Why are Asian people eating rice thin?


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 Eating Academy: How do some cultures stay lean while still consuming high amounts of carbohydrates?

I basically agree with his ideas, although I think there are 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. Traditionally they used to eat 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.

Some people have rightly pointed out that Asian populations no longer eat brown unrefined rice, they now eat white rice. True. It’s also true that these populations are no longer thin and healthy – India and China now experience two of the worst type 2 diabetes epidemics in the world, even worse than in the US.1 This disease is connected to weight issues, particularly abdominal obesity.

Even using BMI (an imperfect measure, see below) the number of obese people in China have already surpassed the US. So what I’m discussing in this post is how these populations used to stay thin and healthy, because unfortunately they no longer are.

When did this problem (obesity + diabetes) start to accelerate in Asia? About at the same time as sugar and white rice was added to their diet.

Three more factors

There are three more minor factors that may have contributed to these populations staying thin, in past times:

  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 are also addictive, thus people eat more of it and the sugar/starch overdose makes them fat.
  3. Genetic makeup. On average, Asians do not look like an average Caucasians or Africans. They have (on average) less musculature and a thinner build. This means that comparisons between the weight of Americans / Europeans and Asians using BMI is misleading, it exaggerates the difference. Asians can sometimes get “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?

Advanced low-carb topics

Weight loss



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  1. j
    it does not matter how much we eat coz we eat a lot! the reason why we asians are skinny is because we walk a lot, sweat a lot and move a lot. that is our exercise. if you are a westerner in asia wondering why you are not losing weight, maybe because you stay inside your air conditioning room all day.
  2. Rachel
    I'm Chinese I grew up thin then went obese in my 20s eating western diet then managed to slim down myself.

    I do not think rice is very refined carbs compared to packaged desserts(processed food) that you buy from the super market - and all this is western import food. It's when I ate the packaged desserts and drunk coca cola and similar sugary drinks bought from the supermarket etc. that made me fat.

  3. Brian
    Thank you for addressing this, but I do not believe we have the correct answers in the article.

    1) Low consumption of refined sugar. White rice is already pretty refined. When you eat it, it turns to glucose. It is true, though, that the consumption of fructose is likely lower.

    2) I'm a type 1 diabetic, so I know how foods affect my blood glucose. It's pretty much BS to assume that things like brown rice digest slowly when eaten alone. I follow a lot of diabetes forums, and the difference between a food that spikes your glucose in 10 minutes or 15 minutes is going to be negligible. Rice is very spiky - brown or white.

    3) More physical activity. THIS I will buy. Also from my type 1 experience. I make no insulin, so I always know how much insulin is in my body (because I'm injecting it). If I don't exercise, I need to inject 200-300% more insulin than if I'm exercising heavily. Also, exercise has an effect for up to 24 hours (or if you really do a lot, maybe 48 hours).

    4) Poverty: Yes, quite likely! Eating fewer calories overall (regardless of the macro composition) seems to be the consistent way to prevent type 2 diabetes. Also, we see studies of life extension on a calorie restricted diet. Poverty can be a double edge sword: often the cheaper foods are less healthy (think hydrogenated oils). But if you're eating inexpensive rice and veggies and not eating a surplus of calories, you can be healthy... This follows along with some recent theories of Type 2 diabetes NOT being caused by defective insulin/insulin receptors... and instead being caused by a general surplus of energy in the body.

    5) Addictive food... this goes along with overeating theory.

    6) Genetic makeup. Genetic Makeup is actually a factor, as we see populations that have not historically been exposed to high nutrient density having a much higher susceptibility to Type 2 diabetes and it's associated health risks. If anything, I would expect these thin people to be much more prone to type 2 if they adopted a nutrient dense "western diet" - more susceptible than westerners who have been exposed to surplus calories for a longer period of time.

