Thursday, July 12, 2012

What are other cultures eating?

As many of you know, because if you’re friends with me there’s a good chance you are in science too since, as a scientist, it’s hard to have a social life and meet people OUTSIDE of science, Americans are the minority at most major research institutions in the US.  We can get into why this may be (*cough* terrible US education system and the dumbing down of Americans *cough*) some other time.

Relevant to this conversation is that I know lots of people from other cultures.  NOT so-called “Americanized” individuals or 2nd generation non-Americans, but honest to goodness, temporary residents from other cultures.  In my former lab, we were a mix of many Asian cultures and my current lab is similar – we are a mix from Iran, India, Japan, Korea, China.  There are the occasional Irishman, Brit, Aussy, Frenchman, but in general, the sciences are chock-a-block full of Asians.

So what do they eat?  Are they really that different from Americans?  YES.  The answer is a resounding YES.

My Chinese friend, who is trim, fit and has not an ounce of body fat, looks like she’s about 30.  I was stunned to find out that she is actually 45.  Damn Asian genetics and their awesome aging.  She grows her own vegetables because she finds American produce “too chemicals” as she puts it in her broken English.  She eats meat, vegetables and a HUGE portion (by even MY American standards) of white rice for lunch, daily.  I would say it’s at least a cup of white rice, maybe a little more or less depending on the size of her scoop that day.  Of course, it’s not Uncle Ben’s.  She eats Asian-manufactured brands.  If her trees are bearing fruit, she will also throw in an apple or plum.  I have watched her over the last year and her diet doesn’t differ from this prescription.  I asked her:  “What kind of sauces do you use in your cooking.”  “Sauces?”  She looked at me a little funny.  “You know, like why does your *insert random vegetable name here* brown?  Isn’t there a sauce on that?”  She said: “No, honey, its just ginger, garlic, oil.”  Mmmmkay.  So why don’t Chinese people get diabetes as frequently?  White rice has a glycemic index of 83 per serving.  That’s really high!  In case you don’t remember, the scale goes from 0-100, with 100 being set by the gold-standard of blood sugar-raising compounds, glucose itself.  83 is pretty far up there.   White rice clearly creates a huge blood sugar peak.

It turns out that the paradox of Asians (in general, not just the Chinese) and diabetes is really a myth.  Studies (most recently one from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health which is near and dear to my heart) have shown that diabetes is on the rise in Asia – so common in China these days that as waistlines grow, so do the number of overweight and diabetic Chinese.  There’s no denying that they eat a more nutritious diet.  Meat, lots of fish, vegetables, rice.  That’s the diet.  They don’t eat dairy (as a general rule – my Japanese friends have told me several times that many Asians are actually lactose-intolerant for multiple reasons.  One of the reasons may be because they are not exposed as kids and their bacterial flora cannot digest it.  I digress.).  They don’t eat sweets.  Seriously, a sweet in a true Chinese non-westernized household is red bean paste.  It doesn’t even taste sweet to me – but then again, my palate has been conditioned with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  They exercise WAY more in the urban areas.  Cities are jam-packed with people and everyone walks, bikes, runs, jogs.  Despite all of these things, diabetes in Asian populations is rising.  I don’t mean to pick on China, these things hold true for India and Japan as well (although Indians seem to like their sweets more in my experience!  And they eat cheese too!)

Perhaps most interesting to me is that most Asians I’ve met don’t eat wheat.  Unless they are Americanized, they don’t eat pizza (cheese and bread – too much for them!), cereal, crackers, chips, etc.  Do we see a theme here?  As modern wheat-based products and processed foods leech into their diet, so does diabetes, obesity and a rise in cancer incidence.  Coincidence?  Maybe not.

Why am I picking on wheat lately?  More on that later.

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