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Asians Choosing Fat Over Fad as Dietary Habits Undergo Heavy Change

Posted - Feb. 29, 2004 at 1:20 p.m.



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SINGAPORE, Feb 29 (AFP) - Asians are eating fewer carbohydrates but, unlike in the West where fad diets are leading people away from potatoes and pasta, a growing love of fatty foods is to blame, nutrition experts say.

Dieticians and nutrition researchers told AFP that Asians have yet to latch on to the increasingly popular Western diets such as the Atkins and South Beach formulas that preach low-carbohydrate and high-protein intakes.

But dietary habits in Asia are undergoing a perhaps even more profound change as consumption of rice and grain falls while eggs, edible oils, dairy products and other more fatty products become more popular.

"(Fad diets) exist in this part of the world but haven't really taken hold, although there is a lot of concern among Asians about putting on weight," Asian Food Information Centre (AFIC) executive director Georgina Cairns said.

"Twenty years ago, the Asian diet consisted of less than 15 percent of fat and in some countries even less than 10 percent, but now we're heading up to 30 percent."

Senior scientist at the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) David Dawe attributed this dramatic shift in the Asian dietary pattern to rising incomes.

"Rice consumption will fall in every country in Asia as they get richer," he said.

"It's a universal law, every society is that way. As you become wealthier you eat less of your staple food and diversify your diet."

Figures collected by the IRRI showed that consumption of rice has almost halved in Japan, tumbled almost 30 percent in Malaysia and fallen about 20 percent in Thailand and South Korea over the past 40 years.

Globalisation has also contributed to the rising popularity of fats in Asia, according to Cairns.

She said travel, international trade and cross-border expansions of Western food outlets had led to the growing intimacy between the Asian palate and rich Western fare.

"Even in Southeast Asia, with no tradition of eating cheese, more and more people like the taste of cheese," she said, adding this was contributing to taller Asian children, but also heavier ones.

"We're getting fat. The figures are worrying."

Although obesity is not as big a problem in Asia as it is in the United States, Britain and Australia, it is becoming increasingly common, AFIC said on its website.

Danny Oh, 38, a manager of a coffee chain outlet in Singapore, fits the stereotype of the fattening Asian and calls himself a "classic heart attack case".

Oh said his breakfast always consists of oily foods such as Indian pancakes known as roti prata and fried noodles. But he is not overly concerned about the health implications.

"I must have my cholesterol every day," he said. "If I go, I go."

Equally nonchalant is 14-year-old Singaporean student Celestine Song, who eats at fast food outlets four times a week.

"I'm not very worried (for my health), because I exercise every week," she said.

Although fad diets, which have drawn criticism for promoting unbalanced eating, have not garnered a large following in Asia, Cairns said it did not mean Asians were free from other unhealthy misperceptions about weight loss.

"There is a tendency for people (in Asia) to see some food as having a miracle constituent in them -- something that will burn fat or block the calorie content of the food," Cairns said.

She cited grapefruits, green tea and herbal pills as popular items consumed by Asians seeking to shed weight.

"It's not good to see some food as miracles -- there aren't any miracle food."

Sales consultant Samantha Lu, 23, said she has not placed her faith in any specific food, but she is trying out a nutritional replacement diet programme, in which she drinks a special diet milkshake in place of certain meals.

Munching on a hamburger at a US fast food chain outlet in Singapore's business district, she looked down at herself and commented: "I haven't noticed any difference."

str/kma/jah

Lifestyle-Asia-diet

COPYRIGHT 2004 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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