The Traditional Asian Diet Overview


Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

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Pros & Cons

  • Diverse foods and flavors
  • Filling
  • If you don’t like rice and noodles, forget it
  • Few guiding resources

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Enjoy Asian herbs and spices See more Do's & Don'ts




The aim:

May include weight loss, disease prevention, and optimal health.

The claim:

You’ll lose weight, keep it off, and avoid a host of chronic diseases.

The theory:

Folks in Asian countries tend to have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and obesity than Americans, and they typically live longer, too. Researchers suspect that owes largely to their diet: a low-fat, healthy eating style that emphasizes rice, vegetables, fresh fruit, and fish, with very little red meat.

How does the The Traditional Asian Diet work?

It depends—there isn’t one Asian diet. Working with the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health, and Environment, Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank in Boston, developed a consumer-friendly Asian diet pyramid that revolves around daily consumption of rice, noodles, breads, millet, corn, and other whole grains, along with fruits, veggies, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. Fish and shellfish (or dairy) are optional each day, and you can have eggs, poultry, and something sweet once a week. Red meat is allowed once a month. The pyramid also calls for six glasses of water or tea each day; sake, wine, and beer are OK in moderation. Remember to stay physically active, and you’re set.

Examples of Asian diet veggies and tubers include: bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, bitter melon, bok choy, carrots, eggplant, galangal, leeks, sweet potatoes, taro root, turnips, and yams. Fruits range from apricots, coconut, and mangoes, to rambutan and tangerines. Oldways suggests getting your grains by focusing on barley, dumplings, naan, buckwheat, rice, and noodles (such as soba, somen, rice, and udon). Examples of fish and seafood are abalone, clams, cockles, eel, mussels, and octopus. And don’t forget herbs and spices like amchoor, basil, clove, masala, mint, turmeric, curry leaves, and fennel.

Because this is an eating pattern—not a structured diet plan—you’re on your own to figure out how many calories you should eat to lose or maintain your weight, what you’ll do to stay active, and how you’ll shape your Asian menu.

The Asian diet’s geographical base is broad, spanning Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam, among other countries. Each Asian region has its own distinct flavors and cooking styles, but they all share one food in common: rice. It’s a widespread staple, though it’s prepared and eaten differently from place to place. It’s used, for example, as a main ingredient in treats like cake and candy, fermented to make wine or beer, and offered to the Gods to ensure a good harvest.

Will you lose weight?

Probably. Research suggests people in Asian countries who follow this dietary pattern weigh less than their Western counterparts. That’s likely because it’s high in healthy foods that keep hunger at bay: whole grains, vegetables, and bean products, for example.

  • One study, published in Nutrition Reviews in 2012, analyzed the effect of turmeric, a common spice in Asian cuisines. It contains the active ingredient curcumin, which may help prevent obesity.
  • Even though the Asian diet is linked with weight loss, followers are often compelled to abandon their traditional ways when they move to the United States, conforming instead to the standard American diet. In one study, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley analyzed whether the desire to fit in might cause U.S. immigrant groups to eat less healthy foods. They found that Asian Americans who were questioned about their ability to speak English were three times more likely to name a prototypically American food as their favorite. When their American identity was challenged, they ordered and ate more typically American dishes, consuming 182 extra calories and 12 additional grams of fat per day than they did when their identities weren’t challenged.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

It’s likely. Asian diets are low in fat, especially the saturated variety, and high in fiber, due to an emphasis on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and rice. And they’re in line with the medical community’s widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet that keeps cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.

It’s likely. Asian diets are low in fat, especially the saturated variety, and high in fiber, due to an emphasis on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and rice. And they’re in line with the medical community’s widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet that keeps cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

The diet appears to be a viable option for both.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If you need to lose weight and keep it off, and the Asian diet helps you do it, you’ll almost certainly tilt the odds in your favor. Studies have found that a traditional Asian diet may cut diabetes risk and improve glucose tolerance.

Control: An Asian diet can be in line with the American Diabetes Association’s nutrition guidance. And because there are no rigid meal plans or prepackaged meals, you can ensure that what you’re eating doesn’t go against your doctor’s advice. In one study, researchers analyzed the effect of traditional Japanese breakfast foods, and found benefits for those who ate natto (fermented soybeans) and viscous vegetables (such as Japanese yams and okra) for two weeks. These foods improved the body’s response to the hormone insulin and its ability to keep the amount of sugar in the blood well-managed.

Are there health risks?

No indications of serious risks or side effects have surfaced. However, if you have a health condition, talk with your doctor before making major dietary changes.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. You’ll have no problem staying within the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat. A sample daily menu provided 33 percent.

Protein. It’s within the acceptable range for protein consumption—16percent, compared with the 10 to 35 percent the government recommends.

Carbohydrates.The government advises that between 45 and 65 percent of daily calories come from carbs. The Asian diet should keep you around50 percent.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, the limit is 1,500 mg. A sample daily Asian diet menu provided967 mg.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Veggies, fruits, beans, and whole grains—all major sources—are encouraged on this diet, so you should easily meet the recommendation. A sample daily menu provided31grams.
  • Potassium.A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. A sample daily menucame up short at 3,934 mg, but because you’re almost certainly eating more fruits and veggies than you were before, you’ll likely get more potassium than most.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. A sample daily menu provided717 mg.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Fish like salmon and trout, along with eggs and yogurt, are good sources. A sample daily menu provided 1.9 mcg.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. A sample daily menuprovided 23 mcg.Just 3 ounces of sockeye salmon, which packs almost 20 micrograms of vitamin D, will satisfy the requirement.

Supplement recommended? N/A

How easy is it to follow?

That depends. If you’re not big on rice, noodles, fresh veggies, and nuts and legumes, it might be tough.


Recipes are difficult to find, unless you invest in one of a few Asian diet-specific books. Oldways’ consumer-friendly tips will make meal planning slightly easier.

Recipes. Surprisingly, a simple Google search doesn’t yield too many options. You’re better off investing in books like The Asian Diet: Get Slim and Stay Slim the Asian Way and Feed Your Tiger: The Asian Diet Secret for Permanent Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.

Eating out. Sure—there are no hard-and-fast rules, though you may have a tough time at standard American restaurants. Scan the menu beforehand to identify healthy choices.  And don’t assume that American Chinese or Thai restaurants are serving traditional Asian fare; these are often cooked with less healthy ingredients and are higher in calories.

Alcohol. Sake, wine, and beer are allowed in moderation. If you’re going to have a drink, stick with one for women and two for men, only once or twice a week.

Timesavers. None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them, and prepare them.

Extras. None.


Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. With so many fiber-packed whole grains and veggies (and without a calorie cap), you shouldn’t go hungry.


You’re making everything, so if something doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame.

How much does it cost?

It’s moderately pricey. While some ingredients (particularly olive oil, nuts, fish, and fresh produce) can be expensive, bypassing the butcher will help keep the tab reasonable.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Most people can customize the Asian diet to fit their needs—pick a preference for more information.

Yes, with a few minor tweaks you can easily replace any animal products with vegetarian- or vegan-friendly options.

People who can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, can easily follow the Asian diet. The key is selecting gluten-free ingredients when possible.

Doable, but it’s up to you to check the nutrition information on recipes and keep track of your sodium intake.

Yes, you can make sure your diet is kosher.

Yes, but it’s up to you to ensure your food conforms.

What is the role of exercise?

The Asian diet is only an eating pattern. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. Being physically active lowers your risk of heart disease and diabetes, helps keep weight off, and increases your energy level. Most experts suggest getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise—such as brisk walking—most or all days of the week.

Last updated by Angela Haupt | December 13, 2013

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