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Asian Americans, Diets of

Asian Americans represent a large and rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 11.9 million Asian Americans residing in the United States (4.2 percent of the total population) in the year 2000. Chinese Americans were the leading Asian group Asian-American diets are based on rice and rice products, with less emphasis on the regular consumption of meat and dairy products, which differs from traditional American fare. [AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.] Asian-American diets are based on rice and rice products, with less emphasis on the regular consumption of meat and dairy products, which differs from traditional American fare. [AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.]
(not including Taiwanese Americans), followed by Filipinos (2.4 million) and Asian Indians (1.9 million). A U.S. Census estimate predicts a tripling of this population by 2050.

Asian Americans are exceedingly diverse, coming from nearly fifty countries and ethnic groups, each with distinct cultures, traditions, and histories, and they speak over 100 languages and dialects. Asian Americans have immigrated to the United States from different parts of Asia, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Korea, and Japan. They are categorized by the Census Bureau under the broad classification of "Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States." In 2000, Asian-born residents accounted for 26 percent (7.2 million) of the nation's total foreign-born population, with approximately half (about 45%) of them living in three metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

Food Habits

Two key elements draw the diverse cultures of the Asian region together: (1) the composition of meals, with an emphasis on vegetables and rice, with relatively little meat; and (2) cooking techniques. Eating is a vital part of the social matrix, and Asian-American cuisine includes a wide variety of meals, snacks, and desserts for social occasions. Asian food preparation techniques include stir-frying, barbecuing, deep-frying, boiling, and steaming. All ingredients

MERITS AND WEAKNESSES OF TRADITIONAL ASIAN DIETS MERITS AND WEAKNESSES OF TRADITIONAL ASIAN DIETS

  Staple foods Merits of diet Weaknesses of diet Common diseases
Cambodian Rice
Fish
Tea
Low in fat
Low in sugar
People often unable to obtain necessary food Tuberculosis
Polio
Chinese Rice
Vegetables
Green Tea
Reduces risk for heart disease and certain cancers Iodine deficiency
Iron deficiency
Anemia
Filipino Rice
Vegetables
Seafood
Fruit
Reduces risk for heart disease and cancers Protein deficiency
Iron deficiency
Anemia
Diarrhea
Respiratory infections
Hmong Rice
Vegetables
Meat
Fish
Low in fat
Low in sugar
Lack of fruit
Calcium deficiency
 
Asian Indian Cereals
Rice
Vegetables
Low in fat
Low in sugar
Protein deficiency
Iron deficiency
Vitamin A deficiency
Respiratory infections
Intestinal infections
Anemia
Protein-energy malnutrition
Diabetes
Laotian Rice
Vegetables
Fish
Low in fat
Low in sugar
Vitamin A deficiency
Iron deficiency
Goiter
Anemia
Vietnamese Rice
Fish
Fruit
Low in fat
Low in sugar
Iron deficiency Anemia

are carefully prepared (chopped, sliced, etc.) prior to starting the cooking process. The nutrient composition of the traditional Asian diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet in that both are largely plant-based diets and meat is consumed only a few times a month (and often in very small amounts).

There exists great diversity in language, socioeconomic status, religion, age, education, social class, location, length of time in the United States, and country of origin among Asian Americans. Hence, caution needs to be taken not to generalize or imply that food habits are similar for all individuals of this group. For example, Chinese meals consist mainly of four food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, and meat. Because of lactose intolerance, most Chinese do not consume large amounts of dairy products, substituting soymilk and tofu as sources of protein and calcium. Some Asian food, such as Thai food, is generally spicy, hot, and high in sodium. Hot peppers are used daily. The Japanese are very concerned about the visual appeal of food and the "separateness" of the foods and tastes. Garlic and hot pepper, commonly used among Asian Americans, are not common ingredients in the Japanese cuisine. Korean Americans eat kimchi with each meal. Kimchi is cabbage marinated in salt water, layered with peppers and spices in crockery, and left to ferment for a few days. South Asians (people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) use spices (e.g., ginger, garlic, fenugreek, cumin, etc.) and condiments in their cuisine.

