animal fats and sugar intake is rising. People walk less and eat more wheat.

Even the low BMIs of Asian countries are misleading. At equal BMIs, Asians generally have more body fat than other groups (PDF). So, on average, the American or the Pacific Islander with a BMI of 25 has less body fat than the Chinese guy with a BMI of 25. It’s not clear whether these higher body fat levels (at lower BMIs) correspond to increased risks for certain diseases, but it does suggest that BMI is an unreliable barometer for a country’s leanness on a particular diet. You can be skinny-fat with a low BMI – and it appears that significant numbers of Asians with low BMIs fit that profile.

So, like every other one before it, the Asian Paradox topples: there is actually no paradox. Asian countries remain lean (if they’re actually lean, that is) on a rice-heavy diet by virtue of lots of low-level aerobic activity to promote insulin sensitivity, lots of nutrient-dense food to go with that rice, and because rice is the least offensive grain.

Any questions? Fire away!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I spent many months in West Africa in college and my size 6 blew up by 15-20 pounds off rice, beans, plantain, and palm oil. The locals who ate the same yummy stuff I did were gorgeous and slim and well-muscled (males and females both). Middle-aged women (but not men), however, tended to be fat.

    I will never understand the difference between myself (and the other newly fat foreign students) and the locals — genetics? Or did they eat fewer meals than us?: portions were HUGE. I think three of those a day was my problem. (…My very yummy problem…)

    Catt wrote on February 1st, 2012
  2. Also wanted to add that I am endeared by the reference to GG Park. That is my stomping grounds: I will out myself as one of the over-spandexed runners. I used to run Stow Lake at 5:30 in the morning and it was me, the other neurotic white people running crazed laps, and then dozens of Asian older couples looking like they’re having nice conversation (again, at at 5:30 in the morning!) Hilarious…

    Catt wrote on February 1st, 2012
  3. Amen Mark!
    I LOVE Asian cuisine. I am not so keen on the Americanization of it, but for me, the best place to geek out is in old Chinatown.
    I used to be a chef of a Pan Asian restaurant, and let me tell you, when you can’t even read the names of some of the ingredients, it is a real treat.
    One of my most favorite dishes is called Ma Po Doufu. It’s a szchewan dish made from pork, szchewan peppers, fermented black beans, in a broth made from pork fat + juices simmered over a long period of time. Just before service, you add rice and fresh tofu cubes. Totally divine. Of course, you use the traditional tofu – not the stuff that is sold to the Americans these days.
    One thing a lot of people don’t understand about Asian cusine is that unlike Americans, traditionally there is not a lot of meat consumption. The people just couldn’t afford to only eat chicken breasts. They ate EVERYTHING, cooked in the fat, even ate the chicken with the heads on!
    Go to an Asian market, and you will see what I mean. You see the chickens there, heads on, feet on, hanging. They have been dressed for you, that’s about it. There’s no boneless skinless chicken breasts for you there.
    That reminded me of another favorite dish of mine when I was younger – braised duck feet. That’s right. Duck feet.
    Asian people usually get their bowl of rice, the vegetables to go with it – a bit of sauce, and maybe sometimes a bit of meat to go along with it. (And they were happy to get the meat, no questions asked!)
    Interestingly, not a lot of beef is eaten over there, because it is an animal for burden…

    Couple that with the food being cooked in animal fat traditionally, and you have the basis of what the Asian diet really is.

    Not what the China Study says is a “meatless” diet. They may not have meat in the dish – but it was traditionally cooked in animal fats, and bone broths.

    Fantabulous post Mark! Thank you for this!

    Jason Sandeman wrote on February 1st, 2012
  4. I lived in Korea for a year and got to know the Korean culture very well. What I noticed is that 1) yes, there are so many more people walking, and, 2) rice may be served often throughout the week, but it was just a little something to go with their meat and veggies. They really don’t eat as much rice as a lot of people believe. Just my experience, though.

    Cacee wrote on February 1st, 2012
  5. I came across a link about carbohydrates and sleep onset http://www.ajcn.org/content/85/2/426.full
    and discovered that different kinds of white rice have different glycemic indexes. The ones used in the study differed by more than 50 points! (Mahatma = 50 and Jasmine = 109). That kind of blew me away.

