Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Search of Traditional Asian Diets

It's been difficult for me to find good information on Asian diets prior to modernization. Traditional Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese diets are sometimes portrayed as consisting mostly of white rice, with vegetables and a bit of meat and soy, but I find that implausible. Rice doesn't grow everywhere, and removing all the bran was prohibitively labor-intensive before the introduction of modern machine milling. One hundred years ago, bran was partially removed by beating or grinding in a mortar and pestle, as it still is in parts of rural Asia today. Only the wealthy could afford true white rice.

Given the difficulty of growing rice in most places, and hand milling it, the modern widespread consumption of white rice in Asia must be a 20th century phenomenon, originating in the last 20-100 years depending on location. Therefore, white rice consumption does not predate the emergence of the "diseases of civilization" in Asia.
In the book Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention, there are several accounts of traditional Asian diets I find interesting.

Taiwan in 1980

The staple constituent of the diet is polished white rice. Formerly in the poorer areas along the sea coast the staple diet was sweet potato, with small amounts of white rice added. Formerly in the mountains sweet potato, millet and taro were the staple foods. During the last 15 years, with the general economic development of the whole island, white polished rice has largely replaced other foods. There is almost universal disinclination to eat brown (unpolished) rice, because white rice is more palatable, it bears kudos, cooking is easier and quicker, and it can be stored for a much longer period.

Traditionally, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure were rare, but the prevalence is now increasing rapidly. Stroke is common. Diabetes was rare but is increasing gradually.

Mainland China

China is a diverse country, and the food culture varies by region.

Snapper (1965)… quoted an analysis by Guy and Yeh of Peiping (Peking) diets in 1938. There was a whole cereal/legume/vegetable diet for poorer people and a milled-cereal/meat/vegetable diet for the richer people.

Symptoms of vitamin A, C and D deficiency were common in the poor, although coronary heart disease and high blood pressure were rare. Diabetes occurred at a higher rate than in most traditionally-living populations.


On the Japanese island of Okinawa, the traditional staple is the sweet potato, with a smaller amount of rice eaten as well. Seafood, vegetables, pork and soy are also on the menu. In Akira Kurosawa’s movie Seven Samurai, set in 16th century mainland Japan, peasants ate home-processed millet and barley, while the wealthy ate white rice. Although a movie may not be the best source of information, I suspect it has some historical basis.

White Rice: a Traditional Asian Staple?

It depends on your perspective. How far back do you have to go before you can call a food traditional? Many peoples' grandparents ate white rice, but I doubt their great great grandparents ate it frequently. White rice may have been a staple for the wealthy for hundreds of years in some places. But for most of Asia, in the last few thousand years, it was probably a rare treat. The diet most likely resembled that of many non-industrial African cultures: an assortment of traditionally prepared grains, root vegetables, legumes, vegetables and a little meat.

Please add any additional information you may have about traditional Asian diets to the comments section.


Paul Jaminet said...

My wife is Chinese, from Shandong province. Her father fled China in 1948 and ran a Chinese restaurant in Korea. She tells me that, save for the poor, the traditional Chinese diet is fairly low-carb. Meals consisted predominantly of meat, vegetables, and soup. Rice was not a staple, but might be eaten at the end of the meal to clear the palate. Rice became a major part of the diet during the poverty of the 1930s/WWII/Communist period.

Jake said...
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Ryan said...

Stephan: I've been following your blog for some time now but have wondered how I could develop a nutritional plan for myself, considering that I my ancestry may not be identical to other English-speaking peoples amongst your readers. My background is rather mixed, but a number of my ancestors came from China, Thailand, and the Philippines; in the present day, my family and I constantly eat plenty of rice, but surely this was not the norm in centuries past. This post served as an excellent introduction to the topic, and I look forward to reading more both from you and your readers. Several of my close relatives have developed type 2 diabetes, and I would like to help them diminish their symptoms and also prevent the onset of such troubles in my own body. Please continue to write on these and all of the other nutritional symptoms that are so very helpful and intriguing!

Jake said...

No matter what they ate in China (until just recently), their diet was low carb compared to the SAD. Food was too expensive and scarce for the Chinese to eat many calories of anything.

Now that the urban Chinese can afford as much white rice as they want to eat, we see an explosion of diabetes and heart disease in the cities.

3D Face Analysis said...

Shephan, the font that you have chosen in this post looks nice! The font even looks Asian-ish.

On average, Asian people are short, emaciated, and weak. It's rare to see an Asian over six foot. I think it's because they eat a diet lacking in fat-soluble activators.

Contrastingly, the Dutch and Scandanavians, and those from the Dinaric Alps are tall. Men are between six and seven foot tall. In many of these areas a man who is six foot six is considered "short" by their standards.

I think it's because of their diet high in fat-soluble activators from their consumption of dairy. Further evidence from Weston A. Price are the Sudanese people, with some reaching seven and a half foot. Their diet is high in dairy. But Price documented that the same people eating low-fat diet were shorter.

The Dutch were once the shortest people, but they had grown to be one of the tallest people. The Plains Indians were once the tallest people before their colonization, but now they are short.

Tucker Goodrich said...

Great post Stephen. You'll make an excellent professor. Based on what I've learned from you I'd already started reading *Western Diseases*, and wondering if the traditional Asian diets were as high in starch as their traditional diets.

Judging from the local Japanese supermarket where I've taken to buying my Primal lunch, they're not going in a good direction. Veggie oils are ubiquitous, and the moms are all thin, the kids all chubby.

Anonymous said...

There is a significant Asian and Indian population here in New Zealand and I talk to many of them as part of my line of work. A consistent comment from them is that, traditionally, fats such as lard & ghee were used for cooking, with very small amounts of n-6 seed oils used for flavouring. However, many of these countries are now increasingly turning toward using more n-6 & less animal fat for much the same reason as we do in the Western world - because someone insists on telling them that animal fat is making them fat and making them have heart attacks!

