Why are Asian Rice Eaters Thin?


Thin Rice Eater

It’s a common question. If carbs can make you fat, why were some populations (e.g. Japanese people) thin while eating a high carb diet?

Dr Peter Attia has written a nice post on this: The War on Insulin: How do some cultures stay lean while still consuming high amounts of carbohydrates?

I basically agree with his ideas, although I think there is a few more answers to this question: 

The three big reasons

Here are the main reasons why I think populations could stay thin on high carb diets:

  1. Low to insignificant consumption of refined sugar (fructose). This may stop insulin resistance from developing.
  2. Eating mainly unrefined starch (e.g. brown rice, root vegetables) that is slow to digest, due to high fiber content etc.
  3. Traditionally more physical activity then sedentary western population. Compare a Japanese rice farmer (in the field all day) to an American office worker with a car. If you burn more glucose (via physical activity) then less insulin is needed when you eat carbs.

If you avoid sugar (fructose) and refined high GI starch and stay physically active you can probably stay thin and healthy on a high percentage of carbs. Lots of populations have done so.

Three more factors

  1. Poverty: These traditionally thin populations were on average fairly poor by todays standards, meaning perhaps they could not always afford all the food they would like to eat.
  2. Food reward / addiction. This may be controversial but I think there is a point to all this food reward talk that’s been going on in the blogosphere. Our processed junk food and candy is carefully designed to artificially make it taste great and be addictive. It also contains a lot of sugar and starch. It’s like cigarettes: The nicotine makes people addicted, thus they smoke a lot and the smoke gives them cancer. Fast food and candy is also addictive, thus people eat more of it and the sugar / starch overdose makes them fat.
  3. Genetic makeup. Asians do not look like Caucasians or Africans. They have (on average) way less musculature, they have a thinner build. This means that comparisons between the weight of Americans / Europeans and Asians using BMI is misleading, it exaggerates the difference. Asians are often “skinny fat” or even get diabetes at BMI levels that are considered normal for Caucasians (e.g BMI 24).

What do you say?

What do you think about this common question and the possible explanations?

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Top Comments

  1. Dear Laura
    I am a Professor of Biochemistry but we all have a lot to learn.

    1. The concept of tortuous metabolic pathway is not in the biochemical texts. Both fructose and glucose proceed through separate pathways of glycolysis but converge at the level of the triose-phosphtates so, at that point, they are essentially the same. The difference in metabolism has to do with the relative rates of the different enzymes and depends on a large number of factors. Ethanol does not proceed through this path except possibly under some unusual conditions. Ethanol is oxidized ultimately to acetyl-CoA and goes into the TCA cycle.

    2. Reading your comment, though, it hit me that this process is not called detoxification. In fact, the metabolism of alcohol through the dehydrogenates to acetyl-CoA is not called detoxification either. Detoxification of alcohol usually refers to the process at high alcohol ingestion where alcohol is less like a food than like a drug. In this case, it is not oxidized through the normal pathway but rather through the cytochrome P450 system which is completely different from normal metabolism and is considered detoxification but I don't think that fructose ever enters this system.

    3. On the specific point you raise though, glucose is the major source of protein glycosylation. This is because, although fructose exists to a greater degree in the open (free aldehyde) form, there is much less fructose in the blood. First, there is more glucose altogether but, remember, your body maintains blood glucose while it clears fructose. I challenged Lustig on this once and he did have an example where fructose was more important than glucose but this is rare.

    That's some of the biochemistry that I do have although I admit that I could use more.
    (i answered this in email so forgive possible duplication)

    Read more →
  2. Lustig can't be wrong because his is all over the place. He's as ubiquitous as Alec Baldwin so at some time he's said everything. "I am not against sugar" but it is a toxin. "I am not opposed to low-carb diets" but he would never use them because patients can't stay on them, never mind that the data show that they have better adherence than others. The problem with Lustig is that he has given up on scientific method and scientific rigor. His indictment of sugar is analogous to banning Hondas because the increase in traffic jams correlates with the increase in Hondas.

