Vietnamese food is delicious and it is often cited as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. To make sure that Vietnamese food is healthy or not, we spoke to Antoine Yvon, the head nutritionist at CMI hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. You will finally know if all those banh mi sandwiches are good for you, if you should drink the broth of your pho or not, and the name of Vietnam’s only super fruit.
What are the health benefits of a Vietnamese food diet?
Vietnamese food is one of the most healthy and balanced in the world. As a professional, I have seen that dishes and ingredients used in Vietnamese cuisine can cover all the dietary needs of protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals because there is a great natural diversity of agricultural products. It is this diversity and variety that are the foundations of a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
The way to eat food is also a very important factor that can influence the nutritional value of food. Eating with chopsticks, using multiple dishes, and sharing with people allows you to eat more slowly, chew the food longer and in the end causes better digestion and assimilation of nutrients, without overloading the digestive system. Therefore, the social and cultural aspect of eating Vietnamese food is a reason why eating Vietnamese food is healthy.
The reputation of Vietnamese food as healthy is correct as long as we eat traditional dishes. Economic growth has considerably changed the way Vietnamese people eat by bringing some Western habits and products.
Modern Vietnamese eating habits are straying away from the ideals described above, with more and more processed products, enriched with artificial nutrients, artificial flavorings, rich “bad fat” (trans fat and saturated fat are not essential) and simple carbohydrates added to food, particularly all the dairy products, which were unknown a few decades ago (pasteurized cheese, sweetened condensed milk, flavored yogurts) and all junk food (cakes, pastries, ice creams, sodas, fast food).
Even though Vietnam is one of the countries with the lowest rate of obesity in the world if we look at the overall population, some categories have results that are not so positive: children and teenagers.
The number of Vietnamese children under five years old with weight problems has doubled in four years in Vietnam, while at the same time it has decreased by 25% in the U.S.
What Vietnamese food should be avoided or embraced for health reasons?
As long as you eat traditional food, there is no food that you should avoid. You must just make sure to avoid processed food as much as possible. It is also best to avoid deep-fried food and those grilled on a barbecue.
The most healthy Vietnamese dishes are soups (among which are pho), spring rolls, fruit and vegetable salads, clay pot dishes, rice dishes with meat or fish cooked in sauce, and fresh fruit juices.
What health problems are developed by Vietnamese people from their eating habits?
The change of habits mentioned above is causing an increase in the number of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders (infarctus, diabetes, metabolic syndrome), obesity, and cancers, particularly among children. Also, the increased consumption of alcohol among men increases the number of liver and digestive system cancers.
Is there any Vietnamese superfood or dish with superior health benefits?
Though not often eaten apart from during traditional festivities, the little know “gac” fruit (or red melon), often nicknamed the “fruit of paradise” is the fruit with the highest concentration of carotenoids in the world (a precursor to Vitamin A).
The gac contains 75 times more lycopene (an antioxidant) than tomatoes. It can be considered a super fruit. Its taste is close to red melon and carrots. It is more and more popular in the U.S. or Europe as an eating supplement.
What are the healthiest local fruits and vegetables? (Dragon fruit, Sapoche, Kumquat, …)
You might know the expression, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” -what’s the Southeast Asian equivalent? Even though there are a lot of vegetables in traditional Vietnamese food, the average daily consumption is twice less than the recommendations from the World Health Organization. 40% of cancers in Vietnam are linked to food consumption (principally because of processed food, bad eating habits, and bad eating hygiene).
It is certain that if more fruits and vegetables were eaten, the situation could improve. Unfortunately, people are buying fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, because they are suspicious about their hygiene and sanitary conditions of them, and more canned products which are poorer in essential nutrients.
More important than the qualities of a certain food, the most important is to eat enough and regularly the greatest variety of fruits and vegetables. If we had to categorize them according to how rich they are in nutriments, we could differentiate:
– The richest ones in vitamins and antioxidants (lychee and rambutan, Chinese celery, Ceylon spinach, guava, papaya, kiwi, dragon fruit) – The ones with the most sugar (to be careful with): lotus seeds, sweet potato, taro, banana, grapes, cherries, mango) – The ones that are hydrating and less sweet: berries, watermelon, melons, citruses (oranges, pomelo, lemon, kumquat), apple, star fruit, gac fruit
Vietnamese are among the largest consumers of durian fruit, known for its smell more than for its qualities. It is called the king fruit here. In Indonesia, it is considered an aphrodisiac.