Eva said...

I have a lot of mainland Chinese friends and often eat at their houses. One thing to note, many courses are common. Five different food items are often served if not more and that does not include the rice. To not give a lot of courses is considered stingy/lazy from what many have told me. IME, the courses are mostly veggies and meats, minimal carbs other than wrappings on dumplings. Many things are fried in lots of fat. Bones are left in everything. When you consider that the rest of the courses have little to no carb, it's probably less carby overall than many American meals. Of course, these are people who would be considered wealthy in China. Most of my friends represent what middle class or wealthy eat in China.

I had another friend who said her mother still cooks exactly the same food she grew up with when she was a poor farmer which was approx 70 years ago when she was growing up. Again, it was mostly veggies and meats plus rice. Lots of chicken. Every dinner, she would also serve these stick shaped slabs of cooked fat, not sure from what animal, maybe cow. They were like 95% fat. I tried one once, and did not like it. I have nothing against fat, but these just were not tasty, not horrible but not tasty. But my friend said they always ate those pieces of fat every day when the mother was growing up. Ironically, the mother was the only one who liked those. SHe was the type that had not changed her habits one iota despite many years in America and had not learned more than 3 words of English either! Lunch there was usually similar kinds of things to dinner but less courses and no official sit down time. Breakfast was often a kind of rice gruel with some fish sauce and onions in it (very tasty). Yes, they eat rice with most if not all meals, but they don't seem to have many other carb sources. Typically, there was no bread in the house and all the foods were fresh, nothing out of boxes or cans.

One of my other Chinese friends marries an American and they both visit often in China. One thing they both tell me is how terrible they consider American food to be, by which they mean the ingredients available at American grocery stores. They both say that all the food in their area of mainland China is fresh, animals are fresh killed, fish are fresh caught, etc. They don't do cans and frozen and boxes of food. Everyone shops daily for fresh food that comes right off natural farms with natural techniques and tastes very different than the same thing sold here. They say meat and so called fresh ingredients here would be considered horrible bad tasting stuff in China.

Organism, you are right about many Asians currently being short due to nutrition deficiencies when they grew up. This is very true of many mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, and Philipinos whose children being raised in America are often a foot taller. our American diet may be bad, but at least the kids can obtain food if they are hungry and meat is available.

I suspect that Phillipines is especially bad because, from my experience with my Phillipino relatives, their culture teaches them that rice is a super healthy food. Some even think that rice is a requirement for health and that you would literally become sick and die if you did not eat it! Many growing up in the Phillipines have no accurate understanding of nutrition. We have had probs with relatives being constantly sick because they did not eat meat or veggies, just almost all rice. One guy was yellow skinned and jaundiced until he came to America and the Americans docs finally got him to eat real food, at which point he completely recovered after years of being sickly! We try to tell them but often they assume we are just crazy eccentric Americans and so they just nod and smile politely but do not take heed. Because in their culture "everybody knows" that rice is very healthy and required for life!

chris said...

More than hunter gatherers, grain based civilizations have class and wealth based variation in diet, and for most chronic malnutrition.

For typical agricultural civilization, the population quickly expands to the malthusian limit (with variation from war, plague, etc). Low level starvation would hold back fertility and survival, even absent frank starvation. Grains especially are easily expropriated by the elites, and can transported for use to feed the armed supporters.
Vegetables, and notably in european history, potatoes, are less easily stored/stolen.

Living in mild calorie restriction will do good things for 'diseases of affluence', though low protein especially can cause other problems.


matthijs said...

Some information points:

- In the Minahasa (the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi) the staple food in the 17th century was in fact rice. They had so much of it the Spanish (and later the Dutch) built a trading post there to purchase rice to take with them on their journeys around the spice islands. Interestingly enough this was rice grown not in paddies but on dry terraced hill slopes. Source: a book on the history of Minahasa which I don't have here so I couldn't give you the title, unfortunately.

- According to the autobiography of an 18th century East India sailor, the food sold to East India sailors once they got near Batavia (modern day Jakarta) consisted almost exclusively of white rice ("cooked so dry you could see the individual kernels") with some green peas and maybe some (putrid) meat. He hated it. Source: a Dutch book entitled "Naporra's omweg" by one Roelof van Gelder.

So in Indonesia at least, in at least two places, people have been eating mainly rice for at least 250 years.

precious said...

Some places in Asia prefer vegetables. Yes, they live longer than the usual because of it but for some they get sick because of lack of protein essentials.
dining room table

Bryan said...

I spent the last year in Korea. Even in modern Korea you don't see people eating a large amount of rice. Meals typically consist of some type of seafood (often raw) as the main item and then multiple pickled vegetable side dishes and a small metal bowl of rice (if any).

In my uneducated view (I'm not a farmer), I think Korea is not prime real estate for growing rice anyway. In the summer it's warm and there's a lot of rain, but it freezes and gets super dry there too. Everything was cold and dead up until April this year.

Bryan said...

I forgot to add that both of my grandparents grew up in India, and they never really ate rice at all. It suits the climate they grew up in--Punjab--which is more ideal for growing wheat. They had roti at every meal, not rice. The roti is typically coated in butter. They are not vegetarians, eat a lot of dairy products, and the people from that area were once thought of as being tall and strong among Indians.

maxwell said...

hi Stephan,

Why not look at it from a Polynesian/Micronesian perspective?

The majority of the evidence points to these peoples originating from South East Asia (Taiwan?) so it may make sense to look at what they took with them on their canoe journeys all those thousands of years ago to ensure their survival in the most remote places on earth. Surely anything that wasn't absolutely necessary for survival wasn't taken onboard?

Aside from catching fish/seafood/birds? or discovering fruit/nuts (if any made it to the islands pre-colonization) and of course the native coconuts on these islands (which in its durable husk should have made it to islands via
sea currents/hurricanes/storms), I can only think of root tubers (taro, yams, sweet potato? cassava?), green bananas and animals (chickens/pigs) that they may may taken for survival.

