Although the Asian population can eat a lot of rice without getting fat, health expert and power blogger Mark Sisson warns that changing one’s way of life could be a game-changer.
You’ve heard of the French paradox and how it has stumped experts. By bringing up all of those smug “surrender monkeys,” with their brie, butter, confit de duck, Gauloises, and seemingly unaffected by heart attacks, Dean Ornish would be driven to bran binges and hair-pulling fits.
Israeli Paradox attempts to explain why Israelis have skyrocketing rates of heart disease even though they consume an increasing amount of “healthy” omega-6s.
Walter Willet, a nutritionist, might be found sobbing into a mug of safflower oil in its wake. According to an American Paradox, people who consume the most saturated fat are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease. This confounded researchers.
That being said, there is a paradox in Asia. How do Asians, who eat a lot of white rice and noodles, manage to maintain their slim physiques? How can they eat so many carbohydrates if they make you fat?
A slow, frequent pace of movement
Walkability is different when you’re in an Asian immigrant-heavy city like New York or Tokyo. We recently went to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with my wife Carrie. Our day of wandering around and getting a little lost made a noticeable difference in our moods and outlooks.
It appeared that everyone except the elderly Asians who were out walking or running was engaged in some form of physical activity. Purposeful physical activity. To “burn calories” or “improve VO2 max,” etc. Our attention was drawn to an older Chinese grandma walking down the path in Keds and a knit sweater while a young mother with a stroller wore compression tights, a baseball cap, and the latest running shoes.
Joggers with Bluetooth headphones jabbed at each other in business-speak, while a pair of old friends in well-worn suits and loafers walked by and loudly spoke in another language about politics and times gone by.
In contrast to the professional cyclists, an older Asian gentleman in a collared shirt and slacks rode a simple 10-speed bicycle past on his way home from work. Many of the elderly Asians I encountered seemed to rely on walking, bicycling, or simply using their limbs to get from one place to another.
That day wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me. There were no exceptions to this rule. It wasn’t abnormal. Everyone else got their fill of cardio. Getting ready for and spending money on it was a big deal. Every time I go for a walk to get healthier, I enjoy it. I’ve noticed a significant cultural divide between the way older Asian immigrants (and their cultures back home) treat frequent slow-moving versus the way Americans treat frequent fast-moving.
There has been a long history of Asian people being more active than those in the US. Their increased level of daily activity is not because they’re all doing weightlifting and running sprints and joining gyms. And, as most people are aware, simply going for a walk regularly is extremely beneficial to one’s health.
An improved ability to tolerate carbohydrates like white rice, better moods, lower blood pressure, and triglycerides, and longer life are all linked to regular walking. Almost one hundred years now, the United States of America has been primarily a car culture. For the past 50 years, we haven’t had to walk to get around.
To make matters worse, many of us are trapped in a sprawling suburb where even simple errands like grocery shopping or picking up the kids from school require the use of a car. Because of this, Americans take fewer steps each day than people in the rest of the world. Asians are becoming increasingly reliant on cars and other modes of transportation, and this is likely to lead to an increase in carbohydrate intolerance, weight gain, and other health issues. As you’ll see, it’s already taking place.
In my opinion, daily activity levels are the most significant factor in carb tolerance. People tend to be healthier, leaner, and live longer in American cities like New York, where walking is either required or more convenient than driving. But things are shifting. 65 percent of Chinese workers did heavy work every day in 1989. Although this percentage was still higher than in Western countries by the year 2000, a downward trend was evident. The proportion of overweight children also rose by the year 2000, according to the same study.
Nutritious diets that are otherwise unprocessed
Traditional Asian cuisine is packed with nutrients. It’s hard to go to Vietnam without trying pho, a large bowl of beef marrow bone broth with rice noodles and all the trimmings. Go to a Thai restaurant and order a bone broth soup with cubes of pork blood, greens, rice noodles, and a duck egg from the soup menu. Go to a Chinese restaurant and order the sautéed pork kidneys with Chinese broccoli and rice (sadly, in soybean or corn oil these days).
