Science is teaching us a lot about nutrition, sometimes going against the traditions we grew up with? How can we maintain a healthy lifestyle while upholding our culture?

By Carolyn Koh
August 2, 2018

Photo by Gor Gavtyan.

I had to re-examine my diet recently because, apparently, Asians are disproportionately likely to develop diabetes and my (Asian) doctor has spoken to me about watching my carb intake. So although colleagues often comment on my “healthy” packed lunches, consisting usually of leftover meat, vegetables, and plain white rice, what I saw instead was that my diet is high on the glycemic index.

One reason for this is that carbohydrates are cheap. But there is also a more encompassing reason that goes beyond economics: traditional family foods and recipes.

When I think of modern sensibilities and my own attempts to make healthier choices, I can hear my Great Uncle chime in, “Brown rice has a taste. You need white rice to cleanse your palate or to serve as a base. It has no taste.” There’s also the cultural (learned) cravings. “If you don’t eat rice, how do you feel full?” or, as my Aunt puts it, “How do you serve Chinese dishes without rice??”


Photo by Rene Deanda.

Staples are the foods and ingredients that form the basis of cuisines. They make up a significant portion of the daily calories you eat. Carb-rich foods like rice, grains, beans, and potatoes are all typical staples in ethnic diets and vary in nutritional quality and glycemic values. They still feature prominently in our diets despite a modern lifestyle where most of us no longer labor in the fields and need the easily digested carbs for quick energy. We load up on them simply because we love them!

Is my diet really that bad? No, not all of it of course. But the big portions of carbs are. Eating family style, we hand out bowlfuls of rice with scant pieces of meats and vegetables. At most restaurants, dishes are typically laden with noodles or rice. We also tend to add extra salt and spices to flavor our dishes as they are served over bland rice.

Carb limited diets such as Keto or Atkins can actually be achieved while eating ethnic with careful choices and substitutions (shirataki noodles anyone?) and perhaps a little trickery when helping kids and elders eat healthier. Cook more vegetables and meat and serve them along with encouragements like:

  • “Have more meat, there’s plenty!”
  • “Eat the fish please. It won’t keep.”
  • “The vegetables are excellent today. So fresh!”

Soon, the meat and vegetables will take up more than half the plate instead of the carbs and it will become the norm. You might also find yourself using less salt as there is less rice.

Eating Out Ethnic and Healthy

Photo by Jason Leung.

When eating out ethnic, we can also make healthy choices. Cut back on breads, fried foods, and rich sauces and order extra portions of vegetables and protein. When you want that big bowl of Pho or noodles and dumplings, choose extra meat, and leave some of the noodles. It provides the same satiation with less carbs. Other choices are also available. Miso soup and seaweed salad instead of tempura as starters, steamed dumplings rather than fried. The list goes on. There are healthier choices out there!

Traditional Feast Days

Traditional feast days and festivals are always a smorgasbord of the best foods, the richest dishes that a village could put together. Enjoy yourself! The occasional treat isn’t going over the top as long as we control ourselves from binging. Why deny our traditions, especially if they only come around a few times a year?

Having vowed to eat better but feeling guilty to deny food you’re offered? Then have smaller portions of the sinfully sweet or carb laden gifts. I practically inhaled the “bazhang” (sticky rice dumpling) I was gifted during the recent Dragon Boat celebrations in June but saved the second for another day (it did not last long). I could have felt guilty for having that much high glycemic starch in one sitting, but instead, I decided that I was being virtuous for not buying more and binging on them all week.

Eating healthy while eating traditional and ethnic can be attained without sacrificing your favorites. Traditions shift over time, and so do our eating habits; small healthful changes can be made while still satisfying cultural sensibilities. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.