What is the Typical Asian Diet?

I’ve been eating a mostly vegetarian diet for about the last eight months. I would like to incorporate meat back into my diet, while nonetheless eating healthier than before.

In the typical American diet, we eat too much red meat and junk food, and not enough fruits and vegetables. The typical Asian diet is healthier in comparison:

Folks in Asian countries tend to have lower rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity than Americans do, 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.

While it’s often assumed that Buddhism in general is vegetarian, this is not inherently the case:

Asia covers a wide sweep of the globe and a number of different climatic zones, so there is really no typical diet. I’ve just returned from a week in urban Malaysia where I was treated to large amounts of fried food with lots of carbs and meat and small quantities of overcooked veggies: delicious but not at all healthy. … One contrast to this is the traditional Japanese diet that consists of small quantities of rice with lightly cooked fresh veggies and seaweed, with high quality protein coming from tofu and seafood. … But another contrast is the traditional wheat, meat and rancid butter (supplemented with imported sugar etc) of rural Mongolia. … If you’re looking for healthy I’d suggest investigating Japanese, Thai and Chinese cuisines, all of which can be easily converted to vegetarian if desired.


Thank you for your response. I’m more interested in learning the ingredients of a typical Asian diet, rather than specific recipes, to see if the food they traditionally eat helps with health and longevity.

One thing that probably unites most Asian diets is: rice.

Many Thai dishes can actually have a good amount of sugar, and most Southeast Asian diets you’ll find are very heavy on the fish sauce (which may or may not be ok depending on how strictly vegetarian you are).

@Kensho You may find this article interesting:

Strong Positive Associations Between Seafood, Vegetables, and Alcohol With Blood Mercury and Urinary Arsenic Levels in the Korean Adult Population.pdf (188.6 KB)

The abstract reads:

Blood mercury and urinary arsenic levels are more than fivefold greater in the Korean population compared with those of the United States. This may be related to the foods people consumed. Therefore, we examined the associations between food categories and mercury and arsenic exposure in the Korean adult population. Data regarding nutritional, biochemical, and health-related parameters were obtained from a cross-sectional study, the 2008-2009 Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (3,404 men and women age ≥20 years). The log-transformed blood mercury and urinary arsenic levels were regressed against the frequency tertiles of each food group after covariate adjustment for sex, age, residence area, education level, smoking status, and drinking status using food-frequency data. Blood mercury levels in the high consumption groups compared to the low consumption groups were elevated by about 20 percents with salted fish, shellfish, whitefish, bluefish, and alcohol, and by about 9-14 percents with seaweeds, green vegetables, fruits and tea, whereas rice did not affect blood mercury levels. Urinary arsenic levels were markedly increased with consumption of rice, bluefish, salted fish, shellfish, whitefish, and seaweed, whereas they were moderately increased with consumption of grains, green and white vegetables, fruits, coffee, and alcohol. The remaining food categories tended to lower these levels only minimally. In conclusion, the typical Asian diet, which is high in rice, salted fish, shellfish, vegetables, alcoholic beverages, and tea, may be associated with greater blood mercury and urinary arsenic levels. This study suggests that mercury and arsenic contents should be monitored and controlled in soil and water used for agriculture to decrease health risks from heavy-metal contamination.

A study of US Asians published in the article: “The “Typical” Asian Diet Is Anything But: Differences in Dietary Exposure to Metals among Subgroups of U.S. Asians” found much the same result from Asians living in the US due to the higher intake of fish and rice. This article can be accessed online through the following link:


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Does this sort of debunk the Atkins diet’s insistence of avoiding carbs, since Asian people tend to be thinner and with less diet-related illnesses than Americans?

Thank you for sharing this. I wonder then if Asians typically have certain diet-related health problems that Westerners don’t typically have, if the above article is true.

While vegetarianism is a noble lifestyle choice, is there a way we can reduce the cruelty and environmental destruction of the livestock industry without insisting for the general population to give up meat entirely?

If humans are natural omnivores, would we lack compassion for our fellow human beings by insisting for others to give up meat entirely? These are honest questions without easy answers.

