Eating healthy in South East Asia is not always easy. The street food culture means you rarely know what is in the meals that you eat. In this post I’ll break down some of the easy things to avoid, what you should take note of, the safest options for a healthy meal, and what to do if you’re training hard to get your protein and caloric needs.
Eating healthy in South East Asia: Watch out for…
- Sugar/syrup. They put it in every damn thing. Fruit shakes, coffee, tea, cocktails. Anything that you can drink, you can pretty much guarantee they will sweeten. Simply ask for no sugar if you want to cut calories and sugar consumption. Sometimes they will ask, but often they don’t. Always assume there’s sugar unless you state otherwise. You will taste the difference if you’ve not thought about it before.
- Weird chemicals. They’re in to some pretty funky drinks and sweets in South East Asia. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a ‘food’ glowing neon green probably has some chemically crap in it. Not going to kill you as a one off, but hardly a regular part of a healthy diet.
- Tofu. Don’t eat vegetarian meals with tofu, and even pick it out of a Pad Thai if you’re so inclined. Soya is known to cause hormonal disruption, raise oestrogen and be a gut irritant. If you’re a man especially, avoid it as a regular food.
- Deep fried. They tend to fry most things and they do it in some God-awful vegetable oil. First of all, vegetable oils and trans-fats are incredibly bad for you, and secondly not only do they use these oils in the first place, but knowing typical hygiene standards in Asia, I doubt as they use fresh oil very often. Making it even more degraded and bad for you to be eating.They use the same oils for light frying, but at least there isn’t as much of it.
Eating healthy in SE Asia: The 3 best options
Soups, salads and BBQ. Here’s why…
They’re not fried in vegetable oil. They probably don’t have sugar in, they’re generally made with fresh ingredients that don’t glow neon green.
- Soups: A favourite of Vietnam especially, soups are great because the liquid traps a lot of the good stuff that is otherwise lost during cooking. When you cook vegetables, many of the nutrients will seep out. In soup, they’re caught in the liquid. With meats, the bones and cartilage let out gelatinous proteins that are among the healthiest protein sources in the world. Top bio-availability and great for your joints.
- Salads: Plenty of greens and water based veg, eaten raw. Pretty self-explanatory – you know that salad is good for you.
- BBQ: One thing that is lacking in SE Asia, especially so in Thailand, is a decent size portion of protein. They tend to give you tiny little portions of meat that makes it hard to consume enough protein if you’re training. BBQ is the exception.
Western food of course is the same as you would expect at home. It is often healthier than local cuisine, but they will still use the same crappy oils for cooking unless it’s a real high-end restaurant. Sushi or sashimi is great for getting your protein needs met and personally I think extremely tasty.
Here is the weigh-off between health and culture (and expense). Do you want to go to SE Asia to eat western food? I don’t. Nor do I want to pay 4 times the price for inferior food because they don’t know how to cook it properly. I personally just make sensible choices with the local food and only eat Western if I’m going to a nice place.
If you train you need to be eating more calories and more protein. This is a problem in the world of tiny portions and minuscule servings of protein. Some countries are better than others. Malaysia for example has excellent food and is much more protein heavy than Thailand and it’s neighbours to the East.
Here’s some tips to get some extra protein and calories in.
- Extra egg: Many meals come with egg and you can get extra for a small fee. Sometimes fried, sometimes boiled, or sometimes scrambled in with the meal, depending on what you’re eating. Chuck an extra egg or two in to boost your protein content.
- Double meat: They’ll charge you a bit more of course, but as long as you can communicate with the vendor effectively they will happily add some extra meat in for a smaller fee than buying two meals.
- Skewers: You’ll often see meat skewers around the food markets that are very cheap. You can buy a couple of these as an addition to a proper meal.
- Protein shakes: You can get protein shakes from a lot of the better gyms and even dedicated supplement shops in the cities. Use shakes to increase your protein load and if you’re going for calories, chuck in some coconut milk or peanut butter.
- Boiled eggs: Unless you’re staying long term, most places don’t have proper kitchen facilities, but you will probably be able to throw together some boiled eggs and munch on them throughout the day.
I find that timing is important when it comes to recovery from training. I usually eat one meal before I go to the gym and then a double meal immediately after, followed by a further one or two later in the evening. It should be noted that I’m not a bodybuilder and not massive, so if you’re actively trying to gain weight you will have to chuck significantly more food in than I get away with maintaining my weight at.