  4. deborah conner
    I think Jason Fung's work with fasting also gives some insight here. Simply, short intervals between meals, snacking, keeps a steady flow of insulin in the blood, whereas periods of fasting -- not eating between meals or from after dinner until breakfast -- allow recovery. Factor this into the model. When in the West are we not glomming or imbibing?
  5. Leslie in San Francisco
    I did not read all of the comments but I personally know that many Chinese and other Asian Americans subscribe to the rule of only eating until you are 80% full. They do not stuff themselves. Nor do they eat fast food and refined sugar desserts aplenty as I regrettably do.
  6. Martie
    I spent one month in Vietnam eating with a local family. We ate heaps of bone broth with bits of meat and the family enjoyed heaps of nourishment from eating all the gelatin and other fibres around the bones.. We ate piles of green leafy vegtables often using these to wrap titbits such as prawns. We ate no deserts or glutin, no dairy and a little fruit after the meal. Then heaps of green tea with each meal. bones, herbs, protein fat and greens with total lack of processed food.

    In 4 weeks my artthritis improved so much I could walk up the stairs on to the aeroplane without effort! I had not done that for almost 3 years before my holiday. Now I am trying to eat similarly and each time I deviate, the inflammation in my joints returns.

    Reply: #365
  7. Fran
    No sugar is used
  8. Joan Geohegan, BSN, CDE, T1D 51 years
    Visceral vs abd fat.
  9. Helen
    Up until 50 years ago, every culture in the world ate a lot of starch, including bread, potatoes and rice, but very little SUGAR. Now almost every processed food contains sugar, and it is a huge per centage of calories all over the world, including Asia. I struggled with low calorie diets for years, then did keto for a decade, but was not able to maintain my weight until I totally ditched sugar. Now I bake my own sourdough bread and eat reasonable portions of potatoes and rice, and have completely conquered my sweet cravings, and have maintained my weight within 1.5 pounds for a year without counting calories, carbs, or anything else. The reason Asians never used to gain weight or have diabetes is they ate miniscule amounts of sugar. Now they eat tons, and are as fat and diabetic as everyone else in the world. Lustig is right!
  10. Judith
    My daughter was recently in Japan and asked me the same question when she returned. Obviously the answer is complicated. But I find after years of researching nutrition and asking "why" that the introdfuction of highly processed foods in any Country starts them spiraling downward to the same metabolic problems and diseases we have here in the USA.
  11. Wayne A
    Asians eat HULLED white rice. The hulls have lectin which is 'poisonous' to our systems. Same thing with beans.
  12. S K
    Two things:

    1. Not all of us have diabetes from being overweight. There are two types. Type I diabetics have pancreases that make no insulin.

    2. In this article, it states "India and China now experience two of the worst type 2 diabetes epidemics in the world, even worse than in the US." This is sensational data as each of those countries have a population of nearly 4 times that of the US. Proportionately, the 49-52% of the US population has diabetes or pre-diabetes while that same number is about 47% in China (The JAMA Network Journals, 2017). Claiming the number rather than percentage is just a gimmick to draw readers in to believing you. Not cool!

    The JAMA Network Journals. (2017, June 27). High prevalence of diabetes, prediabetes in China. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 23, 2018 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170627134326.htm