    Gydle wrote on February 1st, 2012
  6. I’ve been gluten-free for almost a year now but have increasingly become intolerant to other grains, including rice and even pseudo-grains like quinoa. (When you’re gluten-free, rice is in everything that normally is made from wheat, so I ate a lot of rice products.)

    Last week I started the primal diet because I needed to get enough food in my almost vegan diet without eating grains or pseudo-grains.

    So my question is: When I was eating grains (and a lot of them) I was not gaining weight and sometimes in fact losing weight. I suspect I’ve already lost a couple pounds on the primal diet. How can I keep my weight, even possibly gain 5-10 pounds back on the primal diet?

    laura wrote on February 1st, 2012
  7. This was a big part of why I moved to Japan. I thought eating the food would improve my health and help me lose weight. So a year and a half of living in Japan I was about 20 pounds heavier. The traditional diet is great, but few people eat that now. My students eat ice cream and French fries as their lunch, and I imagine in 10-20 years they will have to think more carefully about diet as well.

    One big thing though, is people are not afraid of fat here. I have a cook book that talks about the health virtues of pork belly.

    Skinny fat is definitely true though. I will see teacher and kids (this is high school so they aren’t that small) working in teams to carry chairs during an assembly as I walk by carrying 6 by myself. They are skinny, but very few have any strength.

    Joe wrote on February 1st, 2012
  8. It’s so true about the asian people using their bodies as their transport. They stay active all their life and I’m sure this helps to offset the rice rich diet. And so true about the less wheat. I gave up wheat for good about a month ago and have noticed a huuuuge difference. I still have some carbs though, and I’m glad rice is the least offensive because I love a little with my dinner. Steamed brown rice is my fave atm! I love how mark explains that at the end of the day, there is a reason for everything….enigma explained!

    Sarah wrote on February 1st, 2012
  9. My 82 year old grandfather has eaten wheat and rice and vegetarian food all his life and is lean and sprightly with no illnesses at all.
    He also hasn’t missed his morning walk at 6:30 am to 7:30 am for as long as anybody remembers and sleeps at 10 pm for 8 hours every night. I’ve never seen him over indulging in sweets and he has always been extremely active and always up to something new.
    So I’m assuming that it’s all these elements together that have worked for him.

    Aloka wrote on February 1st, 2012
  10. If you’re Asian and can eat rice, then good for you :-).

    But as a European caucasian, my body has proven to me time and again that I can’t handle starch. Period. End of story. We can talk all day about anti-nutrients, but I’m steering clear of all high-starch foods, anti-nutrients or none.

    Brigitta wrote on February 1st, 2012
  11. I spent two weeks in Japan and I was not too happy with the diet. It was healthy and full of nice things, but I needed to eat regularly or feel miserable. Basically, I ate rice and I burned carbs. The rice was not much in total- steamed, it was light and fluffy.

    Our hosts constantly worried to get us to eat on time.

    But I loved the pedestrian zones in the cities. Lots of walking.

    And people wore flat shoes, women too. When I saw a Japanese woman in heels, I had to double-check if she was not a foreigner, her body, being out of alignment, looked different.

    Hipparchia wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  12. OK, I see more and more of this Franco- phobia among “educated” English speaking people and it astounds me. Would you bash an African American or Asian, or an Israeli in this manner? It’s just not cool.
    I live in Provence France,and am so glad my local butcher only carries grass fed meat and knows exactly which pasture and farmer his animals come from, and he is proud, healthy, polite, even to Americans.He is good friends with the vegetable stand folk next door where one can pick from a cornucopia of local, labeled as to source produce.
    The French traditionally only stuff themselves with this rich stuff at family feasts, and usually have small portions of meat, a starch, like bread or potatoes, sometimes a legume like lentils, and vegetables – salades with vegetable soups at night.
    My folks have been doing it since at least the year 800 AD, had a garden, animals, small orchards &vineyards and they all lived to around 100,if not bombed to death in wars. They were simple but educated people and they led happy lives without obesity, diabetes,heart disease, etc.
    Going primal here simply means cutting the carbs, bread, lentils etc.
    My folks’ city displaced children have, like Americans,had a different fate. Just like in America, all those nasty things are starting to happen, And the big (US?)mega food conglomerates and culture industry of credit and spending and suburban couch potato living are to blame. There is a paradox for you.