Wild salmon eggs rolled in seaweed and rice, mackerel sashimi, and fermented miso soup with kelp strips are some of the best Japanese dishes. To truly experience the best of Korean cuisine, head to your nearest Korean barbecue joint and stuff your face with a deluge of kimchi, short ribs, tongue, and liver wrapped in lettuce and served with rice. All of these dishes contain rice, but they also contain real bone broth, fresh meat, fermented cabbage, offal, and vegetables. In the absence of rice, all other nutrients are still present.
Assuming that the food is from the restaurant, of course. The best place to observe how Asian families prepare their meals is in their local supermarkets, where you can see what people are buying for their consumption. The taste and presentation may be lacking, but the nutritional value remains the same. A pig’s digestive tract and buckets of chicken feet are just a few of the oddities you’ll find at the store’s register. There are also bags full of strange leafy greens and exotic vegetables like bitter melon, as well as a wide variety of herbs, roots, and teas. There are also a dozen different varieties of root vegetables… and yes, rice.
“What about the rice?” is fine if you want to separate it from the rest of the nutrient-dense options, but not me. While comparing the contents of Asian markets’ shopping carts to the contents of standard American grocery stores’ shopping carts, I’ll be admiring the handsome beef foot oozing collagen and marrow and imagining all the wonderful dishes it could make.
Refined sugar was less common in Asian cuisine and animal fats were more commonly used in cooking. While sugar consumption is on the rise and corn and soybean cooking oils have largely replaced lard and tallow, rice is still acceptable as part of a nutrient-dense, low-sugar, no-high-fructose corn syrup, low-vegetable oil diet. You can’t pick out a single component of a food, like the fructose in blueberry, and declare the whole berry bad because of it. In the same way, you can’t judge a diet solely based on a single component of food. You have to consider the whole picture, and the Asian diet is generally a healthy one.
More rice and less wheat
In Asia, 90 percent of the world’s rice crop is grown due to the regular monsoon rains. People in the area eat a lot of it because it’s been grown there for nearly 10,000 years.
When it comes to a source of glucose that isn’t toxic, rice, especially white rice (the preferred type across most of Asia; as one Thai friend of mine who grew up there and came to Hollywood in the 60s told me, “rice bran was for the chickens”), is a good option for them. While wheat and other gluten grains are found at the other end of the grain spectrum, rice is a more restful option. It’s neither “good” nor “bad,” but neither is it either. It simply is. It’s essentially indifferent.
White rice is generally free of gut irritants, phytic acid, and harmful lectins. Whether you can handle (or need) the glucose load is another matter. Wheat, on the other hand, has gluten, wheat germ agglutinin, and a slew of other anti-nutrients to contend with. In addition, as Ned Kock has documented in a masterful (and underappreciated) series of stats posts on the China study data, rice consumption is linked to a decrease in cardiovascular disease while wheat flour consumption is linked to an increase. However, the higher the rice intake, the greater the risk of coronary heart disease, but not a significant one.
Rice-heavy junk food diets are healthier for people than wheat-heavy junk food diets.
Is Asia’s health any better now?
a person in good health who lives a long time As far as health and longevity go, Asia isn’t that great. In both China and India, diabetes epidemics are a growing problem. Diabetes is also on the rise in Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. Asians are now being hit by the same perfect storm that has ravaged industrialized nations like the United States and other European countries for nearly a century, resulting in a wide range of debilitating diseases. There has been a shift away from traditional animal fats to cooking oils and an increase in sugar consumption. People are taking fewer walks and eating more wheat as a result.
However, Asian countries’ low body mass indexes (BMIs) should not be taken at face value. Asians tend to have more body fat than other ethnic groups with the same BMI. If you have a BMI of 25, you’re more likely to be an American or a Pacific Islander than you are to be Chinese. Higher body fat levels (at lower BMIs) may or may not be associated with an increased risk for certain diseases, but the results show that BMI is an unreliable barometer for a country’s leanness on a particular diet. Low BMIs can be associated with being skinny-fat, and it appears that many Asians with low BMIs fit this profile.
The Asian Paradox, like every other one before it, collapses: In reality, there isn’t any paradox. When it comes to maintaining a lean body mass, the Asian diet of rice and other high-nutrient dense foods helps Asian countries (if they are lean at all) stay lean (if they are lean at all).
Publisher Mark Sisson has written Primal Blueprint and published Marks Daily Apple on his website, Marksdailyapple.com.