A healthy, balanced plate can take on many different shapes and forms. Not only does it vary from culture to culture, but from person to person as well.
The principles of how to make a healthy plate remain the same regardless of where you come from. Let’s take a look at how to use traditional Asian foods and fit them into a healthy and balanced plate!
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Carbs, Proteins, and Fats
To make a healthy plate, we start with all of the three macronutrients, which each serve its own function:
- Carbs provide us with quick energy that is important for exercise, brain function, and keeping our blood sugars level.
- Protein helps to build muscle, enzymes, and more in the body. It also helps provide satiety in a meal.
- Fats carry the highest calorie count per gram, making them the most satiating compared to carbs and protein. Fats also help us absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and can improve heart health with the right choices.
Including all three might sound like a lot to keep track of, but chances are you have done this countless times before and just never realized it!
Macronutrient Sources in Asian Foods
So, where are all of these carbs, proteins, and fats coming from?
- Steamed buns
- Sugar (in sauces)
- Starchy vegetables
- Animal fat
- Sesame oil
- Coconut oil
- Avocado Oil*
- Olive Oil*
- Peanuts, tree nuts
The amount of carbs, protein, and fat you should aim for at each meal varies for each individual. It’s best to meet with a dietitian to find out what is right for you. Including a balance between all of the macronutrients helps to stabilize blood sugar throughout the day and also helps keep you fuller for longer.
Take a simple coconut milk-based curry dish for example. There is usually a main protein such as chicken, carbs coming from either rice or noodles, and fat coming from coconut milk. Having these three macros is what makes a dish so filling!
The 4 Building Blocks to Make a Healthy Plate
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
Fruits & Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and carbs
- Make ¼ of your plate grains
Choose whole grains whenever possible, such as brown rice* instead of white rice.
- Make ¼ of your plate protein
Choosing lean protein sources like chicken, tofu, and lean pork and beef cuts helps limit saturated fat in the diet.
- Include calcium-rich foods
While traditional Asian cuisine is typically low in dairy, there are other great sources of calcium and vitamin D available. Soy products like soymilk*, tofu*, and tempeh* are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D to support bone health.
Asian Fruits & Vegetables by Country
Part of the cabbage family, bok choy is quick to cook and add to almost any dish. Use the greens in any way you would spinach and save the white bulb for sauteing.
Chinese Broccoli (Gai lan)
This version of broccoli looks much different than the standard broccoli you find in most US stores. It has tall, thick stems and large, deep-green leaves. Try it steamed, boiled, or stir-fried.
Chinese Spinach (Amaranth greens)
You can find this vegetable in two colors: magenta or green! You can find it in both Asian and Indian supermarkets most of the time.
Water Spinach (KangKung)
Sometimes referred to as “Morning Glory”, water spinach grows up to 10 feet long! Before cooking, trim the stalk ends as they can be tough and fibrous (similar to asparagus).
This small and brightly-colored fruit is closely related to lychee. It is often available canned in heavy syrup, so be mindful of the added sugar content if not purchasing fresh!
Star Fruit (Khế)
Despite its admirable color and shape, the star fruit holds a small amount of neurotoxin. While most remain unaffected, those living with chronic kidney disease should stay far away from star fruit as the body will have a more difficult time flushing out the toxin.
Sometimes referred to as yam, the taro root is thought to have originated in Malaysia. Taro root is a starchy vegetable, containing a higher amount of carbs, and is eaten cooked. It is common to find taro canned.
In Japan, daikon radish is prepared in many different ways. You can find it pickled or served raw with salads, sashimi, and used as a garnish. It’s also common to see daikon radish used in Vietnamese cuisine.
Persimmon (Fuyu variety)
There are two varieties of persimmons widely available: fuyu and hachiya. Fuyu persimmons are ripe when they are stiff in texture, similar to an apple. Hachiyas, on the other hand, would taste quite bitter at this stage and are best when softened to that of a tomato.
Fuyu persimmons have a delightful taste that I think of as a cross between a honey mango and an Asian pear.
Thai Eggplant (Makhuea pro)
Far different from American or Chinese eggplant, the Thai eggplant is about the size of a golf ball! They are easy to add to any Thai curry. Try tossing them in a salt-free Thai-inspired spice blend and sautéing them in your choice of healthy oil.
While many wait for the papaya to develop its deep orange flesh at peak ripeness, Thai cuisine prefers to take on the unripe and green papaya. Som tam is a popular salad made with shredded green papaya, bird chilies, green beans or snake beans, fish sauce, lime, and a variety of other mixed vegetables.
Bitter melon (Pare)
Raw or cooked, bitter melon can be found in a variety of Indonesian dishes. Both the seeds and the flesh are edible. Just like the name states, it is quite bitter for something that’s considered a fruit! It’s best enjoyed steamed, boiled, stir-fried, or mixed into a salad of other fruits and vegetables.
With the rise in popularity as a vegan meat substitute, jackfruit has become easier to find in regular grocery stores in the US. It is commonly used as a substitute for pork, given its similar texture that shreds easily. It is available both fresh and canned, although preparing it fresh is quite the job! If you are living with chronic kidney disease, this can be a great lower-protein option for you (depending on the stage).
- It’s important to balance your plate with carbs, protein, and fats to help stay full and stabilize blood sugars throughout the day.
- Aim to make half your plate fruits and vegetables, choose whole grains when possible, and opt for lean protein sources.
- Include calcium-rich foods fortified with vitamin D to support good bone health, especially if your diet is low in dairy products. Consult a dietitian on whether or not you should be supplementing.
- There are 100s unique varieties of vegetables within the Asian region! Combine this list with some new salt-free spice blend ideas from my last blog post here.
- What is your favorite Asian fruit or vegetable to include when you make a healthy plate? Let me know in the comments!