    Elsie Harrington wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  13. I don’t buy the ‘walk all day’ theory. It is actually the biggest problem I have with the Mark Sission version if primal.

    I’m a plumber, and in the trades you see tons of guys who walk all day. All day. It doesn’t do them any good. In fact I think it makes them hungry which leads to pigging out. I think sugar is the difference. Maybe wheat as well.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Bill wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  14. This post has many wrong notions & deductions. First of all, china & other oriental countries are not the only Asian countries. Secondly, almost all Asian countries suffer from obesity and other lifestyle related diseases nowadays due to bad food habits and lack of physical activity.

    Secondly, “People living in Asian countries have historically been more active than people living in the States.” doesn’t really make any sense. If you have got vehicles then you will travel by it otherwise you will walk./ Same thing happened in Asia where development reached quite late.It’s not that Asians are more active. Higher % of people used to live in villages where modes of transport are fewer and life bit more hard.

    Westerners try to make every thing so complex. Primal and other diets which simulate eating habits of our ancestors is just stupid. Just see how tribals in Africa live. They get maybe 1 small boar after many days of hard labor and futile attempts. And that too has to be shared by 2 dozen members.

    Anyone among you doing this kind of primal diet? NO, you are sitting in your dining table and eating lot of meat. I don’t see anything primal in it.

    Want to lose weight? Just eat 25% less food. Throw away junk and packaged food. Eat veggies, fruits, eggs and meat. You will do fine. It’s just that it wont be as “cool” as the “primal” diet

    Ani wrote on February 2nd, 2012
    • Primal doesn’t simulate eating habits as it would be a fortunate tribesman indeed who could access the quantities and varieties of foods we can. It argues that we should choose the foods we eat given their bioavailability and nutritional value, which is based on our evolutionary biology. It starts the argument from a certain historical perspective, but is not the whole argument.

      As a Westerner, I’ve learned that things are often more complex than they appear at first glance. It has nothing to do with being cool (though I am cool).

      Nick W. wrote on February 2nd, 2012
    • Sounds like you just don’t like the ‘primal’ label. When you throw away junk food and packaged food you will naturally eat less food (maybe ~25% less). You will be eating veggies, fruits, eggs and meat just like you suggest.
      Have you been to a ‘primal’ person’s dinner table? Mine has a lot more volume of veggies than meat, so it seems like you’re making some false assumptions here because you don’t like the label. Well actually it sounds like you’re misinterpreting what many people view as a primal approach to diet – it’s not meant to be a simulation but a framework for thinking about nutrition from a historical perspective.

      Heather wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  15. Took me like 30 seconds to scroll down the comments board. Does that count as low level aerobic activity?

    Archie wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  16. I was in Hanoi, Vietnam in November and I didn’t see a single overweight person (of the Vietnamese variety, not Yanks or Germans). That’s why when I saw the statement that Vietnam is undergoing a surge in diabetes I thought it strange, until the next sentence said that part of this is due to stress. The scooter traffic in Hanoi is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever witnessed. The idea of opening a window in a hotel or home is insane due to the outrageous symphony of car and scooter horns. And the air, oh, the air. Horrendous.

    bandmeeting wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  17. (jumping on a quite-highly-piled bandwagon) What do both cultures have in common? Both move more than we do–French and Asian people move more UNDER THEIR OWN POWER (walk, bike, etc.) than we do, so there really is no paradox.

    Cars (as are TVs) are for the rich. If you expend more energy just in daily living, yes you can get away with eating more carbs, and expect them not to stick to you.

    We were skinny once, and ate lots of carbs–we also moved more under our own power, too. Then came mechanization, TV, the car, and places to drive it to (including the drive-up window). Now some of us can’t even check our mail without driving to the mailbox up the street…and IT SHOWS!

    Wenchypoo wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  18. What about soy sauce? I am having a hard time avoiding the wheat based sauce in Asian food.

    Mar wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  19. My 102 year-old grandfather and my late grandmother (98 years-old when she died) ate a diet and had lifestyle similar to what Mark described. Both of them lived in Taiwan, but spent a great number years, their formative years really, under Japanese occupation of Taiwan. For a time, they considered themselves Japanese citizens. Let me tell you what traditional Taiwanese and Japanese diet/ lifestyle did to their longevity.