Certainly no rice/grains were taken as far as i know (maybe an indication that it wasn't in abundance or in existance on mainland SE Asia???) i'm only guessing here but surely if they had the know-how to build long-distance seafaring canoe technology they would've figured out that rice/grains (which store well) were worth taking on board and essential for survival on journeys of such magnitude?

Only my view, but i can't help but think that these peoples at that point in history had developed a technology (long distance seafaring) equivalent to us trying to reach the moon and yet they didn't see the need for rice/grains (if it was even discovered) to survive their missions.

Be interested to hear other people's views :-)

Jane said...


Are you familiar with McCarrison's experiments of the 1920s? He gave one group of rats the traditional Hunza diet (Hunza was in northern India, now Pakistan), and another group an urban Indian diet. Here's what he said about the Hunza rats:

"During the past two and a quarter years there has been no case of illness in this 'universe' of albino rats, no death from natural causes in the adult stock, and, but for a few accidental deaths, no infantile mortality. Both clinically and at post-mortem examination this stock has been shown to be remarkably free from disease. It may be that some of them have cryptic disease of one kind or another, but, if so, I have failed to find either clinical or macroscopical evidence of it."

The Hunza diet consisted of 'chapattis, or flat bread, made of wholemeal wheat flour, lightly smeared with fresh butter, sprouted pulse, fresh raw carrots and fresh raw cabbage ad libitum, unboiled whole milk, a small ration of meat with bones once a week, and an abundance of water, both for drinking and washing.'

Then McCarrison 'took the customary diets of the poorer peoples of Bengal and Madras, consisting of rice' (this was white rice), 'pulses, vegetables, condiments, perhaps a little milk. He gave these to rats. .. the rats .. got diseases of every organ they possessed, namely eyes, noses, ears, lungs, hearts, stomachs, intestines, kidneys, bladders, reproductive organs, blood, ordinary glands, special glands, and nerves. .. The liver was .. found to be diseased in conjunction with the diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.'

The brain was not examined.

'In a list given flve years later in the Cantor Lectures McCarrison adds a few further diseases, such as general weakness, lassitude, irritability, loss of hair, ulcers, boils, bad teeth, crooked spines, distorted vertebra and so on.'

The quotes are from The Wheel Of Health, Wrench 1938, Chapter 3.

LeonRover said...

Perhaps someone will be able to comment as to which Lab Chows the Hunza Rat Diet and the Bengali Rat Diet fed by McGarrison most resemble.

A cursory examination suggests that the Hunza Diet contains a proportion of animal fats and proteins, while the Bengali Diet seems to be vegetarian.

So it could be concluded that a Human Vegetarian Diet is quite unhealthy for the omnivorous rat!

missmessy said...

My question: How did the traditional people that you studied prepare the grain. They ate brown rice, millet, etc. How was it prepared and cooked? Soaked? Fermented?

cassia chen said...

My grandmother (1914-2004) ate almost exclusively white rice, tofu and vegetables (some fresh and some preserved). She was a vegan for the last 40 years of her life. Her diet was caloric restricted, but not low carb. She was basically disease free and died at age 90 after a hip fracture. I do not know what her father ate, but he lived till 96. The husk of rice can be taken off much easier than wheat bran with a wooden machine (I have a photo if you are interested) that takes some labor, but not at all as intensive as grinding in a mortar and pestle. In order for the rice to become white, the rice has to go through the machine for a few times. For sure, only rich people ate rice and poor people ate sweet potatoes and taro. But I think white rice has been eaten for at least a few centuries.

Jane said...


'So it could be concluded that a Human Vegetarian Diet is quite unhealthy for the omnivorous rat!'

It doesn't help if you give the rats meat.

'McCarrison gave a set of rats the diet of the poorer classes of England; white bread, margarine, sweetened tea, boiled vegetables, tinned meats and jams of the cheaper sort. On this diet, not only did the rats grow badly, but they developed what one might call rat-neurasthenia, and more than neurasthenia. "They were nervous and apt to bite their attendants; they lived unhappily together, and by the sixteenth day of the experiment they began to kill and eat the weaker ones amongst them."'

Mrs. Ed said...

I tend to think the diet did not always constitute large amount of white rice either. The reason is because of Beriberi. It was a mysterious disease that was plaguing them, until it was finally realized that a diet high in polished rice was lacking Thiamin. So instead of saying “Gee, maybe too much white rice isn’t a good thing”, they just fortified it with thiamin. Will we ever learn? And now we’re plagued with autoimmunity, diabetes, autism, etc. and we’re not saying “Gee, maybe our diets aren’t working”.
Funny how history repeats itself.

WoLong said...

I am Chinese and lived in Shanghai from 1964 to 1988 so I have witnessed quite a bit of changes in Chinese diet.

When I was young, we cherished animal foods. They were considered as foods that you served the guests and at special occasions. Otherwise, we ate quite a bit of vegetables and white rice with a little animal food. As far as I could tell, most of people were healthy and lived to their 70s and 80s in pretty good health.

As living standard improved, especially after mid 1980s, animal foods became widely available and started to become a more important part of diet for ordinary people. This period also corresponded to a rise in civilisation diseases, so the increase of animal food consumption took the blame.

In the neighbourhood I grew up, many people lived long and healthy lives. My grandfather lived to 98 and walked 10 km everyday until he was 92, then he cut it back to 5 km everyday. My next door neighbour lived to 102 and she was still playing majong and smoking at that age, several other neighbous also lived to high 90s and low 100s. Their diet consisted mostly of a bit of rice, vegetables and animal food. My grandfather loved fish. The key word here is "a bit", none of them was big eater and they all stayed trim and active (physically and socially).