Most Asian Americans like to use fresh food in their cooking. Unlike the fast food society of the United States, they select live seafood, fresh meats, and seasonal fruits and vegetables from the local market to ensure freshness. Food preparation is meticulous, and consumption is ceremonious and deliberate. Most Asians living in America adhere to a traditional Asian diet interspersed with American foods, particularly breads and cereals. Dairy products are not consumed in large quantities, except for ice cream. Calcium is consumed through tofu and small fish (bones eaten). Fish, pork, and poultry are the main sources of protein. Significant amounts of nuts and dried beans are also eaten. Vegetables and fruits make up a large part of food intake. Rice is the mainstay of the diet and is commonly eaten at every meal.

The traditional Asian diet has received a lot of attention because many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, are not as common in Asia as in the United States and other Western nations. Researchers believe that the Asian plant-based diet provides protection against these chronic diseases. The diet is also believed to contribute to the long life spans commonly seen in Asia. To offer a healthful alternative to the 1992 U.S. Food Guide Pyramid, which lumped some animal and plant foods together in a single group, researchers developed an Asian Diet Pyramid, which emphasizes a wide base of rice, rice products, noodles, breads and grains, preferably whole grain and minimally processed foods, topped by another large band of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Daily physical exercise, a small amount of vegetable oil, and a moderate consumption of plant-based beverages—including tea (especially black and green), sake, beer, and wine—are also recommended daily. Small daily servings of low-fat dairy products or fish are optional; sweets, eggs, and poultry are recommended no more than weekly; and red meat is recommended no more than monthly.

The Asian Diet Pyramid reflects the traditional, plant-based rural diets of Asia. Although there is an image of Asian Americans as a "model minority" who have overcome their "ethnic handicap" and are socioeconomically well off (Chen and Hawks), certain illnesses predominate in this group. For example, there is a particularly high rate of liver cancer among Asian Americans, while lung cancer is their leading cause of death. Vietnamese-American women's cervical cancer rate is five times that of Caucasian women. Asian Americans have among the highest rates of tuberculosis and hepatitis B in the United States. Asian Indian immigrants in the United States have an unusually high rate of coronary artery disease, and parasitic infections are particularly widespread among Southeast Asian refugees.

Studies indicate that the food habits of Asians become increasingly Westernized after they move to the United States or other Western countries (see Karim, Bloch, Falciglia, and Murthy). There is a general shift from vegetarianism to nonvegetarianism, and ethnic foods are consumed along with traditional ingredients found in American supermarkets. Consequently, diets of immigrants living in the United States have changed from being low in fat and rich in fiber to being high in saturated fat and animal protein and low in fiber. There is also an increased tendency to consume fast foods and convenience foods. These dietary changes, along with sedentary and stressful lifestyles, may increase their risk for chronic disease.

Ranjita Misra

Bibliography

American Dietetic Association (2000). Ethnic and Regional Food Practices: Indian and Pakistani Food Practices, Customs, and Holidays, 2nd edition. Chicago: Author.

Chen, M. S., Jr., and Hawks, B. L. (1995). "A Debunking of the Myth of Healthy Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders." American Journal of Health Promotion 9:261–268.

Karim, N.; Bloch, D. S.; Falciglia, G.; and Murthy, L. (1986). "Modifications of Food Consumption Patterns Reported by People from India Living in Cincinnati, Ohio." Ecology of Food and Nutrition 19:11–18.

Internet Resources

Applesforhealth.com. "Chinese Diet Can Keep Heart Healthy." Available from <http://www.applesforhealth.com/chinesediet1.html>

Betancourt, Deidre (1995). "Cultural Diversity: Eating in America—Asian." Available from <http://www.ohioline.osu.edu>

Cornell University Science News (1995). "Asian Diet Pyramid Offers Alternative to U.S. Food Guide." Available from <http://www.news.cornell.edu/science/Dec95/st.asian.pyramid.html>

Lin, Kathy. "Chinese Food Cultural Profile." Harborview Medical Center/University of Washington. Available from <http://www.ethnomed.org>

National Library of Medicine. "Asian American Health." Available from <http://www.asianamericanhealth.nlm.nih.gov>


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