Food wisdom is found in an Asian pyramid

Eating Well

February 20, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you're thinking about living longer and healthier, you might draw some lessons in longevity from the Chinese.

Have a look at the "Traditional Healthy Asian Diet Pyramid" developed by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit food-issues educational organization in Cambridge, Mass.

Heavy on rice and grain products, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and beans, the Asian pyramid is a visual interpretation of the major dietary discoveries of the Cornell University-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment based at Cornell.

Eating according to the Asian Pyramid reflects dietary traditions historically associated with good health. As with the American Food Guide Pyramid, the size of the food group's "box" indicates how often it appears in the diet. The smaller the box, the less often it's eaten.

Here are the guidelines developed by Oldways, in conjunction with researchers from Cornell and Harvard universities:

* Meats, like beef or pork, might be eaten only once a month. If eaten more often, it would be only small amounts, say an ounce or two.

* Sweets, eggs or poultry, would also be considered a treat, and appear only once a week.

* Fish and shellfish or dairy foods could show up daily, but would be optional. Dairy foods are not eaten regularly in Asia, except in India. If you include dairy foods, use low-fat versions, and only small portions.

* Plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, rice and grain products create the bulk of the diet, and should be minimally processed or refined.

* Beer, wine, sake or other alcoholic beverages should be consumed only in moderation, preferably at mealtimes.

* Physical activity is important for reducing disease risks.

These guidelines grew out of research conducted from 1983 to 1988 in China. Under the direction of T. Colin Campbell, professor of biochemistry at Cornell, health and nutrition information was collected from 6,500 adults from 65 mostly rural counties in China in order to understand the relationships between diet and disease.

The rural counties of China formed an amazing human laboratory unequaled anywhere else in the world.

For generations, people there rarely moved, and they ate the foods grown in their locality, simplifying the task of evaluating the effects of diet and lifestyle on development of diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Evaluation of the collected information makes it clear that diet and health are closely connected, and the eating styles of the healthiest Chinese are the opposite of the average American's.

Among the major findings:

* Blood cholesterol is much lower in China (averaging 88-165 milligrams per deciliter ) than in the United States (averaging 155-274).

In China, heart disease risk declines to an almost negligible level as blood cholesterol reaches those lowest levels.

Deaths from colon cancer also decrease at those lower cholesterol levels.

* The Chinese eat three times as much fiber (33 grams per day) as Americans do (11 grams per day).

The higher their dietary fiber intake, the lower were their rates of colon and large-bowel cancer.

* Despite the fact that the Chinese eat very little animal protein, their iron intake is almost double that of American adults, and there are no signs of anemia.

* Pound-for-pound, the Chinese eat 20 percent more calories than Americans, but obesity and obesity-related diseases are minimal, possibly because of their greater physical activity combined with low-fat and low-protein food habits.

* Chinese women begin menstruating late, from 15 to 19 years of age. In the United States, where children's diets are rich in calories, protein and fat, average age of first menstrual period is around 12 years, suggesting that higher breast cancer risks in the United States are due in part to longer estrogen exposure.

The Asian Diet Pyramid is a preliminary concept designed to generate discussion and interest in a variety of cultural models for healthy eating and nutrition education programs.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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