Now I do notice that when we have a feast, we also started with lots of meat, then some vegetable, finally rice would be served although by then most people will take a pass on rice as they are already full. I suspect that that's how people used to eat, because this is what is described in ancient Chinese writings (novels and poems). In these ancient writings, it seems that people mostly eat meat with some vegetable. Rice was used to make rice wine to accompany the meat and vegs.

Now China is big, so whatever I experienced in Shanghai may be different from other parts of China, especially southern China.

Donovan said...

I grew up in San Francisco and had many days of seeing dinners served and staples kept hot for 'latch-key' days. Proteins and cruciferous or substantially green veggies were staples with the starch being white rice. When studying with my teacher, authors of the past comment often on general deficiency (mineral and caloric, I would argue, in our parlance and 'consumption' or diabetes). According the "The Okinawa Program" their tradition of medicine based in Tang dynasty Chinese immigration and correspondence and a long connection to Korea that is commemorated in stone to this day, mentions 'the five colors and flavours' the base 'imo' purple sweet potato, the liberal use of turmeric (a practice unique to that people alone, possibly inherited from So. Asian sailing peoples caught on the rocks). Okinawa traditionalists also defy all cancer stats save stomach cancer, a problem that has always stayed higher over there. We die of 'excess' heart attacks and breast cancer, traditional Okinawan medicine doesn't see these conditions enough to have developed a specific treatment protocol. I love this stuff. Sweet potato, chicken, fish, greens, tuber and mung, maybe some black fungus or sea vegetable....poor folks food is always cheapest and satisfying, I have long preferred rye to rice because of a tradition of 'German dinner' that I have at nights, toasted breads, spreads and kraut.

LeonRover said...

Hi Stephan

I've been checking out Lindeberg's Kitava Study. According to Table 1 the average consumption of fruit by a Kitavan was 400 gms comprising 50 gms CHO (thus 25 gms FRUCTOSE).

I wonder if there is any information on consumption of raw fruits among traditional Asian diets?

Robert Andrew Brown said...

Great post Stephan, and thanks for the fascinating insights of all those who have contributed. The positive power of the net (-: (and Stephan)

This book suggests that the Chinese have extensive granary systems storing 2.5 million tons in the 1700s. Apparently political need for stable food supply was recognised as long a go as 200 BC, and grain was seen as important in ensuring stable food supplies - presumably because it can be relatively easily stored compared with other food stuffs.

Page 55 and 56


Robert Andrew Brown said...


^ Fascinating

Which Lindberg study is that please, and do you have a link

Many thanks

LeonRover said...


The title is:

"Age Relations of cardiovascular risk factors in a traditional Melanesian society: the Kitava Study" published in Am Jour Nutr 1997 by Staffan Lindeberg et al.

You can also click-thro from lists of publications on this page.


Echolight Studio said...

this is the most fascinating comment section i've read in any blog.

Chris D said...

Here is a paper you will all enjoy.

History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food

garymar said...

And here's a quick translation from the paragraph "Early History" of the article "History of Beriberi in Japan" from the Japanese Wikipedia:

"It is unclear when beriberi first appeared in Japan. However there are descriptions of leg diseases, whose symptoms are identical to those of beriberi, in both the “Nihon Shoki” [the earliest Japanese chronicle, compiled in 720 AD] and the “Nihongi Continued” [791 AD], and from the Heian period on [Heian period = 794 - 1192 AD] there were outbreaks centered mainly among the upper classes, including the imperial family and the aristocracy. In the Edo period [1603 - 1868 AD] the habit of substituting white rice for brown rice spread, and beriberi became endemic not only in the upper classes but among the samurai and townfolk as well. Especially in the capital of Edo, beriberi spread among the common samurai in the Genroku period [ 1688 - 1703 AD], before long spreading out into the surrounding areas, and in the Bunka/Bunsei periods [ 1818 - 1831 ] it spread widely among the townspeople. However, when sufferers left the capital of Edo they began to recover, so much so that beriberi came to be known as “the Edo sickness”. From practical experience people learned to counter its effects by eating buckwheat, barley rice, or azuki beans, and among the samurai families of Edo it became customary to eat barley rice in the summers when beriberi was particularly prevalent."

Anonymous said...

Apocryphal: "the Chinese will eat anything with four legs except a table and anything with wings except Concorde"

My glucometer tells me that rice is one of the less glycemic grains *for me*. It strongly disagrees with Harvard, the GI experts etc. in that there is little difference between white, brown, basmati etc.

My money's on the comparatively wider range of foods in the Asian cooking I've sampled, plus all that duck fat, pork etc. providing a suitable quantity of micronutrients and a better balance of fats in being protective against the rice.

Jane said...

Stephan, do you know how much of the mineral content of vegetables is lost in the cooking water? I remember reading that for trace metals it can be up to 90%.

The Chinese style of cooking doesn't lose any of the water, and I suspect this is how they get away with eating white rice.

But if they start eating a lot of meat, they will get trace metal imbalance. Here is a paper showing that beef has enormous quantities of iron and zinc, and hardly any copper or manganese:

Iron and zinc overload have been found in Alzheimer brain, correlating with pathology, and much evidence suggests relative deficiencies of copper and manganese as important causes. A similar argument can be made for heart disease and many others.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Garymar,

That's fascinating.

Hi Jane,

Yes, the habit of boiling vegetables and throwing away the water reduces the mineral content quite a bit. By the way, beef is only low in copper if you avoid the liver!

Healthtec Software said...

Asians are grain based and cereal based.Rice and wheat are important food to them I think.Nice discussion here...interesting post.
Medical Billing Software

Anonymous said...

I apologize for this comment being unrelated to the post, but I just listened to the Jimmy Moore show and I wanted to complement you Stephan for doing a great job decimating plenty of important information during the interview. The interview with Chris Kresser conducted a month or so ago on the Healthy Skeptic blog was also top notch. Way to go Stephan!

Monica said...

I have visited China twice. Once in 2003, once in 2005. Spent some time in Beijing, and on the second trip, went to Xi'an.

