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Wok Your Way to Good Health

Asian foods and cooking styles may provide several health benefits.

Posted: February 9, 2008 2:12 a.m.
Updated: April 11, 2008 2:02 a.m.

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Eating healthy does not always mean eating less. Sometimes, all it takes is a shift in quality of food, not quantity. With all of the diet fads and techniques currently on the ballot, the Asian diet may be among the healthiest options available.

Diet experts often point to Asian countries such as China and Japan as having some of the healthiest people in the world.
"The nutrient composition of the traditional rural Asian diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet in that both are largely plant-based and both pyramids recommend that meat be consumed no more than once a month, or more often in small amounts," said T. Colin Campbell, Cornell professor of nutritional biochemistry, in a study on Chinese and Taiwanese diets. "However, the Asian diet, which is significantly lower in total fat, may prove to be an even more healthful diet."
According to various studies, people who eat predominantly Asian foods report far fewer cases of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other weight-related illnesses that plague the United States. Life expectancy is also higher in Asian countries. A recent study said that the group with the longest lifespan in the world are Japanese women.

Eating Asian
Longer lives and healthier lifestyles are trademarks of Asian cultures, who's diets include generous portions of fish, rice, soy, fruits and vegetables. Among the perks of eating Asian foods are generous portions of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, protein, iron and calcium.
Other ideal foods to include in an Asian diet are basic fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Many Asian diet experts also recommend using a small amount of vegetable oil and a moderate consumption of plant-based beverages, such as black or green tea, sake, beer and wine. These items should be consumed on a daily basis and should also incorporate daily physical exercise.
Absent from Asian diets are dairy and meat products, though Indian meals (generally considered part of the Asian-diet realm) are the exception to this rule.
What makes Asian foods stand out is their emphasis on using vegetables and rice, limited used of meat and cooking techniques. Preparation techniques include stir-fry, barbecuing, deep-frying and steaming. Prior to cooking, all foods are carefully chopped or sliced, which enhances the benefits of eating Asian foods.
While red meat is generally absent from Asian meals, cultures such as the Japanese eat protein with just about every meal, primarily through fish and tofu.
Asiatic foods emphasize more whole grain foods while minimizing consumption of processed foods. There is an emphasis on whole foods and smaller portions. In Japanese culture, for example, most diets rely heavily upon fish and seaweed. Miso soup is very nourishing and great for the body, especially when you are sick.
"Miso soup is a fermented paste," said Dr. Elena Electra Michaels, traditional naturopathic doctor and nutritionist in Newhall. "Any fermented food is good for the digestive system."
Asian foods, such as kim chi and miso, are ideal fermented foods, yet so are generic items, such as yogurt.
"Asians don't eat a lot of processed foods, they eat whole foods," Dr. Elena said. "Whole foods create a balanced diet."

Alkaline, Whole and Less
Dr. Elena, as she prefers to be called, added that Asian foods are beneficial because they create an alkaline reaction in the human body. This differs from Western diets, which create a more acidic reaction.
She added that minerals such as calcium and magnesium create an alkaline reaction, while vegetables, rice and any type of green leaf (i.e. beat greens, spinach, celery, etc.) are ideal alkaline-type foods.
"Any type of whole food will create an alkaline reaction in the body," Dr. Elena added.
In Japan, for example, people eat a lot of seaweed and protein (such as fish) along with an alkaline broth. This broth includes onions, garlic, any green leaf (i.e., celery) organic potatoes with the skin and sea salt. Any combination of these foods help the body become more alkaline, according to Dr. Elena.
Besides the apparent advantages of eating Asian foods, Dr. Elena emphasizes the benefits of increased amounts of whole and fermented foods and smaller portions overall (which help with longevity and health).
"People who eat whole or fermented foods do not suffer from long-term diseases such as diabetes," Dr. Elena added.
She does warn of a few disadvantages of eating Asian foods, especially for individuals with high blood pressure. In particular, she advises people to pay attention to the soy content. Soy has a lot of salt and sodium and may be problematic for people who have blood pressure issues.
To combat this potential problem, Dr. Elena recommends eating edamame - basically, cooked green beans still inside its casing - instead tofu. "Tofu is not a mainstay," she said. "It's more of a garnish than the main part of the meal."
Dr. Elena also recommends eating seaweed, particularly because of its iodine content. Iodine helps maintain the thyroid, which helps manage an individual's weight.
"We're so fat as Americans because our thyroid is out of whack," she added. "Seaweed has a lot of iodine. It has trace minerals from growing in the sea. Since the ocean is similar to our blood, it's perfect for us."
She specifically recommends eating dulse seaweed, a soft moist purplish item that can be found at local ethnic supermarkets. In addition to ethnic markets, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's also have foods perfect for Asian diets. When shopping for Asian foods, Dr. Elena recommends paying attention to foods that are organic. She also recommends brown rice instead of white, as well as scallions.
Dr. Elena is one of many local dietitians who can help individuals create the ideal nutritional plan for optimal health. For more information about her services, visit her Web site at www.drelena.com.


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