How Humans Evolved To Be Natural Omnivores

While doing a quick search of the academic databases (while procrastinating from doing what I should really be looking up) I noticed a lot of recent research on diet related health conditions in Asian countries and comparison to western diets. A recurring theme is the recent rise of chronic health conditions related to western diets, i.e. like diabetes etc. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

The findings on mercury and arsenic are replicated in other regional areas where diets are high in fish and/or rice. India seems to have a problem with lead, but not arsenic or mercury. China has some regions where vegetables being grown there have high contents of heavy metals like cadmium.

There are equal numbers of papers on research into positive benefits of Indian and other asian diets and also research into the effects of westernisation of Asian diets like the increased consumption of wheat based products in Indonesia.

This doctoral thesis I just stumbled across is also quite interesting and may better help you with what you are looking for - it talks about western vs asian diets but I really need to get back to what I was originally doing, looking up the latest research papers on neurodegenerative diseases like CBD and PSP.

What_We_Should_Eat,_and_Why_We_Dont.pdf (1.5 MB)

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Interesting. Here in New Zealand we are now using fertilisers made from imported phosphates that are high in cadmium. So these health issues can have unexpected origins.


Cutting way back on consumption of beef, chicken, turkey, pork, etc, and buying from small, local farms would go a long way to mitigating environmental damage. Free-range style livestock production is necessarily low-density, so if demand is modest it will be a more successful model.

I view non-human animals and insects as friends that try to live a life free from suffering, same as me. Not everyone is going to feel the same way. It’s really important for people to be educated about where their food comes from, though, and how it gets to them, as the impact is on humans, as well, since we are part of the environment.


It may be useful to factor in the genetic component into your research. I don’t know how much research has gone into this when comparing diet and health around the world. But, for example, I have been told by my doctor in the UK that I am at a higher risk of diabetes because I have Indian ancestry rather than European. This may make it difficult to generalise about what is and what is not ‘healthy’ between different racial groups.

We also know that some people have a bad reaction to certain foods, such as peanut allergies, and other people are susceptible to the way that food is prepared, such as the ‘smoking’ process (as in ‘smoked salmon’). I heard recently that we are at the beginning of a new revolution in medicine where your individual genetic makeup will be analysed to tailor which foods (and medicines) are the least harmful to you.


Unless one actually kills an animal oneself (which seldom happens today) by eating meat one is not directly responsible for the animal’s death and in this sense the non- vegetarian is no different from the vegetarian. The latter can only eat his vegetables because the farmer has ploughed his fields (thus killing many creatures) and sprayed the crop (again killing many creatures).
Buddhist Studies: Vegetarianism

Something I’ve never thought of before is that compassion toward animals should include humans as well, who are also animals.

If humans are natural omnivores, whether biologically, genetically, etc., then it might be cruel or unfair to insist that our fellow humans not eat what is a natural part of their diet.


Too many factors to conclude anything I would say, lifestyle, exercise, etc. The more you read the current science on diet and health, the more you should rationally conclude that we actually know very little in these fields. Smoking is bad and too much sugar is bad, beyond that I’m not sure how much is really conclusive. Weight loss is a very simple formula: calories in - calories out. The various diet fads are usually just tricks to achieve that; e.g. low carb diets make it hard to eat too many calories since fats and proteins are more satiating, intermittent fasting makes it harder to eat too many calories by restricting the feeding window (monastics are intermittent fasters by this definition btw).

I think “insisting” anything, in the majority of instances, probably isn’t the most helpful attitude and certainly doesn’t sound to me to be rooted all so much in compassion, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that, that is what anyone who tries to highlight the processes involved in food production is automatically seeking to do.

Inviting consideration has the scope to be more than just insisting, surely? Again, style/mode of approach seems key to me. Of course it is possible to be ruthlessly proselytizing, but it’s also possible to be gentle, respectful and accepting while still setting out the case for a given thing.

To my own personal tastes I’ve always been very firm in the wish to not advocate vegetarianism or veganism a single step beyond explaining why I chose to be vegan should someone happen to ask (naturally, I do reserve the right to take part in and put forward my perspective in general discussions on the subject). I feel very strongly that everyone must reconcile their own choices with themselves (and that consuming meat and such things can be a perfectly morally valid decision).

Maintaining oneself as a living creature fundamentally requires impinging on other living things. Attempting to advance this inescapable fact (and I’m not suggesting anyone is) as a basis for dismissing any effort to live with the lowest possible footprint (taking account of eg. one’s individual bodily needs, available resources and whatever else) strikes me as deeply unfortunate.