  13. Don
    A diet with no wheat gluten, low dairy and low processed sugars will help you live a longer healthier life. I quit wheat gluten along with high fructose corn syrup 1 year ago and have lost 32 lbs and no longer feel hungry all the time. My high blood pressure of 40 years immediately sunk to the normal range after one week of giving up wheat gluten. I've been able to reduce my BP med to a minimal level and will hopefully find no need for it in the future with proper diet and exercise. The typical American daily diet will kill you....but in the meantime, it will make you feel full and happy.
    Try giving up wheat gluten for 1 week and see what happens. Most get what's called the gluten flu. Your body goes thru gluten withdrawal and you feel sick. This shows that your body is addicted to gluten.
    Google the Standard American Diet or SAD (what a coincidence as the American diet is sad). Definition: A modern dietary pattern that is generally characterized by high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, butter, fried foods, high-fat dairy products, eggs, refined grains, potatoes, corn (and High-fructose corn syrup) and high-sugar .
    Is there any wonder why Americans have more health issues and are fatter than our Asian friends? My advice: Be informed, read labels and be responsible for what you put in your mouth as it's your life, there are lot's of good options and you do have control.
  14. 1 comment removed
  15. Matt
    I have been to Vietnam - I would imagine you also ate quite a bit of noodles? Or did you personally avoid them? You didn't mention any. Thanks!
  16. 1 comment removed
  17. Anne
    Asians eat a lot of white rice, but also consume meat and variety of veggies with it. We also walk or ride bicycles when our destination is just 30 minutes away, we do a lot of household chores because we are generally tidy, and for some, exercise is a part of the day. It's still calories in and out that makes us this way.
  18. 2 comments removed
  19. Ken
    Metal health such as depression and physical abuses contribute the excess eating in some people, while staying inactive sitting or sleeping after eating contributes to weight gain. There are more depression and anxiety problems in North America compare to Asia or Europe. It has a lot to do with the life style in certain culture. Asian people are more social and more out going, therefore more active both physically and mentally. Asian people therefore don't need comfort food like sweet treats or resort to drinking to lift their moods. They eat healthy food, either cook at home or eat in restaurants, NOT fast food restaurants like Mcdonald or KFC. The Asians been eating rice since the beginning of time, it is in their genetic make up, like bread to European, and it is in 50% of their diet with the rest vegetables and meats. No junk foods such as chips soft drinks or excess sugary intake. The Asians have a balance diet, where in North America is too much of one thing or another leading more eating due to excess in one thing and missing others, eating to much chips and drinking too much soft drinks for example. Listen to your body, t will tell you what you need to eat, don't just eat because you saw a commercial telling you to. Cook at home, you know what you will be putting in your meal. Relax and enjoy life, you will be more active and have a healthier life.
  20. nazanin
    i like japanese people strategy in eating. they eat all helpful things for body, they eat every day on time, colorful meal, they sit and respect their meal, eat calmly not in rush. take their time and eat small portion of every thing therefor stay thin super easly.
  21. Jen
    I grew up in Taiwan and I have been living in Canada for 15 years.

    Based on my observations the reasons are:

    1. huge portions of food: Canadians/Americans eat A LOT of food. No kidding. Whenever I visit restaurants here in Canada I can never finish eating those meals designed for one person only...

    2. everything is extremely sweet in Canada. Especially desserts... when I follow a canadian recipe to make cookies I always have to cut sugar in half and still find them super sweet. Desserts in Taiwan are sweet- but definitely not that sweet.

    3. Almost everything is made with cheese here in Canada. I gained about 15 pounds the first 3 months after immigrated to Canada -from ~ 100 pounds to ~ 115 lbs because I LOVE cheese so much and was eating cheese burgers everyday the first few months... Im still considered skinny comparing to other Canadians but I was never able to lost those 15 pounds.

    Honestly I don't think carbs are that unhealthy. I think the keto/ low carb trend will eventually die down. It's more important to limit sugar intact from treats like donuts, candies, cupcakes, pepsi...etc, than limiting carbs like rice/noodle/bread.

  22. 5 comments removed
  23. Audra
    I'm sorry, but as other commenters mentioned, whoever wrote this article is just guessing based on stereotypes of some kind of rice-paddy Asia circa 100 years ago where cars somehow don't exist.

    As an Asian-American, I grew up eating WHITE rice 3 times a day with meat and veggies, as much as I wanted. I never even so much as tasted a frozen meal until I moved out. I was super sedentary from studying all the time, and we drove everywhere because CA's public transportation is awful. Despite hardly ever moving, I was as thin as a rail my entire childhood despite never being without food. It was definitely used as a reward system by parents and grandparents wanting to express love without saying it. Heaven forbid you skip a meal or don't finish all the food on your plate! (It's wasteful!) Get-togethers with extended family in Asia consisted of older relatives constantly adding food to my bowl without asking, even if I told them I was full already. The only way to stop it from repeating ad infinitum was to let the bowl be completely filled and not emptying it again, and choosing instead to endure the scolding from my parents for being wasteful. The reason I was so full was because whole foods are filling! How could I possibly have room for dessert after all that?

    When I moved out, I subsisted on tons of processed junk and McDonalds, soda, etc., and that was when I gained a bunch of weight. Artificial food isn't meant to be in your body. It's not rocket science!

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