    From my perspective, he is making a parody of teaching biochemistry which is my job. A metabolic map is like any map. It tells you where you can go but it doesn't show you the traffic lights or the road construction. Also, what's missing from Lustig's compelling talks is data. The studies that support sugar as toxic are done at a total carbohydrate of 55 %. Under those conditions adding fructose is clearly worse than adding glucose, but is that what we want to know. Science is about the facts and understanding so, in some sense, there are no credentials but Lustig is simply not acting like a biochemist although he wants to take credit for being one. We could be wrong in our methods but he is definitely not a biochemist. The reason real biochemists don't like to jump in here is because we are reluctant to make sweeping statements. But we have some data and as far as we know, the effect of replacing fructose with glucose even under the conditions that he cites, is generally not as great as replacing any carbohydrate with any kind of fat.

    The bottom line from a therapeutic perspective is that the mass of data clearly shows that for diabetes and metabolic syndrome and obesity, dietary carbohydrate restriction is the best bet -- if it doesn't work, thou can try something else. If you want to take sugar out of the diet, even just sugared soda as a strategy for reducing total carbohydrate, that may be very effective for obesity. For diabetes, it may be better to reduce starch depending on the individual case and conditions. What's scary about Lustig is that he is on the American Heart Association panels, the group who have gone out of their way to attack low carb diets and to distort the scientific data.

    In term of the original thread on Asian diets, it is obvious that we don't know enough to make any clear statements although all the comments touch on relevant stuff. Overall, what we know is less than what we don't know but if you give up on scientific method, you've got nothing.

    Read more →
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All Comments

  1. Niki
    I know many Asian folks, and one thing I have observed is that the meat is usually very fatty, (yummy) and they waste nothing (yummy) unless they have been totally North Americanized. They know what to reduce when they need to lose weight--rice. And Asian deserts are virtually non-existent in comparison with NA. So the sum of the carbs relative to the animal fats and protein is in better proportion. So they are satiated sooner, on traditional not North Americanized Asian foods.
  2. Niki
    China has been out of the low fat loop for a long time now. When they eat meat, it is meat with fat. Anyone who has been to a real Asian restaurant knows the difference. The fat consumed with meat is Delish. The overall level of actual protein to fat is therefore lower. They eat lots of organs and interstitial tissue. NA methods of meat selection are considered near dog-food. Like the Inuit, the best parts for NA, are fed to the dogs. So I would predict that the overall fat consumption amongst Asians who eat meat is much higher than in NA, and that that is the reason for lower obesity. And Asians are not into sugary deserts.
  3. Helsic
    I live in China but I'm not Chinese, I'm Colombian. Obesity is a common problem in Colombia too so when I first came into China I was surprised to see the overall skinny population. After living here for a while I realized the clue is in the food they eat and what they drink. Most Chinese people drink Tea all day long. They seldom drink Coca-Cola or other similar drinks. Most Chinese kids love to eat veggies and soup, they eat fruits everyday so they grow up with a healthy diet. After eating Chinese food in a regular daily basis I noticed that my metabolism became faster than before, now I have to go to the toilet more often than I used to go in Colombia, and that improved my digestion system in general.

    There are very few overweight people here compared to western countries but there are still some people who deal with obesity for different reasons like congenital diseases ,bad eating habits or just because they genes.

