Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Asian Nutrition Secrets: The Asian Diet Pyramid


A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United Stat...

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Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust developed the Asian Diet Pyramid in conjunction with the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The Asian Diet’s Pyramid represents the traditional cuisines of the region that includes Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesian, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, South Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Overall, the Asian Pyramid represents the traditional plant-based rural diet of these countries and emphasizes:

  •    A wide base of rice, noodles, breads, and whole grains daily
  •    Minimally processed foods
  •    Large areas for fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds to be consumed daily.
  •    Small amounts of vegetable oil daily
  •    Moderate consumption of tea, sake, beer, and wine
  •    Small amounts of dairy (low fat) or fish are optional daily.
  •    Sweets, eggs, poultry weekly
  •    Red meat monthly

Since the Asian Diet Pyramid was the work of the Cornell-China-Oxford Project and the work of T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell  and investigator and co-author of the China Study, most of the information on this post reflects the Chinese diet in particular.   Campbell notes:  “There are regions in China in which breast cancer and heart disease are almost unknown”.  He has been studying more than a hundred Chinese rural villages since the early 1980’s.  Most of the population lives in the rural areas and eat about 300 more calories than Americans, yet rarely is obesity seen.

Campbell also points out that dairy products are largely absent in Asian diets (more than likely due to a high incidence of lactose intolerance).  He says:  “Yet, the plant-based, dairy-free diets of much of Asia are linked to a low rate of osteoporosis.  In fact, Western countries, with their calcium largely taken in the form of dairy products, have significantly higher rates of osteoporosis.”

Rice Predominates

In China the average annual rice consumption totals 200-400 pounds per capita – about 800 percent more rice than is consumed in the U.S.  How do the Chinese stay relatively slim in the rural area with such as high grain consumption?  They make grains as the entrée and merely use meat to flavor it.  In traditional Chinese cooking, meat and vegetables have equal footing; both are considered main dishes.  Three or more main vegetable dishes may be served at one meal, especially at dinner.

Chopsticks may help control calories.  It takes roughly twenty minutes for the sensation of fullness to register in your brain.  To downshift your eating by at least 25% so you’ll be less inclined to go back for seconds, save the chopsticks from your Chinese takeout and use them at home regularly.

The Changing Chinese Diet

In urban areas such as Hong Kong, Western eating trends are pushing up the chronic disease rates that climb with higher income levels and the invasion of Western style restaurants. Although McDonald’s can hardly be held solely responsible, child obesity is becoming a problem in China.

American Chinese

It’s not surprising that Chinese restaurants in America offer foods that are not authentically Chinese.  The restaurants originated in those who emigrated from China in the late 19th century and invented foods such as chow mein, chop suey, BBQ spare ribs, egg rolls, and fortune cookies for American tastes.  What’s the difference between Americanized Chinese food and traditional Chinese food?  More meat, higher sodium due to soy sauce and MSG (monosodium glutamate) and more fried foods are used in Chinese American cooking.   When the traditional Chinese fry foods, they use little more than a tablespoon or two of fat due to the fact that cooking oil has always been an expensive commodity in China.  As far as meat is concerned, it wasn’t uncommon for a traditional Chinese family in a rural area to stretch one pound of meat over an entire month

In some regions of China today, meat is still thought of as unhealthy due to the ancient views of Chinese medicine.  Economics may determine whether a Chinese family will use more meat.  A study by Barry M. Popkin of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health that involved 16,000 Chinese from various economic levels concluded that as income rises, the Chinese are apt to eat less rice and wheat products and more fresh fruit, dairy products, high-and low-fat red meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and seafood.  As this occurs, chronic disease rates of hypertension and stroke rise.

While diet counts for a lot, to stay healthy in the long run, study after study shows that it takes more than diet.  Physical activity, environmental and other stresses, genes, all contribute to our healthfulness or lack of it.  The Chinese seem to have a grasp on several healthier lifestyle practices.  It has been said about the Chinese that their habits tend to be very regular.  “They go to bed and get up at a certain time, they eat at certain times, they don’t snack, and they take naps” as observed by Georgia Guldan, an academic teaching in Hong Kong.

China Dietary Guidelines

  • Eat a variety of foods, with cereals as the staple
  • Consume plenty of vegetables, fruits and tubers
  • Consume milk, beans, or dairy-or bean-products every day
  • Consume appropriate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and lean meat; reduce fatty meat and animal fat in the diet.
  • Balance food intake with physical activity to maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Choose a light diet that is also low in salt.
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in limited amounts.
  • Avoid unsanitary and spoiled foods


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2 thoughts on “Asian Nutrition Secrets: The Asian Diet Pyramid

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