By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“Brown rice is for the poor, white rice for the rich,” said my mom. Then, when I became a working mom myself, I fed my sons Chinese sausage and hot dogs, stir-fry vegetables often, and takeout food for the sake of saving time. How wrong was my mom! How inadequate was my knowledge then when I relied on convenient processed food for my family! What terrible habits I had, choosing food simply for taste! And how wrong were our doctors then!
In the old days, rice milled and stripped of its bran and germ, and then pounded, resulting in a tiny white seed, was considered to be good rice. The seed is smooth and sweet to the palate. My mother’s worst memories of World War II was the fact that she and her family were forced to escape from her Chinese village, hiding in a mountain. Out of hunger, they were forced to eat rice picked up from the fields — unprocessed. Little did my mother’s family know that brown and unprocessed rice is better and healthier for us. Regrettably, I have eaten white rice most of my life, and only recently switched to organic quinoa and brown rice six years ago.
Removing the rice coat (brown skin) is “removing wonderful things,” said Aliya Haq, nutrition services supervisor of International Community Health Services.
“Because white rice is white and shiny,” she explained, “some think ‘it’s more expensive and better.’
The misconception comes from high pricing. White rice has had the bran and germ removed and these are the most nutritious parts of the grain. Though white rice has some of the nutrients lost added to it in processing, it still lacks some others especially antioxidants, minerals, fat, some protein, and fiber.
White rice’s “carbs convert more quickly into blood sugar than brown rice,” according to healthline.com. “Higher intake of white rice may result in a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.”
However, white rice is not the only misconception many have towards what is healthy.
Beware of sauces
Asian sauces, such as fish and soy, are full of sodium especially oyster sauce, according to Haq. It explains why Asians can easily be affected with high blood pressure — the overconsumption of salt.
But I grew up with soy sauce. It has been a part of me since I was a baby, and part of my family’s culture and cooking history. Other Asian ethnic groups have a similar experience. How could we not marinate our food with soy sauce? How could we not dip our food with fish sauce?
“When you decrease your salt intake, it not only helps control your blood pressure, but also helps your medications work better and you may even have to take less medication” said Haq. She added that this is something your doctor will decide and you should never change the dose of your medication without your doctor’s advice.
“Asian diet favors lots of veggies, just don’t add sauces.” My late mother and grandmother would have a fit if I told them to forget soy sauce.
It won’t be easy for us to change overnight. But you can.
“Don’t keep a bottle of salt at your dinner table,” said Haq. Her advice is, if you buy sauces, choose low sodium sauce. However, even the low sodium soy has lots of salt. Her other observation is that people tend to add more sauces than plain salt.
Season your foods with spices instead. Chili powder, whole chili, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, and coriander seeds (their stems and leaves are called Chinese parsley) are taste-enhancing spices with different functions—some being anti-inflammatory.
You can even mix veggies with tomatoes or green onions, which can give great taste, too, Haq said.
Sauces are processed food. To add taste and shelf life, manufacturers use flavor enhancers and preservatives. “Whatever smells good, looks good, makes you want to buy,” Haq said. But “all things added, are bad for you.”
Check the label before you buy your Asian sauces. Compare different brands, made in China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan. Some of them contain as high as 40% sodium. Even Asian immigrants’ popular Maggi sauce is made in two different countries, China and Switzerland.
Whole milk vs. skim milk
For years, I looked for food with low-fat labels. Take 2% milk for instance — it was my daily beverage for decades. Then, I watched Dr. Oz on a television show say, “Skim milk has less nutrients than whole milk.”
I started researching. To my surprise, skim milk is processed. What! I have been fooled for decades.
Like white rice, non-fat milk’s nutrients have been separated. What’s wrong with drinking milk directly from the cow to our body? It’s fresh and organic. So I have been drinking organic whole milk in the last four years.
Have I gained weight after drinking whole milk? Yes, I have gained two pounds, it’s not a big deal. It would be illogical to attribute that to drinking whole milk. There are way too many variables in weight increase.
Fat or no fat
Many women who are weight conscious avoid fatty foods completely. In my younger days, fats only meant calories. Although my weight is not an issue, I seldom touch fatty foods. Simply stated, it’s vanity.