  4. Singben
    It boils down to genes.My family eats tones of rice(a few bowls of 200g each) ,meat,fish,breads,cakes and very little vegetables and fruits for they are believed to be too cooling and thus bad for one's gut.Everyone of us is very slim,almost underweight,but fit and healthy.My overweight friend always skips meals,avoid this and that,sometimes drink only plain water to get filled,but,he's is still gaining weight with passage of time.His whole family is fat.He as an super overweight sister who eats only a few digestive biscuits a day,which I eat the whole packet as between-meal snack.
  5. erdoke
    It is true that there is a big variation in starch tolerance among people. However, add sugar on top and it will also wreak havoc on your your metabolism...
  6. Charlotte
    If you haven't noticed, the latest research shows that Asians aren't as thin as they used to be, and their rate of diabetes has sky rocketed . Interestingly enough this change occurred simultaneously with a large increase in
    the amount of meat consumed by the average Asian.
  7. Deborah
    Coming from a Japanese heritage, myself , my mother, grandfather and many of my relatives who have favored American cooking have yo-yo weight statuses and diabetes so I don’t think the staying thin has anything to do with heritage as much as the healthy cooking practices. Most Asian meals are “fried” in less than 2 tablespoons of sesame seed oil. Meat portions in main dishes are usually served in 3 to 4 ounce portions. The larger portion of the meal is steamed vegetables flavored with a variety of sauces for flavor, not butter. Rice is generally served in a tradition blossom bowl which is usually approximately ¾ of a cup, not the heaping portions served in American restaurants. Many healthy herbs and roots are used to spice up the flavor and boost the metabolism such as ginger, variety of peppers and onions and a good dose of omega 3 is consumed in the sea food used. Serving portions and healthier cooking practices are very much the same in Paris. Very rarely do you see a wide spread case of obesity in the French population either.
  8. chris
    "asian rice eater" is racist. they are thin because they are "hard working rice farmers" more likely. doing work that is too real work for mericans. lots of spoiled american asian fatties in college. one can infer flaming is justified, and the original poster of the question has not attended an instiitute of higher learning. and americans are fat because of diabetes fried foods and life is a pointless hustle bustle rat race, that goes like this: wake up, drive thru for breakfast, work, lunch drive thru, back to work, dinner drive thru go home watch tv shower sleep repeat. stuff your face all day long. pack food in gut. really want to know why people are fat? watch the american parasite.
  9. Chris
    Heather Twist, you recomended the book 'What we Eat ' but I was unable to find a book with that title. Could you please tell me the author's name Thanks.
  10. 4BLS
    You presume that all Asian people are rice farmers tending rice paddies all day. Where did you get this misguided idea? In Japan less than 4% of people work in agriculture. Most work in cubicles in offices. They sit in front of computers from 9 - 5 and try to take 2 weeks of vacation every year. In China 35% work in agriculture but 65% work in industry and services. Korea is a blend of the two with more people working in company offices. So, if you check your most Asians are NOT rice farmers. The rice farmers you are imagining disappeared long ago and have been replaced by commercial rice farming being managed by agricultural corporations. Please, check your facts before you make any sweeping, bigoted views about a whole continent of people.
  11. saif
    i lived with 2 filipinas in a was was fat.the thin one eats like a bird and likes household chores.the other one eats almost every hour and always sit infront of the tv.the thin one eats rice 3 times a day and never eats fruits and desert.the fat one of course is opposite.and thin asians not all work in the
  12. Jeff
    Im a Malaysian. My islamic faith taught me to avoid harmful diet, hence i dont eat pork. Pork contains disease and its meat is high in fats. Also westerners drink alcohol. Westerners like americans consume too much sugary starch and their diet of burgers and canned soda drinks are not healthy.
    Rice is only a small equation.
    Replies: #313, #316, #319
  13. Apicius
    Jeff: your statements are presented like fiction without any backing of facts. If you look at the world statistics of diabetes, you will see that the epidemic is worse in the Middle East than in the "westerner" regions. Here's an article from the The Economist magazine:
  14. Dan
    The comparison in the first #3 is terrible. If you've been Japan and know the Japanese people, you'd know that "an office worker" fits a typical Japanese person much better than a farmer in a rice field and as much or even more so than an American, except the average japanese businessman or office worker is still thinner. The "with a car" part is somewhat relevant because Japanese tend to walk more than Americans and may be more active in general. However, most likely it's genetics, the lack of consuming other unhealthy foods Americans/Westerners eat, and the lack of excessive portions that are responsible for Japanese and some other Asians being thinner.
  15. Miss
    Here's one thing no one seems to be considering: not all Asians live in Asia and are farmers who work hard every day to eat unrefined rice. Many Asians living in western countries buy the same rice as the rest of the population. They are not farmers, they have jobs and businesses just like their neighbors who are not Asian. To assume that all Asians do not gain weight from rice because all Asians are rice farmers in Asia is the most uneducated, ignorant garbage. Check some facts next time.
  16. Mark
    Jeff, most of these asians we are referring to are the pork eating ones so your attempt to use your faith to discredit pork holds no water. If religion does play a part in health, do explain to us the disproportionate obesity rate amongst muslims in your country.
  17. Mark
    And again to Jeff the malaysian who professes his islamic faith holds the key to his slimness. Here's something from his own country's papers that says malaysians are the fattest people in Asia!
  18. Destiny
    The tea they drink, is it sugar free totally or they do put sugar in their tea?
  19. Destiny
    I agree with you, Jeff.
    Reply: #321
  20. Leroy
    Well, the article as I read it is NOT about ALL Asians, but about those who are rural and eat a primary rice-based diet. IMO, the quote about "Japanese people" was unfortunate in that it was a totally incorrect analogy (as has been pointed out here). Examination of Japanese diet over the last several decades would have revealed that Japan's diet has become more Westernized (though not totally) more and more since 1960s - and especially over last 25 years.