The only place I encountered wheat regularly was when I ate dim sum (not very common in Beijing unless you go to a restaurant that specifically serves it), and in Xi'an, where they serve a steamed bread. At the time I was a junk food eater, and was frustrated at the general lack of bread. I actually sought out some fast food joints at the time so I could get my hit of bread.

I suspect you already knew that about the bread, of course.

On what you are interested in -- rice. During those trips, I found that there was a lot of animal food and veggies. Rice was there but it was a very small portion of every meal. This is similar to what Mike Eades has noted on his blog regarding his visits to China.

Jane said...

Hi Stephan

Yes, but beef liver has a terrible iron-manganese ratio. If you want to write a post on iron, which I hope you do because nobody could do a better job, email me for info.

Laraine said...

Great post and comments! My training in Chinese medicine has been to focus on animal and fish proteins as a judicious part of a heavily-vegetable diet, with small portions of whole grains, including brown rice, barley, and millet, seeds and nuts, and small servings of fruit. However, this and cooking methods are adapted to the constitution of the individual--for example, I can eat few raw foods on a regular basis, while someone larger, more active and tending to run 'hotter' than I do, would add more raw foods to their diet. When sharing meals with my Chinese teachers, I've never seen them tuck into a steak like Americans do--instead, small, tasty morsels of steak or chicken or fish are artfully cooked and included with veggies in an approach much closer to stir-frying than is found in the SAD approaches.

Hans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hans said...

This article contains some info on white rice and it being traditional:


About Japan, I read that soldiers in WWII ate millet while officers had white rice.

Paul Ericson said...


I too have been trying to determine when white rice became wide spread. I think a good indicator would be the prevalence of beriberi. Although you certainly can get B1 from other sources--pork being a popular one in China.

Fah ShĂȘn-chih's text on farming circa 2800 BCE mentions the five sacred grains:
soybeans, rice, wheat, proso millet, and foxtail millet Five Chinese cereals

The Chinese were smart enough to recognize that soybeans need proper processing in order to make them edible. The first use of soy was as a cover crop and animal feed (in roasted form). Then as a human food after fermentation techniques were developed during the Zhou dynasty (1046-221BCE)
Tofu wasn't developed until the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).

So I'd be surprised if they didn't figure out that rice could cause beriberi. Sun-szu-mo's (581-673 CE) writingz appear to indicate the beriberi was rare in northern China where wheat and millet were the staples. Beriberi did not become common in China until the Han dynasty started to spread to southern China in the 4th century CE where rice was the staple.

Based on comments, this appears to pre-date beriberi in Japan by several hundred years.

Rice need not be grown in paddies. In fact dryland rice is grown in many places and certainly could have been in the past. I don't know when or where paddies were developed. But they were developed because rice will grow in a paddy and it's a good way to irrigate and suppress weeds.

I just saw an very interesting show about mechanization in ancient China. If they wanted to mill rice or irrigate paddies, it would have been easy for them to do so in large volumes as early as 2000 BCE. I was shocked at how advanced they were technologically. In 2000 BCE Europeans were barbarians.

In my limited experience with rice in Asia, I noticed different rice eating habits, based on social situations.

In Japan, some meals have rice as the last course. Japanese aren't as fond of deserts as Americans. But breakfast and lunch dishes are often based on rice.
Japanese also eat large amounts of rice at home. I asked the Japanese I was with if they thought eating fat made you fat and they all laughed. I asked them if rice made you fat and they said that when they want to lose weight, they eat less rice.

Korean's eat small bowls of rice with large platters of meat and vegetables and soups are very common. I've been to many Korean restaurants where you won't get rice unless you order it.

I've been to many Chinese restaurants and rice is more of a side dish with platters of meat and veg being the main courses.

That being said. I suspect that rice eating correlates with poverty since it's typically the lowest cost calories.

Jane said...

I've just looked up which enzymes are activated by thiamine, and they're pyruvate dehydrogenase, alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, and transketolase. They're involved in energy production (the first two) and glucose metabolism.

Most interestingly, all three of these enzymes can also be activated by magnesium.

Since nearly all the magnesium is in the bran and germ, and gets removed with the thiamine when the grain is refined, this suggests beriberi is not just a disease of thiamine deficiency.

..Oh! Before posting this, I checked and found that beriberi is actually treated with thiamine plus magnesium.

Ann Anagnost said...

Quite incidentally, there is a partial answer to your search at The Healthy Home Economist about the widespread use of millet in the ancient Far East. Her concern is that millet is now being used as a wheat substitute for people with gluten intolerance but it is a potent goitrogen.
Buckwheat was also an important grain in North China and in Japan (and still is in the form of noodles).
With growing concern about the healthiness of their diet today, the new Chinese middle class are now returning to za liang (miscellaneous grains), the grains that are often identified as coarser "peasant" foods. It started as a nostalgia thing about the Mao era but now has taken on health value. They are served as a gruel after a meal instead of rice and some time have pulses added to the mix.

Anonymous said...

Thats a really helpful post thank you. It so easy to think that rice has been a staple for so long. Very informative.

LucienNicholson said...

As someone with a long connection to Korea, I can tell you that soy--even now--is mainly eaten fermented and with seafood, as Weston A. Price would probably have pointed out. That being said, polished white rice is a staple and the word for cooked rice is literally synonymous for food. "Did you eat rice" = "Did you eat, yet?"

Nowadays, lots of meat and veggies are eaten. Noodles are popular there, too, though I can't tell you how popular that was before. Other non-fermented grain-based foods include dumplings.

eric said...

Just wanted to second what some people said above. I have traveled to china many times, with about a year total spent there. My first impression, based on eating with middle class Chinese people in restaurants, is that china was atkins-land. Just meat and vegetables with lots of fat. No sugar, no bread, very little rice, no juice, no soda.