Rice takes up a lot of arsenic from the soil. See these videos for more information and how to reduce exposure: arsenic | Health Topics | NutritionFacts.org. Koreans also have high rates of stomach cancer because of their diet.

It won’t be long until lab grown meat is commercially viable, tastes good and we’ll be able to buy it in supermarkets. I’m looking forward to it as it will let me eat meat knowing that someone didn’t had to kill an animal for it to be on my plate. And it is far more environmentally friendly. Here’s an article on it: WIRED - Lab-Grown Meat Is Coming, Whether You Like It or Not


Omnivorousness makes a broad spectrum of foods possible in our diet, not obligatory. We are free to choose what types of food we eat.

As Aminah pointed out in her comments:

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Hi Kensho,

I was just re-reading back through this thread and noted this comment. I think the issues that are being investigated in the modern asian diet - i.e. heavy metals, arsenic, mercury etc are mainly showing up in the modern diet because of the amount of consumption.

Like westerners Asian’s, particulary in Korea and China but also in other Asian nations are enjoying a level of prosperity never seen before. There is some westernisation of the asian diet i.e. cheese and milk are now very popular in China for example but one of the major factors is the amount of food that people are eating. Studies also show that the levels of lifestyle diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes are rising very rapidly in nations like Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand, India etc. As these nations become more affluent people can simply afford to eat a lot more of the things they like.

Diets high in rice result in high levels of arsenic as arsenic is naturally produced in rice, although you can minimise that by soaking your rice in water overnight and allow the arsenic and starch to leach out. Fish are slightly different - fish have high levels of mercury due to agricultural run off so that is also a modern phenomenon, previous generations prior to the 20th C probably had diets high in fish with low levels of mercury in the blood.

So although the traditional diet may have been very healthy, modern agricultural practices and the new level of wealth mean that people are eating more of those staples than ever before because they can afford to, thus resulting in increased exposure to these toxins that may have only been found in trace amounts previously.

Not claiming this is true, but just my musings on the subject. I do tend to think if you stick to small amounts of poultry and white meat in general with only the occasional bit of red meat, you can do what you want to do and add a bit of protein to a mostly vegetarian diet. Especially if you can source the meat from locally produced organic farmers instead of supporting the modern meat manufacturing industry.



Highly recommended reading:
The China Study”, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

Many interesting findings there, but the major one the book proves from many angles (after super hardcore scientific research with many many millions of dollars of funding) that if you eat a diet that has more than 5 or 10% “animal products” in it (not just meat, but also dairy, eggs, fish, etc), then your odds of demographically-higher “Westerner” diseases like cancer, heart disease, etc, all go way, way up in probability.

The book jumps up and down waving its arms, again and again to make this point. Which is to say: never mind what the Asians are eating. Their probabilities of occurrences of Westerner-style diseases (like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.) all go way up as their increased prosperity entices them into eating more than that same 5 or 10% animal products. Being Asian is no “protection” from those Westerner-style diseases, demographically, once they start eating more than that same 5-10% animal products in their diets like we Westerners typically do.

Normally I avoid all diet-related books, but I think this one deserved honorable mention because it’s so carefully researched.

Smart move, I say. That describes me as well, whenever I have any wiggle room to chose my diet.


Check the sources of such predictions – the “medical-industrial complex” (parallel to D.D.Eisenhower’s – 1950’s US president – famous phrase the “military-industrial complex”) tends to focus on revenue-production rather than health outcomes – especially, and increasingly critically, in the USA. DNA-related diagnostic technology being a current fad along those lines.

Remember the more balanced “evo-devo” theory: in the first couple of decades after DNA research took hold, “science” thought they’d got it all figured-out with a sort of DNA-determinism (“evo”). When such predictions miserably failed in practice, it was discovered that individual human development (“devo”) plays at least an equal role in individual life and health. Witness identical twins (identical DNA) who greatly diverge in personality, life- and health-trajectories.

I’ve come across, first-hand, cases where “genetic profiling” is used to create the mythos in patients that they (and their children) are doomed by this or that gene, and are shepherded into ridiculously expensive treatment protocols.

(Come to think of it, the exploitation template smells suspiciously like the Google-Facebook et al methodology?)