    First, the amalgam of Taiwanese and Japanese diet is very similar to those of traditional Okinawan diet. Main animal proteins consumed were pork, seafood, free range chicken, and eggs. Soybeans in form of fermented condiments, miso, and tofu (fermented and fresh) were also consumed regularly. Not one food, including animal protein, took center stage in a meal. They didn’t eat chunks of steak. Almost all meals even breakfast, included soup made with fish, pork ribs, or chicken bones.

    My grandparents mostly ate dishes which were slow-simmered, steamed, or stir-fried in rendered fat from pork or chicken. Only later did they started to use crappy Omega-6 vegetable oil in addition to lard, at the urging of doctors and younger relatives who falsely thought lard to be unhealthy. Interestingly, about 15 years or so after she began consuming vegetable oil, my otherwise healthy and thin grandmother, in her mid-70s then, developed blocked coronary arteries. My grandfather remained healthy because he didn’t care for stir-fried dishes as much as my grandmother to begin with, so he mainly continued eating traditionally prepared dishes.

    Rice or food made with rice were eaten with meals, while bread and other wheat products were considered luxury items or special treats. My grandparents’ generation didn’t think wheat was as filling or healthy as rice, so even if they do eat steamed bun for breakfast, they will often sneak a few bites of rice as well!

    Mark is right about physical activities being incorporated into everyday life not as a chore to lose weight, but as part of health and balance. My grandfather stayed at a lean weight throughout his life up until now. The only health problem he has is his eyesight not as good as when younger. But otherwise, he’s not on any medications, in fact he still takes daily walks with friends.

    During the time when the Japanese occupied Taiwan and for years afterwards, Taiwanese culture was very much influenced by the Japanese. One of these was baseball. My grandfather worked as an accountant for a Japanese company in Taiwan. He played baseball on the company team (every company had a baseball team) until well into his late 40s. Furthermore, his physical activities weren’t limited to the baseball field. Every morning, he would wake up at dawn, do some chores like gardening, tend to fruit trees, feed their chickens, and always ended his morning BEFORE breakfast by sweeping the vast courtyard and doing deep breathing/ calisthenics. THEN it’s time for breakfast!

    This is what typical meals looks like:
    Breakfast: leftover soup from previous night’s dinner, fresh eggs fried in lard, fermented tofu cubes, stir-fried dried pickled daikon with anchovies, and of course a small bowl of rice.

    Lunch: Stirred-fried green veggies with nigari tofu and garlic, slow-simmered pork or chicken stew with meat/ tendons/ fatty parts, miso soup with seaweed, rice, and fresh fruit from the garden.

    Dinner: Whole fish or other seafood like squid or shrimp, vegetable soup with seasonal vegetables and made with pork bone broth, stirred-fried green veggies (many Asian varieties) with garlic, leftover meat stew from lunch, rice, and small amount of fruit for dessert. Then their neighbors come over after dinner and all of them gather to drink green tea and talk about politics and anything under the sun.

    During the day and in between meals, my grandfather would drink several cups of green tea….he said they gave him calmness and mental clarity needed at work. He’s been retired for decades but he still drinks his green tea.

    Jen wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  20. Before you get all excited about, “healthy Asian diets,” keep in mind that stomach cancer is huge in Japan and China. Anything fresh is pickled and salted. I hate vegs and fruit. I do. I choke them down every day, but I LOATHE them. After 3 weeks in Japan I was craving that mess because I actually physically missed it!

    K wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  21. Being Asian and growing up in a Taiwanese-American family, I think I may have something to contribute:
    - Several of my aunts/uncles, who live in Taiwan, developed type 2 diabetes before I was born. 3 out of 4 of my grandparents had it as well. My grandmother, who lived with me in America, was very overweight.
    - Rice bowls in most Asian households I visited were small.
    - I grew up with a single mother, who didn’t have time to cook for us. Therefore, we all ate a lot of American processed and sugary foods and I grew up slightly overweight with a lot of health problems. My sister was always thin, but as she entered her 20s, her health problems came up as well (pre-diabetic, insulin resistant, PCOS). My Asian friends who had more “traditional” diets ate lots of vegetables, meat, fish, and rice, and were very thin, until they went to college.
    - Rice bowls, at least in our Taiwanese-American circles, were really small. One could fit maybe a little more than a cup or so of cooked rice; maybe 200 calories. So we weren’t eating rice by the bowlfuls.
    - We had constant pressure to be thin (especially as girls). Most Asian American girls I knew growing up were very frail or carried their extra weight well because they had small frames.

