Is Vietnamese food really healthy?

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Vietnamese food is delicious and it is often cited as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. To make sure that this was true, we spoke to Antoine Yvon, the head nutritionist at CMI hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. You will finally know if all those banh mi sandwiches are good for you, if you should drink the broth of your pho or not, and the name of Vietnam's only superfruit. The interview was translated from French.
What is your general professional opinion about Vietnamese food? Is it as healthy as people think it is?
Antoine Yvon: Vietnamese food is one of the most healthy and balanced in the world. 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 because there is a great natural diversity of agricultural products. It is this diversity and variety that are the foundations of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Eating with chopsticks, using multiple dishes, and sharing with people allows you to eat more slowly... without overloading the digestive system.
The way to eat food is also a very important factor that can influence the nutritional value of food. 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 a reason why eating Vietnamese food is healthy.
The reputation of Vietnamese food as healthy is correct as long as we eat traditional dishes.
The economic growth has considerably changed the way Vietnamese people eat by bringing some Western habits and products. Modern Vietnamese eating habits are straying away from the ideals described above, with more and more processed products, enriched with artificial nutrients, artificial flavorings, rich “bad fat” (trans fat and saturated fat are not essential) and simple carbohydrates added to food, particularly all the dairy products which were unknown a few decades ago (pasteurized cheese, sweetened condensed milk, flavored yogurts) and all junk food (cakes, pastries, ice creams, sodas, fast food).
New bad habits also include hidden food additives, particularly the monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can be found in 80 percent to 90 percent of basic foods like soy sauce, fish sauce, dried noodles, canned food.
Even though Vietnam is one of the countries with the lowest rate of obesity in the world if we look at the overall population, some categories have results that are not so positive: children and teenagers. The number of Vietnamese children under five years old with weight problems has doubled in four years in Vietnam, while at the same time it has decreased by 25 percent in the US.
What Vietnamese food should be avoided? What are the healthiest options?
As long as you eat traditional food, there is no food that you should avoid. You must just make sure to avoid processed food as much as possible, and those containing MSG, a flavor enhancer similar to table salt that is believed to be harmful when taken in high doses.
You see some restaurants with a sign “No MSG here” in their menu. Apart from this additive, it is also best to avoid deep fried food and those grilled on a barbecue.
The most healthy dishes are the soups (among which are pho), spring rolls, fruit and vegetable salads, claypot dishes, rice dishes with meat or fish cooked in sauce and fresh fruit juices.
As long as you eat traditional food, there is no food that you should avoid.
What are the typical health problems developed by Vietnamese people from their eating habits?
The change of habits mentioned above are causing an increase in the number of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders (diabetes, metabolic syndrome), obesity, cancer, particularly among children. Also, the increased consumption of alcohol among men increases the number of liver and digestive system cancer cases.
Is there any Vietnamese superfood?
Though not often eaten apart from during traditional festivities, the little know gac fruit (or red melon), often nicknamed the “fruit of paradise” is the fruit with the highest concentration of carotenoids in the world (a precursor to Vitamin A). The gac contains 75 times more lycopene (an antioxidant) than tomatoes. It can be considered a super fruit. Its taste is close from red melon and carrots. It is more and more popular in the US or Europe as a eating supplement.
Even though there are a lot of vegetables in traditional Vietnamese food, the average daily consumption is twice less than the recommendations from the World Health Organization.
Around 40 percent of cancers in Vietnam are linked to food consumption (principally because of processed food, bad eating habits and bad eating hygiene). It is certain that if more fruit and vegetables were eaten, the situation could improve. Unfortunately, people are buying less fresh fruit and vegetables, because they are suspicious about the hygiene and sanitary conditions of them, and more canned products which are poorer in essential nutrients.
More important than the qualities of certain food, the most important is to eat enough and regularly the greatest variety of fruits and vegetables.
If we had to categorize them according to how rich they are in nutriments, we could differentiate:
The richest ones in vitamins and antioxidants: lychee and rambutan, Chinese celery, ceylon spinach, guava, papaya, kiwi, dragon fruit;
The ones with the most sugar (to be careful with): lotus seeds, sweet potato, taro, banana, grapes, cherries, mango;
The ones that are hydrating and less sweet: berries, watermelon, melons, citruses (oranges, pomelo, lemon, kumquat), apple, star fruit, gac fruit.
