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 Diets: Cultural Diets  

Asian Diets

In most Asian countries people are poor and must cultivate their own food and, thus, their diet from the land around them; and these hard-working peoples do a very good job of it. These cultures are basically non-carnivorous, though not strictly vegetarian either. However, their diets are vegetarian based, focusing on grains and fresh vegetables, usually with some meat, poultry, or fish cooked into one of the dishes. Eggs and milk products, mainly as yogurt, are occasionally consumed by adults.

Due to this generally healthy—more natural, local, and seasonal—diet, there is a reduced incidence of many of the chronic degenerative diseases that are nutritionally related. Thus, the elderly population is healthier and more active in these cultures, and is less plagued by atheroscleroses, high blood pressure, heart disease and their consequences, such as heart attacks and strokes. However, with the increasing use of refined sugar products, especially in China and Japan, combined with other factors, possibly even food and environmental chemicals, adult diabetes and cancer are on the rise.

With the following examples from China, Japan, and India, please realize that as times change and there is more industrialization and “Americanization” of these countries, the general diet, nutritional adequacy, and basic health and longevity of their populations will be affected.

When we consider that China contains more than one billion people, about a quarter of the Earth’s population, what the Chinese people eat is the major diet of the world. That diet is primarily vegetarian, with usually only small amounts of animal foods consumed.

When I visited China in late 1984, I was most impressed with the agriculture—the incredible use of the land and the masses of people working it. Crops were planted in huge fields, on hillsides, along riverbanks, around houses, literally everywhere. It is a very green and fruitful country. Rice is the main crop, although more wheat is used in the north. The northerners also eat more meat and spicier foods, to keep them in balance with the colder climate, though people throughout China make spicy dishes using tiny, hot red peppers; and chili oil, vinegar, and soy sauce are on most tables.

The basic Chinese diet is fairly consistent, containing polished white rice, cooked vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, and small amounts of meat, pork, or fish, with occasional poultry and eggs (a luxury). Large amounts of meat are rarely consumed at one meal. Fruits are eaten as they are available. Soybeans are used in a variety of ways—as tofu (soybean curd) or as soy sauce, a favorite flavoring. Milk products are consumed infrequently, mostly as yogurt, which spoils less easily. Pickled, smoked, and salted foods, usually fish or meats, are also common to the culture. There is some concern that these pickled and smoked foods may irritate the gastrointestinal mucosa and, when consumed excessively, may increase the risk of stomach cancer.

This diet is lower overall in fat and higher in magnesium than the Western diet, which helps to reduce the risk and incidence of cardiovascular disease. With the high fiber and complex carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat levels, there is very little obesity and less degenerative disease in general. These people are very hard working, especially on the land, and being outdoors cultivating food also contributes to good health. The elderly poplulation seem healthier and more capable because, I believe, they have eaten well and been more connected to the earth. They are usually more involved in family care than in Westernized countries, which gives them a sense of purpose and a positive self-image.

Rice is the staple of the diet. In Chinese, the word for rice, fan (pronounced “fahn”), means “food.” White, polished rice does lose some of its nutrients, but in China, it represents status and success. It is considered a little easier to digest and utilize in the body. Peasants still consume a less refined rice with more nutrition.

Most Chinese live in rural areas and work the land. In the larger cities, where people have access to refined foods such as sugars and flour products, sugar abuse and poor nutrition from consumption of candy, sodas, and other junk foods are causing concern. But the basic diet is a fairly sound and healthy one, the product of a culture thousands of years old.

The Japanese diet is similar to the Chinese, with the basic rice, cooked vegetables, pickled vegetables and meats, and a modest amount of animal products. Since Japan is actually a group of islands, seafood is consumed in much higher quantities than in other Asian countries. Raw fish, or sashimi, is characteristic of the Japanese cuisine. Tofu, a soybean curd, and other beans such as aduki are also used. Miso, a fermented soybean paste, is a common salty soup base. Milk products are eaten minimally, and fruits are consumed as available. Raw, fresh vegetables are consumed rarely, as is true throughout the Asian countries. Most everything is cooked (or pickled or smoked), except for raw fish. This practice may have evolved because of concern over spoilage and contamination. Japan is more westernized than other Asian countries, so concerns over an industrialized diet are present there as well. Also, the higher use of condiments, pickled, and fermented foods may offer some concerns in terms of health.

