by Geoff Rand

Inspiration for these blog articles sometimes comes from the strangest of places…

So I was watching Beverly Hills Ninja the other day.  If you are not familiar with this American classic, the late Chris Farley plays Haru, an abandoned white infant, who washes ashore near a Japanese Ninjitsu temple and is raised and trained to be a ninja.  Haru travels to America to help rescue a woman in danger.  Farley’s obesity and obvious lack of martial arts skills makes him a terrible ninja.  Whacky hijinks ensue.  It’s truly a great film.

But in watching the American Farley alongside many Asian actors, I began to wonder why those from the cultures of the Far East are typically in much better shape than those of us in the West.

I spent some time in the Pacific islands of Palau and Yap, and I rarely, if ever, saw an overweight resident there.  So why are those from Asian cultures typically thinner?  Is it genetics, diet, or something else?


Tackling the genetics aspect first, I found evidence of Asians that immigrated to the United States.  In one of many examples, a South Korean 5 foot 5 inch woman weighed 110 pounds her entire adult life in her homeland.  When she became a U.S. citizen, eating an American diet, she gained 30 pounds.  Once assimilated in the American culture and diet, Asians by and large, gain weight.  I ruled out genetics as a factor.

So that leaves diet.  But wait, isn’t their diet high in carbs with rice a main ingredient of many dishes?  What gives?  Let’s look at what they eat and how they live.

The Asian Diet and Cultural Practices

Fish is a staple.  It is consumed nearly every day.  It is a terrific lean protein and is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.  In much of Asia, red meat is expensive and harder to come by than it is in the West.

In the traditional culture, Asians make use of nearly the whole animal.  Bones and innards become soup, and the tendons, cartilage, and other parts contain beneficial nutrients and contribute to a satiated feeling.

Seaweed is also a part of many dishes, and is one of the few natural sources of iodine, which is essential to thyroid health.  The thyroid is a gland that helps control weight and energy levels, and this could be a key difference in Eastern and Western diets and their body mass indexes.


A typical dish of kimchi, or fermented cabbage.

A typical dish of kimchi, or fermented cabbage.

They eat fermented food.  Foods like kimchi and kombucha are a good source of healthy bacteria for the gut, and the fermenting process breaks down some of the plant defenses, making fermented foods easier to digest.

Asians typically avoid sugary sweets.  Fibrous fruit is their main source of fructose, and it is mainly reserved for an occasional dessert treat.  Water and unsweetened tea are their go-to beverages.

Eastern portion sizes are much smaller than Western meals, and they are consumed at a much slower pace.  Look at their instruments.  You really can’t shovel a whole lot of food in your mouth quickly with chopsticks.  They take their time eating, and this is good for both digestion and allowing one to feel full before overindulging.

Before 1990, many Asian countries were heavy into farming and other manual labor industries.  They also walk or bike far more than those of us in North America. Toilets are holes in the ground that require one to squat over them.  While modernization is changing Asian cultural practices, all of this manual activity, walking, and squatting adds up to a larger number of calories burned just during their normal day to day activities.

Eastern medicine focuses on treatment of the root of the problem rather than the Western practice of suppressing the symptoms with medication.  You will see traditional Asian medical practitioners prescribing more natural remedies, healthy diets, and prevention practices as opposed to there being a pill you take for any manner of maladies affecting you.

Finally, rice.  While rice is a main component in Eastern meals, it is more important to note what they do not eat:  wheat.  Breads and wheat pastas are just not a part of their diets.  Egg and rice noodles, along with regular rice take the place of sandwiches.  Rice also digests slowly, which allows you to feel full longer, carrying you over until your next meal, which reduces cravings.

While a lot has been written about Asians and their rice consumption and how that debunks the thought that a high carbohydrate diet causes obesity and other health issues, when you look at the totality of the facts, the Asian diet as a whole is much more healthy than what the American diet has become.  It is likely there is no one aspect of the traditional Asian diet that is the reason Asians are typically thinner than those of us in the West.  It is probably the combination of the foods they eat (and don’t eat) and their activity level that combine to produce their healthier body types.

When you see healthy Asians moving to our nation and becoming fat, that should tell you all you need to know.  Now, while in much of this article I speak of the traditional Eastern diet, things are changing.  As industrial and technological modernizations sweep through Asia, we are seeing a shift from a farming and manual labor focus to city living and working in cubicles.  Cars and mopeds are replacing walking and bicycles as common methods of transportation.  McDonald’s and other Western restaurants are now commonplace in China and Japan.  Processed foods are now replacing what used to be homemade meals and fresh ingredients.  Many families are now living a more westernized life and the East is starting to see the same health issues America is facing.   Diabetes, obesity, sleep disorders and other medical problems have arrived in Asia along with the modern advances they have adopted from the West.

While there is no one solution, lifestyle, or eating plan that works 100% for everyone, we can learn a lot from the traditional Asian diet and culture.  Take note of what they eat, and also what they don’t eat, and how they live, and perhaps incorporate or remove some of those foods or practices from your own way of life.  And even if you decide not to live like a ninja, watch Beverly Hills Ninja.  Seriously, Chris Farley makes every movie better.