Why a Dietitian Loves Vietnamese Food

Why a Dietitian Loves Vietnamese Food

…aside from the fact that it tastes delicious…

Have you ever been on vacation and felt “restaurant fatigue” by the end of the trip? That feeling of eating out too many meals in a row, when you start to crave a simple piece of toast or a salad?

For me, that’s often the case. But a couple of months ago I went to Vietnam for my honeymoon – and my body actually felt BETTER after exclusively eating the local cuisine for 12 days

Drinking coconut water…and then eating the coconut meat…in Ninh Binh

There are multiple reasons why our gut might sometimes feel better on vacation, regardless of where you go and what cuisine you eat there. Reduced stress and increased movement (like walking around sightseeing rather than sitting at your office desk) are associated with better digestion (gastroenterologist Dr. Elena Ivanina had a great post about this phenomenon on 12/6/2019).

However, as we toured the country and I got to know Vietnamese food, I realized that the food itself is super gut-friendly. In fact, Vietnamese cuisine has some repeated lessons that we can embrace for better health in general. These lessons apply to any cuisine, even the food you cook at home.

Lesson 1: Plant-Focused

In Vietnam, seemingly every meal featured vegetables. Sometimes veggies were steamed or cooked into broths, other times they were served fresh. At markets, I met vegetables I’d never heard of before. While meat is common in Vietnamese food, it’s served more like a condiment: just enough to add flavor and a bit of satiating protein.

You can see on the left that our pho bowls in Hanoi had about 2 oz of beef. When we returned from our trip and had Vietnamese food in Nashville, our pho here contained at least quadruple the beef! It’s pretty darn well-established in the medical community that a diet high in plants and low in animal protein are associated with lower mortality (in other words…death), so I’ll just leave it at that.

Beef pho in Hanoi
Shopping at a small market in Hanoi

Lesson 2: Herbs on Herbs on Herbs

Almost as abundant as vegetables were fresh herbs – sometimes presented in foreign formats. For example, the meal above (cha ca) involved huge piles of fresh dill that are quickly wilted in a heated pan before you eat them. Between my husband and I, we probably ate about 8 cups of fresh dill. The most dill I’ve ever had at one time prior to this was a sprig or two floating in a pickle jar or atop an hors d’oeuvre for garnish.

Other dishes, like bun cha (not pictured) feature piles of mint, basil, “Vietnamese balm,” and cilantro that are enjoyed like salad. Piling on herbs is fabulous because they are yet another plant to add to your repertoire (see Lesson #1). But additionally, herbs are a potent source of polyphenols (antioxidants) that are anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and neuroprotective (i.e., good for your brain). Eating fresh herbs like salad greens rather than like garnishes helps us maximize these benefits.

Sitting down to enjoy cha ca, a sautéed fish and herb dish

Lesson 3: …And Spices

The antioxidant benefits of herbs apply to spices, too. Certain spices can also confer symptom relief, like ginger for treating nausea. My favorite heavily spiced menu item that I encountered was this ginger tea that seemed common in the mountain region. As you can see, this cafe was not stingy with their ginger. Not picture: sliced chili peppers at EVERY table, which can be added to seemingly any dish. Various studies have found chilis’ ingredient called capsaicin to be associated with lower disease risk.

Lesson 4: Hands-On Dining

Many of the dishes we ate in Vietnam were “hands on”: diners cook their own food at restaurant tables by combining ingredients in a hot skillet or a bubbling broth. Why is this good for our health? Eating with an experiential component helps us slow down, which improves digestion as well as helps us notice our satiety (i.e., if we’re still hungry). The process encourages mindfulness through actually “engaging” with what you’re eating.

This type of dining is also social, which confers another whole dimension of benefits. I wondered at first if only tourists eat this way, but based on my observation it seemed like plenty of locals were enjoying interactive meals together. In the video above we’re making a “hot pot” (and enjoy the audio of us anxiously making sure we’re “doing it right”).

Eating banh cuon made of rice paper pancakes.

Lesson 5: Food-Sensitivity-Friendly

Disclaimer here: dairy and gluten are FINE for many people and do not inherently need to be avoided. But for people with specific conditions – like autoimmune diseases, food allergies, or food sensitivities – avoiding dairy and gluten can be either necessary, or at least helpful.

Food in Vietnam (and in Southeast Asia in general) is naturally low in gluten and dairy, making travel so much easier for me and my dairy-sensitive stomach. Nearly every starch seemed to be rice-based, which is naturally gluten-free. In this photo, we’re having banh cuon for breakfast: rice-based savory pancakes stuffed with mushrooms.

While I don’t see myself making homemade pho (which requires boiling a bone for about 10 hours) any time soon, I think the principles above can apply to any cuisine. More plants, more herbs, more spices, and more engagement!

If you’re a nerd like me, you might be wondering why Vietnam is not touted on the typical list of healthy places. Despite their generally healthful cuisine, Vietnam’s life expectancy (76 years) is actually lower than the United States’ (78 years), and even lower than “Blue Zone” countries like Japan (84) and Greece (81). This seems to be due to non-diet factors. To name a few: Vietnam spent multiple decades of the 20th century at war, they have high rates of high tobacco use (47%) and not-so-great air quality.

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