    Basically, rice is not a miracle food or a special magical carb, and Asians aren’t immune to weight gain and diseases. Also, just to note, Asian diets these days include a lot of wheat. Dumplings are made of wheat skin. Northern China’s primary carb source are bread and noodles. Asian bakeries are very popular for quick snacks.

    jc wrote on February 2nd, 2012
    • Do you suppose the diabetes is genetic predisposition?

      My best friend is Chinese. She got gestational diabetes with both pregnancies and has to be careful even now (even though she is thin and always has been). Her mother and sister had the same problem.

      Marcia wrote on February 4th, 2012
  22. So what is the explanation of rice in the Mexican diet?

    redneckbuddha wrote on February 2nd, 2012
    • Arabs brought rice to Spain, the Spanish brought it to the New World.

      HillsideGina wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  23. Nice! I eat a small-moderate amount of rice, but it is my only grain, I eat lots of grass-fed meat. including organs, marrow, etc, lots of wild seafood, including shellfish and roe, lots of mineral-rich bone broth, seaweed, and many organic vegetables–plus coconut oil, ghee, lard. I am a stay-at-home mom of a 5 year old boy and a 100lb puppy–I move around and up and down in my house as well as all around our neighborhood, town, parks, stores, etc all day long–but no formal workouts. I am 5’4″ and I weigh 117 pounds and am a size 4. I guess I am asian LOL. (I am caucasian of Western European descent).

    Elizabeth wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  24. I’ve just starting reading a new book that addresses a number of the issues that we’ve been discussing here about carbohydrates; human evolution in relation to carbohydrate availability; carbohydrate intolerance; nutritional ketosis; the role of carbohydrates in dyslipidemia – and a whole lot more.

    The authors give evidenced based references for everything they say. They make the science accessible. They make it easier for patients to discuss these issues with their doctors.

    They address medical doctors with regard to the need to reevaluate the role of low carb diets for the estimated 3 in 4 people who will sometime over their lifetime develop carb intolerance. They talk about reasons why those 3 (in 4) people hypothetically became carb intolerant and specifically how to reverse that condition in relation to various levels of severity. They provide support and guidance in living a long term, sustainable low carb diet.

    “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living” (2011), Jeff S. Volek, PhD, RD & Stephen D. Phinney, MD, PhD. ISBN 978-0-9834907-0-8

    rarebird wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  25. Until the 1970s in Korea barley was mixed with rice due to not growing enough to feed everyone. It was considered very high class to eat white rice and poor farmers sold almost all their rice and ate greens, Kimch, and a little barley rice. Most farmers do not own their land -the wealthy do and they practice a form of share cropping. The fattest orientals I ever saw was in San Fransico. I lived in asia for three years and only the wealthy have much meat or fat on them. It’s considered a compliment to say you are chubby or fat, it means you have money and eat well.

    WW Rutland wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  26. A friend who went to China to watch the Olympics noted that fried corn is popular there, and I would wonder how much of that is GMO corn.

    Doktor Jeep wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  27. A number of years ago, I practiced Aikido, a Japanese martial art, taught by a Japanese man from the Akita Prefecture in Japan. He came from an extremely rural area, and around the time I started training in his Dojo, he opened up a Japanese “country foods” restaurant here in Denver (It’s called Domo). Most people, when eating there the first time, are quite surprised by the food, which is all based on the same foods that Homma Sensei ate (and cooked) while growing up and training in Aikido. Sure, there’s rice (your choice of white rice mixed with barley or brown rice), but each dinner entree comes with seven side dishes, which are meat, vegetables, tofu, or combinations of those. The bulk of the meal is definitely meat (pork, beef, chicken or fish) and vegetables of many different varieties. Unlike “Americanized” Asian restaurants, where the food is often mostly rice, the rice there is not a big part of the meal, and there are some dishes, like nabemono (a one-pot dish, similar to a western stew, but with a much lighter broth) that is essentially just meat and/or vegetables and broth.