I later noticed that poor people eat mostly noodles and other forms of wheat.

I then came to realize that the poor people in china are visibly malnourished and about Half a foot shorter than middle class people.

The author of the china study claims to base his suggestions for optimal health on the diets of rural Chinese people. My reaction was "Has this guy even BEEN to china?". Rural Chinese (ie poor Chinese) are in horrible health, tiny, bent over, pinched and otherwise malformed cranial features, and most have only a few bits of rotting teeth left in their mouths.

Dr. William Davis said...

Hi, Stephan--

This is a great topic to explore.

Since my mother was Japanese and fed us Japanese food she'd buy in New York, I became familiar with many common foods. As one of your commenters, Bryan, noted, pickled vegetables are extremely common condiments: pickled plums, pickled radishes, pickles onions, etc. Fish are used in many unique ways from shaved, to thinly sliced and dried, to soaked and aged, to conventional cooking. Seaweed is, of course, a common staple and comes in many forms, such as the kombu in miso soup or nori used to wrap some forms of sushi.

The assortment of tastes are unique and, I think, less encouraging to overindulgence.

Unknown said...

This Wikipedia article on Japanese coinage talks about the pre-16th century use of rice as a currency: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koban_%28coin%29

I think Samurai continued to be paid in koku after that time, but gold was preferred for foreign trade.

Hans said...

In a historical museum in Nara, they had traditional dishes for samurai and peasant. The samurai dish had white rice, fish, vegetables, some pickles. The one for peasants was just brown rice and a little bit of pickled vegetables. But from paintings etc., the peasants health wasn't good. I read that they were physically inferior to the samurai, smaller, weaker, and their backs would bend later in life. Actually I've seen some old people in more rural Japan with REALLY bent backs (almost looking at their feet.)

Hans said...

About the traditional Asian diet of average Asian people, I don't think looking at modern middle class peoples' food and at restaurant food will help. I doubt that any agricultural peoples' diet will have been low carb. It's not like China was a country full of cattle ranches.

I also think the term "Asian diets" is misleading, it should be "East Asian diets"

cassan said...

Have you checked out the WAPF's articles on Korean, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese diets?


Jane said...

I just found this in The Cambridge History of Japan (1990):

'According to the Myohoji ki, a late medieval journal kept by the priests of a mountain temple in Kai Province, the peasants raised rice, barley, wheat, and millet, but by spring they had usually consumed these harvested foods. After that, ferns and plant roots kept them alive until the summer barley harvest. They also ate fish, birds, and other animals when available. Food brought in from the outside, however, was limited to salted fish a few times a year.'

charles said...

The word for "meal" in both Chinese and Japanese is "rice", so my guess is that it's been the staple of both their diets for a long, long time and still is today, despite some of the comments stating otherwise. You can't have a Chinese meal without rice. You just can't. It would be like eating a sandwich without bread.

I've also read that the reason for Japan's high population, considering the size of the country, is because it has conditions favorable for the production of rice. I can't find the source for this but it certainly sounds reasonable.

Paul Ericson said...

I never meant to imply that rice wasn't part of a Chinese meal. I've just had many meals where while rice was served, it made up a very small proportion of the total calories consumed as meat and veg were consumed preferentially.

I believe the proportion of rice to meat and vegetables in any given Chinese meal is really a matter of one's economic status and personal preferences. The poorer one is, the higher the proportion of rice. I believe the the reason "rice" and "meal" are the same word is really a function of the fact that rice is served with every meal where as meat and veg can vary from meal to meal. Plus, as you run out of food, rice is commonly the last thing you have left to eat as rice can be cached in greater quantities and more easily than meat and veg. There is also a cultural belief that rice is necessary, not simply sufficient, for good health.

charles said...


I agree that the proportion of rice to the rest of the meal is going to vary a lot based on income to some extent. The Chinese just don't seem to eat that much meat in general. The way I see it, the meat and everything else is a side dish to accompany the rice. Although meat is more highly valued, without the rice, the meal is considered unsatisfactory. If I had to guess, I would say most people eat at least 2-3 bowls of rice a day, money not being an issue. And when they're not eating a meal based on rice, they're eating noodles which typically has fewer if any side dishes. This is true, at least, for my parents who are from Southern China.

Chinese restaurants also always tend to skimp on the rice for some reason. It's typical to eat double the amount at home.

Dr. Curmudgeon Gee said...

hi, Stephen,

great post. thanks!

yes, in Southern provinces, porridge with some root vegetable (usually yam) + small amount of white rice, was the staple food. the proportion of yam vs. rice would depend how wealthy a family was.

my high school biology teacher said that she ate so much yam as a kid, that she developed an aversion. when the life improved after WW2, she never ever wanted to eat those root vegetables anymore.

FYI: my colleague from a "poor province (his own words) in NW China said that of millet & wheat (in the form of sourdough steamed bun) were the staple.

he said lard was not as common as in the south because "we northerners are poorer" so only rich in his hometown would use lard.

I also wonder one of the reasons was that we traditionally ate _every_ part of an animal: cuts that generally are considered not "fit for Americans" (e.g., cuts with skin & bone still on the meat) ok. except the poorest of the poor who could not even afford cheaper cuts).

one of my classmates in elementary school was from a very poor family; the only meat they ate all the time was chicken feet. then occasional eggs & liver or other offal.
(she also had crooked teeth & recessed chin. now i know why.)

oh, in some places, every family would ferment their own vegetables, too. maybe that's where they got Vit. K?


Dr. Curmudgeon Gee said...

sorry, hit the return twice.

karl said...

The type of rice has/is changing in Asia - used to be harder - more protein - now is more gooey with a higher GI.

water said...

Just re-read Pearl Buck's The Good Earth for a bookclub.

The wife prepares special food for a celeration marking the birth of her first son. She makes it clear these cakes are not for the family:
"We are not rich enough to eat sugar and lard."

