The Asian Diet: Back to the Future

By Mark Fergusson
Down to Earth

The traditional Asian diet receives a lot of attention in the United States because many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, are not as prevalent in Asia compared with the Western Hemisphere. Researchers believe that the traditional Asian diet provides protection against many chronic diseases and contributes to long life spans because it is mainly a plant-based diet consisting of locally grown staple grains, starchy roots, legumes, and other vegetables and fruits. Meat is treated as a side dish rather than the main course.

However, diet-related disease is increasing in Asian countries as adoption of the Western meat-based diet grows more popular. For example, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, in 1995 diet-related chronic diseases in China accounted for 41.6 percent of all deaths. That number is expected to increase to 52 percent by 2025. The trend is similar for other Asian nations.

Interestingly, the increase in chronic diseases such as obesity, adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease, and cancer are all related to diet. Obesity is now a major public health problem in Asia.

At the same time that the influence of Western media has made processed food and meat more attractive to many Asian families, rising incomes have also made them more accessible. Ironically, greater wealth has not led to greater health. In fact, a return to a traditional plant-based Asian diet may be just what the doctor ordered.

Contrary to what advertisers would like you to believe, the results of Western eating habits are disastrous. Chronic, diet-related diseases – including cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease are now the leading cause of death and disability in the United States. How bad is it? You might not be able to tell from watching American TV shows, but more than a third of Americans are clinically obese. Experts estimate that 1 in 2 American men and 1 in 3 American women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. And one in every four deaths in the United States is due to heart disease.

Now, rates of disease are skyrocketing in Asia, too. There are numerous factors, including high rates of smoking and increased alcohol consumption. But the biggest reason is that processed and meat-based foods full of excess sugar, sodium and saturated fats are displacing whole, plant-based diets. If trends continue, obesity, heart disease and cancer are expected to reach epidemic proportions in the next fifteen to twenty years.

Historically, Asian countries have had the lowest incidence of chronic disease on the planet. And it’s not just in the genes. According to leading scientists, diet and lifestyle are key factors in the prevention of chronic disease.

The power is in your hands to choose what you eat and feed your families. The best wisdom on nutrition has been developed by millions of families across the Asian region cooking traditional plant-based meals for centuries. If you’re not sure what diet is best for you, ask your grandparents. Chances are, they’re experts.