    That same position (i.e., primarily rice eaters) could be negated in several areas of modern day Asia (Singapore, most of Japan, likely most of South Korea and Taiwan - and almost all urbanized areas). In many of those areas, a simple observation of even just detailed news reports would reveal both general obesity (though due to smaller frames not as readily visible often) AND the example of "skinny fat" (again, more frequent due to smaller frame sizes, but the last two acquaintances of mine who died from diabetic complications were both shorter, small framed, and never obese in the classic sense whatsoever... in fact, one would consider them, both white European descendant, as on the scrawny side - other than unclothed, when one would note that they were flabby with a very low percentage of muscle mass).

    (Note: Aside from genetics, is it not likely that diet has a large impact on frame size, height, etcetera? Anthropologists have long known that LCHF Paleolithic populations were significantly taller and more robust than their grain-based diet agriculturalist Neolithic descendants. Also, it has been observed that Asian immigrants to America - and other Western nations - who adopt Westernized diets - over a couple of generations became taller and larger framed and susceptible to a more observable obesity... just as their non immigrant urbanized peers who eat more "Westernized".)

    Throughout Asia, there are however large populations where rice is the primary caloric source - and often due to a more poverty based environment. In those cases, I believe that the observations of "thinness" boils down to consumption of fairly low calories (low fat consumption) and skinny fat due to lower protein consumption AND the component of very significant activity (one would also note that those people tend to have a much lowering span and age more quickly. (I would also point out that several works - and personal observations - show that poorer people, as well as Asians who eat rice in general, much more highly prefer white rice over brown rice).

    My own observations (granted from some time ago) was that the higher up the economic scale, the more meat and the less rice was eaten. I recall a couple of meals from what I would call lower upper class where very little rice was consumed. And interestingly, to me, in both cases it was explained that a small amount of (white) rice was eaten "to cleanse the palate" (due to its blandness). I also noted that in the (then) primarily rural, agricultural areas that rice was 75-90% of the diet. I saw very little (extremely little) fruit or berry eating. Rice was supplemented with smaller amounts of vegetables (most farmers were of course small plot farmers and didn't have land resources to grow a lot of rice and vegetables) and meat as able (most families had a few free-range chickens and some would also have a pig. There would be quite a few water buffalo which were however used as draft animals and only rarely slaughtered for food when too old to work. In areas of higher economic strata, having a larger vegetable garden, more chickens, and more pigs was the norm (the REAL Okinawan Diet, for example, is very heavy in chicken and especially pork - and lard is, by far, the primary cooking oil).

    My two cents worth, IMHO.

  21. Apicius
    News article: Malaysia is Southeast Asia's Fattest Country.

    My conclusion is that if they increase pork, lard, meat - as well as cut out sugar - they will reverse their current obesity epidemic.

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