This family lives in the north and often eat a bread "roll" wrapped around a garlic stalk or a gruel made of hot water and corn meal.

The book also describes them using their own home pressed bean and sesame oils. The leftover meal from the pressing is fed to the pigs.

Dr. Curmudgeon Gee said...

Hi, Stephen,

FYI: just add another data point.

according to my friends who just came back from Tibet:

the traditional diet is "almost devoid of vegetables & fruits" (naturally, not much grows there).

lamb, beef, dairy & some kind of barley (or coix?) are the main food, very simple.

most Tibetians seem content & healthy.

(It's a shame that Dr. Price did not study the Chinese diet.
so now i have to defend against those believers in the "China Study". & those include few of my own people.)



Unknown said...

Charles Mann's "1492" had quite an indepth chapter on asian food/culture. His book is about the world wide changes (political, social/cultural, environmental) that took place after the new world was "discovered". Worth noting is the fact that there was no sweet potato in Asia until it came there from S. America. Also, politics and turf battles had huge implications for regional food options. He has another book "1491", which I have not read (about the world before America's opened up). Mann is widely respected researcher/author and well published (numerous awards). His books are extensively referenced (not for the faint of heart in terms of detail and length). He might be a good resource.

Rosa Park said...

I am 100% Korean, born in Korea (although raised in America), and now I am living in Korea again. First of all, I don't think we can trust the whole "oh they barely eat rice because I've seen so in restaurants" because...those are restaurants. The meals that us Asians, particularly Koreans, eat in restaurants are DIFFERENT from how we eat on an average day at HOME. At home, most Koreans eat rice. Always. It is almost considered a sacrilege to not eat rice in a typical meal. Why? Because all the side dishes that we call "banchans" (small flavorful dishes of sauteed vegetables, meats, etc) are ridiculously salty, or spicy, or a bit sweet. That's why Koreans eat the rice to buffer the strong taste. Koreans do not eat a lot of meat AT HOME (key phrase, people!), unless they are wealthy. Meat is very expensive in Korea. If you want cheap meat, then you'd have to buy the stinky ones laden with antibiotics/hormones. Koreans also have staple "soups" to go along with their meals. A small bowl of "doenjang" (fermented soy) is a common one. People make many variations on this fermented soy soup, such as ones with tofu, or seafood, or spinach, etc.

However, restaurant food is a different story. There are lots of "gogi" (meat) restaurants, where you just buy a platter of fresh pork belly, beef ribs, etc and grill it yourself, and wrap it with vegetables. There, rice tends to be optional, and people naturally just don't eat too much of it because of the larger portions of meat. Also, there are "course" options in restaurants, where people eat several different courses of flavorful dishes. Because they are eating so much, naturally, rice or the "shiksa" comes LAST with an option of "doenjang" soup...although most people like to pass on that option because they are so full from eating all the other courses! But go to any old Korean public cafeterias: lots of rice (bigger you are, the more), a bowl of low-calorie soup (usually skimps on meat because it is expensive), some kind of kimchi, a very small meat side dish, and one more vegetable side dish. That is the typical Korean meal.

The people who say Koreans eat "small amounts of rice" or even Chinese/Japanese are ridiculous, and deluded by the whole low carb thing. Look, we eat a lot of rice. And even though the portions of rice don't look that big to you guys, the calorie count of rice in Korea is actually higher than the rice you guys eat in the Western World. Our rice is starchier. 210 g of white rice is 313 calories in Korea. I'm guessing about 100 calories more than white rice in the Western World. A large part of our calories come from white rice. Often, bone broths, very big meat dishes, etc come when we go out to restaurants, visit grandparents in the country who like to cook feasts for their children, or want to wrap up a stressful week with a treat in the weekend.

Rosa Park said...

That being said, rice was not a grain native to Korea. I believe prior to rice consumption, millet/sorghum was the major grain in Korea. I'm not sure whether it is millet/sorghum because the Korean word for it "Soo-Soo" means both millet and sorghum. And what we ate prior to eating grains remains a mystery to me. Buckwheat was also a big grain to Korea.

I believe that before Korea became such a rich nation, many people had to eat whole grains "jabkok" while the rich could afford white rice. However, there was a point in time, when Korean children in schools had their lunchboxes inspected. Kids with white rice in their lunchboxes were often scolded/beaten, blamed for the poverty of those who were lesser off than them. All kids must bring multi-grain rice. Meals back then were primarily just multi-grain rice with some beans mixed in the rice, and kimchi (fermented cabbage). A lot of the "banchans" even today were those that were served in the royal courts! The "banchans" that we eat today were probably rarely eaten in poor households. Some extremely poor people (in a certain province...not sure where, but it is known as the "potato province") also ate nothing but potatoes or sweet potatoes. Back then, potatoes were dirt cheap. Now, they are very expensive and highly prized for their health values.

And if you look at the diet of Korean centurians, they ate lots of carbohydrates, low-calorie, and very low fat, pretty low protein. Eating Korean traditional meals usually guarantee leanness for us Koreans...you can stuff your face with it and not get too fat (although Koreans do NOT eat that much on a typical basis, key fact here), but now that everyone is eating at restaurants with MSG-laden soups, soybean-oil sauteed banchans etc, buying ALL their foods prepared, munching on snacks (trans fats laden!) very-well engineered by the industries, eating instant ramen, drinking beer on guys-nights-outs with crispy pork belly, and buying these ridiculously over-sugared, chemical-laden bread goods, Koreans are quickly getting fat as well! Do NOT be deceived by the low obesity rate figures...If you look at all the younger people these days, they are getting fat at an exponential rate...

Greg Robinson said...

Great comment Rosa! Makes a lot of sense...I've lived in China for about 3 years, and since returning to America have become very interested in nutrition. Western Med is all about whole grains, and there is a lot of good evidence out there to support that, but it's always best in my view to see how people used to eat in the past to guide future research...

deadly said...