    Matt Meeks wrote on February 3rd, 2012
  28. This was a fascinating post. It’s not actually totally true that Asians eat a lot of white rice and stay slim. I have a good friend and former coworker who found himself 25 lbs too heavy. How did is lose it? He cut his rice consumption in half.

    I have also noticed the tendency for older Asians to walk around a lot more than Americans. I made a comment at work recently that I have a couple of friends I don’t see often because they live 12 miles away (near where I work) and I drive out there 5x a week already. He said that I was SPOILED by living where I do because 12 miles is not far.

    I think he’s spoiled by cheap gas and cheap cars. I’d rather walk on the weekends.

    Marcia wrote on February 4th, 2012
  29. Well, I wanted to address one thing: Japanese diet is not heavy on gluten, but the gluten is absolutely omnipresent: about all of the soy sauces are fermented with wheat, and they eat wheat noodles along with ramen, which is a very popular dish, or added to different hotpots. The wheat noodle thing might be relatively new, along with breadcrumb coating for frying, but how about soy sauce? They add it to everything and I for one read about a celiac girl who traveled to Japan and ended cooking everything on her own, because it was downright impossible for her to get any gluten free options dining out. And it was a big city, Osaka as I recall.

    Kate wrote on February 5th, 2012
  30. I lived in Korea for 3 years and traveled significantly around Asia during that time. Everything you mentioned is true, but I think you are missing a huge reason as to why they eat so much rice and are not overweight…they eat the same foods EVERY meal. My husband is Korean and he doesn’t get excited about foods the way I do because he was brought up to eat food as fuel. You don’t need to over eat when you know you will eat something very similar for your next meal. With that said…especially the Koreans…I anticipate they will be facing huge obesity amounts in 5-10yrs due to their obsession with donuts, coffee, and pastries.

    Connie wrote on February 5th, 2012
  31. Until recently, the total amount of carbohydrates Japanese ate was lower than other developed nations. Rice accounts for almost all of it and the sugar and fruit content was much lower.

    Traveling in Japan I only saw fat or very athletic Japanese eat seconds of rice. The portions were much smaller.

    Meat and vegetables are staples with vegetables both cooked and fermented. Fish used to be delivered to homes DAILY just like we used to get milk deliveries. Seafood was served twice at every meal and in traditional inns that is how they fed us for breakfast and dinner.

    Dr. Will Mitchell wrote on February 5th, 2012
  32. i lived for 7 years in thailand, where people eat tons of rice: white jasmine rice, sticky rice, a few varieties of rice noodles, bean thread noodles, and egg noodles made with flour. they also consume tons of sugar. they’re mostly slim. nearly everyone i knew exercised infrequently–aside from those who worked outside. most people get around in cars and on motorbikes.

    cw wrote on February 6th, 2012
  33. your observations are, by & large, accurate. activity burns calories, including those contained in carbs. we have fatties in asia too – and the numbers are growing – with rising affluence and the “westernized lifestyle”. basically, the traditional diet remains similar in make-up & quantity, but the overall activity has dropped. obesity among children continues to grow, and in certain higher developed nations such as ours (singapore), it has become a major problem. of course, the popularity of the western fast-foods doesn’t really help either!
    in a way, historically, most cultures & countries have experienced similar trends. look at major western countries, including the u.s.; your fore-bears used to live on diets of high saturated fats, carbs (wheat & potatoes, etc.)in copious amounts and yet remained relatively ‘slim’. i’d imagine, due to the higher level of daily “necessary” activity, the burn factor was a lot more intense. that active lifestyle also established better metabolic efficiency.
    seems crucial that the level of activity needs to be increased in most modern societies – asia included. regular, relatively intense exercise must become a way of the modern lifestyle. practicing moderation in food consumption would certainly help as well.

    Roy-P wrote on February 6th, 2012
  34. Would be interesting to pull some stats for Northern China, where wheat (often in the form of steamed buns), is consumed more than rice, and the people still seem quite healthy (and octogenarians seem more plentiful than in suburban America). Do they suffer more health problems than their rice consuming southern cousins? Could shed additional light on the wheat versus rice issue raised in this article.

    Blato wrote on February 6th, 2012
  35. Traditionally Asian cultures eat a lot less sugar and therefore are less sensitive to more complex carbs. As sugar content(sucrose/HFCS)increases, which is happening in those cultures, insulin levels become significantly elevated and people become insulin resistant.Once that happens then all carbs become a problem. It is often a 2 step process. Cheers, Mike Carville

    mike carville wrote on February 6th, 2012
  36. Thank you for this Great Article!