Research has found that our brain needs fat. Sixty percent of our brain is made up of fat. We need good fats, such as avocados, butter, extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish (salmon, sea bass, etc), and oils from nuts (sunflower seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds).
Now I learn that it is important to distinguish between good and bad fats. All kinds of animals’ fat, such as beef, lamb, chicken, and lard contain saturated fats. Animal fats would line your arterial wall and increase your risk of heart disease.
Butter, a natural fat from milk, is better than the hydro-generated vegetable oils, meaning transformed and processed to become solid at room temperature. However, too much butter is not advisable either as it would mean extra calories.
Egg or no egg
For a long time, my mother’s doctor advised her to eat an egg only twice a week. The reason is that it has too much cholesterol.
“If you are hungry for eggs,” her doctor said, “just eat egg whites.” Following my mother’s advice for a long time, I shunned eggs even though I have loved eggs all my life.
Now studies have found the opposite. Haq recommended eating the whole egg.
My breakfast always consists of a fried egg every day. Want to preserve your memory? Eggs are a great benefit. The yolk also has many vitamins, including choline and lutein, that are important for brain development and memory. Eggs have good quality protein, according to Haq, regardless of their color, brown or white.
A couple of times, I searched for gluten-free bakeries, assuming that it is better for my health. Fortunately, I didn’t like gluten-free pastries at all.
Not everyone is sensitive towards gluten, said Haq.
We need the right information to select our food. Don’t just listen to your friends. You have to have specific diseases, like celiac disease to completely avoid gluten says Haq. Even a small amount could cause a flare up. Some people are sensitive to gluten but check with your doctor or dietitian before you start avoiding it completely.
Many think artificial sweeteners are better than sugar. They are not. Natural sweeteners such as plant extracts are fine, Haq said, but some plant sweeteners are processed, too. Stevia and monk fruit are good examples of natural sweeteners.
I have not been buying white sugar for five years. Instead, I use honey and brown sugar to replace white sugar in cooking.
Research has shown that red wine possesses antioxidant properties, including resveratrol, which promotes longevity. However, just four ounces of alcohol produces lots of calories, said Haq.
Some people said drinking wine relaxes them. Erin Matlock, a TED Talk speaker, said Japanese have found that forest-bathing (walking through a forest) is just as effective in relaxing our mind and body as sipping a glass of red wine. When in stress, go with nature, not alcohol.
Chocolate: dark vs. milk
In chocolate, sugar is the devil, as well as a palate pleaser. I used to be a sucker for milk chocolate when I was a kid. Not any more after studying the difference between the two chocolates. Dark chocolate has less sugar and more nutrients that fight diseases and improve blood sugar level.
But too much cocoa makes the chocolate taste bitter. So I pick the kind with only 70 percent dark chocolate. Some friends said they prefer white chocolate. Well, if you know that chocolate is made up of cocoa fat, would you still want to have more?
There is one excuse why chocolate is my daily vitamin, it’s a mood booster.
After interviewing Haq, I realized my sodium intake was high due to my weekly dining out with friends and family, and from attending events. What’s the solution? I reevaluated my habits at home to cut down sodium.
First, I skip salt for my fried egg breakfast, since I already use three kinds of powders, including garlic, cinnamon, and turmeric. The first day was fine. My egg tasted different. But the second day was tough. Like a drug addict, I kept going back to my kitchen counter and was tempted to pick up the salt bottle. After a week, I declare my egg salt-free since then. Yay, I did it.
At night, I decrease the amount of soy sauce for meat marination. Also, I eliminate half the amount of salt in cooking veggies with garlic and ginger. Then, I mix the meat and veggies together. The dish tastes delicious. It’s just a matter of developing a taste for original flavors with less enhancers — sodium.
The majority of Asian restaurants cook with monosodium glutamate (MSG). I request the cook make my entree MSG-free or put the oyster sauce on the side. Yet, some items have already been marinated. So I asked for a bowl of hot water to rinse away the sauces. When the food is less salty, you learn what the food really tastes like.
If you want to change your eating habits, take it one meal at a time, even one dish at a time.
Rethink stuff you put in your food, and what kind of cuisine you eat. Experiment with new healthy ways to nourish yourself. It can be fun to discover and incorporate in your cooking.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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