My family originate from Northern Bangladesh. From information from family members dating to at least the late 19th century, rice has very much been a staple for a very long time. In my parents lifetime pounding rice manually to de-husk it was common, as it was cost money and time to take your rice to a town to get it polished. Even today people still do it manually for the same reasons, Asia has always been full of poor subsidence farmers and labourers who dont own any land (Feudal systems that go back thousands of years). Getting your rice professionally cleaned was and still is an unnecessary expense in many situations.This does not stop rice being the staple and I expect never has.

There are other native starch options like Taro/Arvi that get overlooked though.

Unknown said...

No, asians did not eat white rice en masse until recently. They ate brown rice. Historically only the wealthy could afford the more expensive white rice. But since most asians nowadays look forward to escape fromt a past of poverty, brown rice are scorned. Which is tragic.

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

In Thailand the food is about 70% white Jasmine rice. White rice is by far the most eaten food and is absolutely essential to every meal. As elsewhere in Asia, the word for eat in Thai is "eat rice", so fundamental is rice considered. Aside from rice, very small amounts of meat and veggies are eaten, usually fried in some kind of fat. Soups and noodles are also eaten, but not with the same frequency as rice.

Thais are exceptionally thin and seemingly quite healthy.

Rice is similarly dominant in Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, although in the last 3 countries a kind of French bread is commonly eaten, but is usually made either entirely or partially of rice flour. People in all these countries are exceptionally thin.

I have not spent much time in Japan, but from the little I have, and from the ubiquitous Japanese restaurants catering to the Japanese expatriate community in Bangkok, rice is about 70% of the Japanese diet as well. However, as others have noted, apparently what Asians eat in restaurants is not what they eat at home - which makes sense, as eating out is considered a treat in most countries. Guyenet has made the same point about French restaurants and the misconceptions about the normal French diet they have given rise to. In Thailand, however, nearly everyone "eats out" in small roadside stalls and basic unpretentious 3 wall restaurants, nothing fancy, so one can get a very good idea of the diet just by seeing what's available on the streets. Same with Cambodia, Vietnam, etc.

People who are saying that rice is not currently an Asian staple and that certain Asian countries are "paleo land" are so utterly deluded by their own wishes and desires to be blinded to what is staring them right in the face.

As for what Asians ate in the past, does it make sense that the traditional word for "eat" in several Asian languages would be "eat rice" if eating rice had not been the MAIN and DOMINANT food for centuries? I am no linguist, but as far as I know, so basic a word as "eat" is usually not of modern origin in any culture and usually has its origin several centuries in the past at least, it not more.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Unknown,

Good points (same to the many other commenters who have added valuable information). I've been reading more about historical Asian diets lately (some of it in the book "1493" by Charles Mann-- a great read), and what emerges is a dynamic history of dietary change over the last 500 years.

Rice has been a major staple in much of Asia for thousands of years, but it was cultivated in the lowlands because it didn't grow well at elevation (wheat was also cultivated in Northern China and Northern India). Cultures with complex governments like China had the organization to distribute rice to areas that were not suitable for rice agriculture (making its consumption more widespread in these areas). When sweet potatoes, corn (maize), and potatoes were imported to Asia after Europeans invaded South America, Asians were able to grow food at higher altitudes and on previously non-arable land. The population exploded and diets shifted away from rice somewhat.

I think your comment is right on, but one thing I would add is that the average Asian person probably didn't eat white rice until the development of modern rice polishing mills in the 20th century. Prior to that, you could make white rice but it was so labor intensive that only the rich could afford it. My understanding is that everyone else ate partially milled rice that was pounded to remove most of the bran (if you keep pounding, it eventually turns into white rice). Some subsistence farmers in India still prepare their rice like this.

ctrang said...

Asian food practices and traditions are regional, much like in the West, but more so as the ingredients are in the thousands from spices to herbs to vegetables, meats and seafood. Rice is not eaten everywhere, for where it doesn't grow, noodles, breads and sweet potatoes are enjoyed. Vegetables are eaten in abundance, while the more expensive meats less so. Seafood is mostly enjoyed in the coastal regions. You've tackled a huge subject, which can't be answered fully in a single post, considering that food practices in Asia have a medicinal component based on thousands of years of evolution in the kitchen. In order to understand Asian diets, you also need to consider the lack of refrigeration in many Asian countries, still to this day. Best, www.corinnetrang.com, by way of introduction.

frank said...

a fascinating and informative discussion indeed - thanks everyone for your interesting comments !

I have a Taiwanese partner who keeps me healthy with lots of green vegs and noodles - not so much rice - but right now she's cooking rice congee for breakfast.

poverty and insufficient diets - I've read that rice paddies was a way the Chinese emperor kept the people stable - requiring rice paddies needing daily maintenance so they wouldn't invade the cities and protest!

affluenza - Okinawa kids growing fat and unhealthy on McDonalds while their 100yo grandparents like their fish, seaweed and hard work

yeah - we may feel advanced with our refrigerated processed convenience foods in shrink-wrap plastic - but when I go food shopping in Taiwan, it's just right outside downstairs to the local wet market where I see live shrimp and fish swimming in tanks, and chicken in cages ready for selection and fresh kill to take upstairs to cook - you can't beat that for freshness !

I also remember a river boat trip near Hanoi - got off near some hill temple to see a hut display of five colours of freshly steamed sweet potato - I took a taste - delicious ! - and offered some to a passing US couple who were about to just walk past - they tasted - wow ! thank you for that - they would never have known how simple and delicious a local grown fresh root vegetable could be - simple and sweet - perfect !

lisao said...

I have no doubt that diets that are extremely deficient cause stunting of growth. Outside of that there is a wide range of genetic variance for size. It just isn't true that everybody has the genetic capability to grow to six feet or taller if they get more protein or fat soluble vitamins and minerals. I have known people who most likely didn't get optimal nutrition and are huge and people who did who are small.