    Its actuallywhat Harley Johnton says. IF you eat animals eat high carb like the ASIAN or the Kenya Runners.

    I work in ASIAN store and i see all this ASIAN people shopping. Im woried cause all the food we sell is full with processed food nowdays. There is lttle left from the traditional recipies.

    Still i love ASIAN culture and it is very divers. Still a lot are very slim. I once heard a young asian mentioning sh has tooth issue. I often talk on the staff on fishhead soup or traditional foods. Farmed shrimps or pangasius and talipa. and how people try to be cheap. Its sadly our lifestyle what makes them eating their traditional foods in this worse quality. im sure they would choose for best quality if it wouldnt be that differnc in the prices. Through some food issues. Chicken soysprouts and TOFU is organic now. ITs like it is the scnadals change as much. at least in germany.

    What ialso notice at ASAIN culture. when i was at their new year celebration and im just learing a chinese instrument. people are highly motivated ot do something and they are living thir life. having relationships. are simple osmehow. And they doing something educational. they arealso spiritual and mental active. nad they are comon to hang around. if you ar together a lot. you know that you better be slim. imagine if you are a lot people and you meat together you better fit there if you are slim. Rather than lot of obese people.

    Sadly th WAPF foundation eat too much fats and promotes a lot of bias things on soy and asian culture.

    My question i have is i have today discovered brown glutinous rice from thailand. there is also black glutnous rice.

    Somehow it is traditional. maybe if it is cooked with vegetbales and meat and good fats it is balanceing with the phytates?!

    Palo0aky wrote on February 6th, 2012
  37. Normally I am a fan of this blog but this time — utter fiction and nonesense, and patently erroneous on so many levels.

    I’m living in Beijing, and have lived in 10 major Asian cities in 10 years.

    1) don’t lump all Asians and Asian culture together, not any more than you can lump all non-Asian cultures together. Chinese diet (which actually varies incredibly by region) has as much in common with Japanese diet as American diet has to do with Guatemalan or Peruvian hill tribe diets. There is almost NO similarity outside of the rice.

    2) In China they do NOT exercise. They are also seeing spiking fat rates and diseases. And for SURE their diet here is aweful, they are gaining weight, and so on. For SURE their genetics are very different than ours (I can quote the medical studies when I have time) and they metabolize a lot of things differently than non Asians. I can refer you to the UCLA medical school professor of gastrointestinal studies to confirm.

    Earthwalker wrote on February 6th, 2012
  38. I suppose Asians eat a lot of rice. I never saw it when I was there. It is a supplemental carbohydrate in the way that other grains were supplemental carbohydrates elsewhere after the agragrian society developed. But, in the U.S. wheat is often cited as more than 50% of the calories in the U.S. diet of lower economically-classed Americans. I NEVER saw any Asian eat that much rice. And, with our diet of industrial meat, sugar and other processed foods and pesticides, there are countless factors that go into us being fat as hell. That doesn’t even include the stress factor of living in our society where people are thrown under the economic bus as a pastime by elites.

    It’s a complicated topic but I do agree with you about the differing factors of wheat versus rice.

    Barry wrote on February 6th, 2012
  39. From my limited experience, which include living in Chinatown – Toronto, and once living with FOB Chinese students in college, my observations were that the meals were predominantly rice based with a bit of animal organ meats sprinkled on top.

    My hypothesis was that the gluten free rice was high in glucose, but the fact that they hardly ever consumed saturated fat with it, there would be no fat in the bloodstream during the insulin spike to store into adipose tissue.

    My low Saturated fat hypothesis was strengthened by the seemingly low BMI’s, but also the low muscle mass, generally short bodies, poor teeth, etc. (no offence meant)

    So in my current belief, regardless of glucose intake, one does not get ‘fat’ without dietary fats included. Is this not the case?

    PS, I much prefer the high fat, low carb approach. Much healthier than ‘being skinny’

    Jamie wrote on February 6th, 2012
  40. On my observation of rice consumption in Japan: Rice is typically served at the end of the meal, when one is likely to eat less. I could never finish my portion.

    Linda wrote on February 6th, 2012

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