No topic is as full of contradictory information as what we should eat, how much we should eat, and how we should eat to be as healthy as possible.
And foreigners in Vietnam face an added problem. Many of the healthy foods they are used to are hard to find in Vietnam, and some of the local foods, healthy or not, are not appealing to Western tastes.
Antoine Yvon, the former dietician and nutritionist at the Centre Médical International (CMI) Ho Chi Minh City is a fan of Vietnamese cuisine.
“Vietnamese food is one of the most healthy and balanced in the world,” he says. “As a professional, I have seen that dishes and ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine can cover all the dietary needs on protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is this diversity and variety that are the foundations of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.”
Jonathan Halevy, paediatrician at FMP, agrees, with some caveats.
“Most traditional Vietnamese dishes are very healthy and balanced. It all depends on how much of it you eat,” he says. “Try not to consume too much fried food and most important, make sure you eat in a place that keeps good sanitary conditions.”
The warning against too much fried food is echoed by Dr Nguyen Viet Quynh Thu, of FV Hospital.
“[We should] reduce energy from lipids, particularly from saturated fats and trans fat. Steamed or boiled food should be chosen, fried food should be avoided,” she says. “Saturated lipids are also found in animal fat, butter, skin, animal organs and full cream milk.”
Dr Thu also places emphasis on choosing foods with a low glycemic index (GI). Low-GI foods are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose, with positive effects on our blood chemistry.
Dr Thu recommends low-GI fruits like dragonfruit, avocado, strawberry, apple, pear, grapefruit. The less-favoured high-GI fruits include durian, jackfruit, longan, mangosteen, banana and watermelon.
If you’re looking for vitamins and anti-oxidants, Yvon recommends lychee and rambutan, guava, papaya, kiwi and dragonfruit. His favourite, though, is the little-known gac fruit (or red melon). “It has the highest concentration of carotenoids, a precursor to Vitamin A, in the world. The gac contains 75 times more lycopene, an antioxidant, than tomatoes.”
Dr Halevy rates a varied vegetable intake as one of the healthiest approaches.
“When it comes to vegetables — the more the better, all shapes, colours and tastes,” he says. “All types of fruits are good but you need to limit the amount to one to two servings a day. Prefer eating the whole fruit, which has more vitamin and fibre, and not juice.”
Rice is everywhere in Vietnamese cuisine, so it’s important to get the best from eating it, and understand any downside. Dr Thu suggests brown rice (or noodles and pasta) for their low-GI qualities, but Halevy, with his focus on children’s health, has a Vietnam-specific warning.
“There is a big problem with consuming rice — arsenic,” he says. “I make a recommendation for reducing rice consumption, especially in children. Brown rice has much higher levels of arsenic than white rice.”
Another big issue for visitors to Vietnam is MSG. While scare stories abound on the internet, Halevy dismisses them.
“MSG can be found naturally in foods such as tomatoes and cheese,” he says. “Many side effects were attributed to MSG but there is no evidence that it causes any harm. “
Dr Thu agrees that MSG is safe, but adds a caveat.
“We should remember that the MSG in soy sauce, fish sauce, etc. contains an amount of sodium,” she says. “For example, MSG contains one-third the sodium amount of salt, hence only consume a moderate amount of it daily.”
For a healthy traditional Vietnamese meal, Yvon says we need to look no further than pho.
“Pho is one of the most balanced dishes I know. It contains carbs, good proteins (beef or chicken), little fat, a lot of water, a lot of dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals (herbs and vegetables) and antioxidants (spices, chili, lemon). “
There is one more reason why the traditional Vietnamese diet is healthy, which has nothing to do with the food itself, Yvon notes.
“The way of eating food is also a very important factor that can influence the nutritional value,” he says. “Eating with chopsticks, using multiple dishes, and sharing with people allows you to eat more slowly, to chew the food longer and in the end causes a better digestion and assimilation of nutrients, without overloading the digestive system.
“Therefore, the social and cultural aspect of eating Vietnamese food is [one] reason why eating Vietnamese food is healthy.”
Photos by Julie Vola
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