Should we avoid Vietnamese sauces?
Sauces are a very important part of the Vietnamese food experience. A meal without sauces is like a meal without bread in France. You should not ban them but you should try your best to avoid those with MSG (E621), usually soy sauces, fish sauces or spring roll sauces.
Even the sauces that are very sweet or salty should not be banned totally. At reasonable doses, they represent only a fraction of the food intake compared to carbs like rice. Keep it simple and traditional!
Is pho healthy? Should the broth be drunk or left aside?
The pho, the most famous Vietnamese food, is certainly one of the most balanced dishes I know. Eaten all day long, it contains carbs, good proteins (beef or chicken), some fat, a lot of water, a lot of dietary fibers, vitamins, minerals (herbs and vegetables) and antioxidants (spices, chili, lemon). Who does not feel full after eating a pho?
If you want to balance it even more, you can add a raw vegetable salad with vegetable oil for appetizers or a fruit salad for dessert. Add a few dry fruit too like nutmeg, peanuts, almonds.
The broth should be drunk because a lot of water-soluble vitamins and minerals are dissolved in the water during cooking. They are intact inside the broth (except for the B1 vitamin, B3 and C that are partially altered), a gold mine full of nutritive ingredients.
The broth is as important as other ingredients of the pho. It is a source of water and thus hydrates and cools the body. Just like nomads in the desert drink hot tea: a hot brew cools and hydrates the body better than cold water. The body reacts to hot liquids with several cooling processes (perspiration, transpiration and more efficient digestion).
Is banh mi healthy?
Banh mi is a sandwich that can be made in a multitude of ways depending on where you eat it.
More often, it contains a source of protein (pork, chicken, ham), some vegetables (lettuce, carrots, green bean sprouts), bread and sometimes industrial soft cheese.
The white bread used is not as filling as rice and noodles and is poor in good fat and fibers.
You should be careful in making sure the ingredients added are not processed food (pate, sausages, cheese) and that not too much sauce is added (particularly if it contains MSG, sugar, or fat).
You could replace the processed cheese with a yogurt. It is not bad if the portion is reasonable and it can complement well a banh mi, nutritionally speaking.
Contrary to pho, banh mi does not hydrate the body well. You can accompany it with a fresh drink while you eat such as a lime juice, coconut water or sugar cane juice.
Do the herbs added to the recipes have nutritional or health benefits (cilantro, mint, thai basil)?
Aromatic herbs contain a lot of antioxidants and vitamins, whatever they are, often with a higher concentration than that found in most fruits and vegetables. It is because they smell good that they are so interesting because the aromatic molecules, the ones responsible for the good smell, are also directly responsible for the medicinal properties of those herbs.
Aromatic herbs contain a lot of antioxidants and vitamins, whatever they are.
They have diuretic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. Not only do they contain very little calories, they are an interesting source of fiber and contain phytosterols that could help, if taken in high dose, reduce the cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Very helpful to improve one’s cardiovascular health.
However, the overall daily intake is relatively small compared to other ingredients. Parsley contains three times more Vitamin C compared to oranges but you’ll need three bowls to cover the daily recommendations. Not very easy!
Still, if you consume herbs all day long at different meals, it will cover part of your nutritional needs.
I would recommend to consider them for what they are, aromatic plants. They can make your dishes more tasty and delicious. The healthy part is a bonus.
Thai basil is an excellent diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Mint can help if you have nausea and it helps digesting, just like coriander.
In conclusion, Vietnamese recipes are healthy, but be careful with the ingredients
There is a Vietnamese paradox: even though Vietnamese food is naturally healthy, full of flavors and nutrients, the trend is towards artificially flavored, industrially processed and nutrient enriched food.
Pay attention to where you eat and the ingredients used in the preparation of the dishes. A pho might be healthy somewhere because natural ingredients are used, while another one won't be as nutritious because it uses food enhancers.
Editor's note: Antoine Yvon is a dietician/nutritionist at the CMI Ho Chi Minh City. The article was originally published on City Pass Guide

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