East Indian
The Indian diet is similar to the other Asian diets with its basic cooked rice and vegetables. However, in India, the major legume is lentils, rather than the soybean. Dahl is the main East Indian lentil dish. Wheat is used to make various flat and pocket breads. Curry flavoring, a hot mixed spice, is used throughout India, and fermented milk products, mainly yogurt, are also consumed regularly, often to cool down the spicy foods. Lahsi is a yogurt drink taken with meals. A more common beverage is chai, a black tea served hot or cold with added milk and sugar. White sugar is used all too commonly in India. A fair amount of fried dishes are popular. Due to heat, hygiene, and concern over food poisoning, few raw foods other than peeled fruits are eaten; most are cooked. The main cooking fat is ghee, a clarified butter. Coconut oil and coconut meat are also used in cooking in some East Indian recipes.

The cow is considered the sacred animal of India, and vegetarianism is much more common there than anywhere else in the world. However, the Hindu people tend to maintain their lactase enzyme function and thus can handle eating cow’s milk products, such as milk, yogurt and paneer, a fermented cheesecake curd made from milk. The main concern in this populated country is basic shortages of food and subsequent malnourishment.

Thai cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. This diet is very close to that of Southern China, which Thailand borders. This food can range from mild to very spicy, and the Thai people are quite artful in their use of special spices and flavors. Meals consist of white rice and mixed vegetables, along with tofu or an animal protein such as fish, chicken, pork, or beef. Since Thailand is so fertile, the fresh food, especially green vegetables, are readily available much of the year.

Other Countries

Middle Eastern (Morocco, North Africa, Arabian Countries)
The Arabian nations consume a variant of the Indian diet, though wheat is used more than rice, eaten both as breads and crackers and as cooked wheat grain (couscous), often with peas or lentils. More types of legumes are used, including lentils, peas, and garbanzo beans. Meat, mainly lamb, is eaten regularly; with yogurt and some cheeses are an important part of the diet as well. Vegetables are usually cooked with meats. Olives are also eaten. Few fruit trees (other than date and occasionally fig) grow in these desert climes. Alcohol is forbidden by Moslem law, as is pork. Sweets are very popular, such as halvah, a sweetened sesame seed candy, as well as sugared fruits.

African (South Africa)
The diet of the white population of South Africa is similar to that of Australia and England, with the same high consumption of meat and dairy products that leads to an increase in disease. There is also an acceptance of many of the refined foods. The traditional diet of the native black Africans is closer to the “natural” (cultural) food diet. Cultivated and gathered grains and vegetables with some hunted meats (for rural tribes) and fish for coastal tribes make up the basic diet that has supported this culture for many generations. But the acceptance of more refined foods and sugars has been to the detriment of these already malnourished people.

The staples of this Central American country are rice, beans, and corn, with a bit of shredded beef or chicken. Tomatoes and chili peppers are particularly common, as Mexican people like their food spicy. Chili con carne is a popular dish, made with meat, chili peppers, and perhaps some vegetables. The spicy chilis stimulate the digestive function, clean the blood, and may help prevent certain degenerative diseases.

Corn is used in a variety of ways, mainly ground for tortillas or corn bread. Red beans are the most commonly used legumes. The rice used varies in its degree of refinement. The high amounts of starches in the diet, along with cerveza (beer) and tequila, makes many Mexican people fairly heavy around the waistline, although usually strong in constitution. Burritos, tostadas, tamales, and enchiladas are Mexican names for a variety of dishes, rather like sandwiches, made of meat, beans, cheese, or vegetables and corn or flour tortillas.

Refined foods have become more common in the Mexican diet. Breads, sugars, cookies, and candies are eaten more and more by young children. Hydrogenated oils and lard for cooking may be a problem too, related to obesity and atherosclerosis. The Mexican people would do better with less refined foods and more whole grains and vegetables for fiber. Fruits are plentiful and should be eaten more. Excessive alcohol intake should, of course, be avoided. Because water and food contamination is common, most foods are well cooked before eating, though eating more fresh fruits and vegetables for their cooling effect would probably be more healthy for a hot climate.

South American
The South American diet varies a bit from country to country. Most are similar to the Mexican diet, with a fair amount of corn, rice, and beans. In the wealthier countries such as Argentina and Venezuela, where cattle are raised on a large scale, beef consumption is very high. Fresh vegetables are not consumed often, though fruits are available. More dairy foods are eaten than in Mexico, but really the basic diet is meat, grains, beans, and fruit. A more natural diet with less beef consumption, both in South America and elsewhere internationally, would reduce the necessity to use rain forests as cattle feed and save these beautiful environments.

The diet of the tropical locales such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, and other ocean islands seems to be potentially very healthful. Fruit and fish are both very plentiful, though they are not usually eaten together. Some vegetables are grown and eaten, especially the sweet potato, taro root, the banana-like plantain, and breadfruit. The coconut is also popular; its inner water is drunk for nourishment by many natives before eating its meat. Coconut milk and meat are used in many tropical dishes. The island diet is generally a light one, often with more raw foods than cooked ones, appropriate for keeping energy up in these humid climates.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
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