In Vietnam, it causes several deaths every year (the mix of alcohol and durian is toxic for the liver and excessive consumption can cause hypertension). The link between what people eat and how healthy they are is not obvious yet for many Vietnamese, which causes a lack of interest in nutrition.
Eating street food in Vietnam: Sauces, pho, banh mi, herbs… Shall we avoid Vietnamese sauces?
Sauces are a very important part of the Vietnamese food experience. A meal without sauces is like a meal without bread in France. You should not ban them. Even sauces that are very sweet or salty should not be banned totally. At reasonable doses, they represent only a fraction of the food intake compared to carbs like rice. Keep it simple and traditional!
Is Pho healthy? Should the broth be drunk or left aside?
The pho, the most famous Vietnamese food, is certainly one of the most balanced dishes I know. Eaten all day long, it contains carbs, good proteins (beef or chicken), little fats, a lot of water, a lot of dietary fibers, vitamins, minerals (herbs and vegetables), and antioxidants (spices, chili, lemon).
Who does not feel full after eating a Pho? If you want to balance it, even more, you can add a raw vegetable salad with vegetable oil for appetizers or a fruit salad for dessert. Add a few dry fruits too like nutmeg, peanuts, and almonds.
The broth should be drunk because a lot of water-soluble vitamins and minerals are dissolved in the water during cooking. They are intact inside the broth (except for the B1 vitamin, B3, and C which are partially altered), a gold mine full of nutritive ingredients.
The broth is as important as other ingredients of the pho. It is a source of water and thus hydrates and cools the body (just like nomads in the desert drink hot tea: a hot brew cools and hydrates the body better than cold water). The body reacts to hot liquids with several cooling processes (perspiration, transpiration, more efficient digestion, etc.).
Is Ban Mi healthy?
The banh mi is a sandwich that can be made in a multitude of ways depending on where you eat it. More often, it contains a source of proteins (pork, chicken, ham), some vegetables (lettuce, carrots, green bean sprouts), bread, and sometimes industrial soft cheese (The Laughing Cow brand).
The white bread used is not as filling as rice and noodles and is poor in good fat and fiber. You should be careful in making sure the ingredients added are not processed food (pate, sausages, cheese) and that not too much sauce is added (particularly if it is sugar or fat).
You could replace the processed cheese with yogurt (made of milk! It is not bad if the portion is reasonable and it can complement well a banh mi, nutritionally speaking). Contrary to pho, the banh mi does not hydrate the body well. You can accompany it with a fresh drink while you eat such as lime juice, coconut water, or sugar cane juice. Nevertheless, be aware that drinking anything during meals is not the best solution for optimum digestion as it dissipates the acids needed for our digestion.
Do the herbs added to the recipes have nutritional or health benefits (Cilantro, Mint, Cinnamon, Herb, etc.)?
Aromatic herbs contain a lot of antioxidants and vitamins, whatever they are, often with a higher concentration than that found in most fruits and vegetables. It is because they smell good that they are so interesting because the aromatic molecules, the ones responsible for the good smell, are also directly responsible for the medicinal properties of those herbs.
They have diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties. Not only do they contain very few calories, but they are also an interesting source of fiber and contain phytosterols that could help if taken in high doses, reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Very helpful to improve one’s cardiovascular health.
However, the overall daily intake is relatively small compared to other ingredients. Parsley contains three times more Vitamin C compared to oranges but you’ll need three bowls to cover the daily recommendations. Not very easy! Still, if you consume herbs all day long at different meals, it will cover part of your nutritional needs.
I would recommend considering them for what they are, aromatic plants. They can make your dishes more tasty and delicious. The healthy part is a bonus. Cinnamon herb is an excellent diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Mint can help if you have nausea and it helps digestion, just like coriander.
Conclusion: Vietnamese food is healthy, but be careful with the ingredients
There is a Vietnamese paradox: even though Vietnamese food is healthy and full of flavors and nutrients, the trend is towards artificially flavored, industrially processed, and nutrient-enriched food.
Pay attention to where you eat and the ingredients used in the preparation of the dishes. Pho might be healthy somewhere because natural ingredients are used, while another one won’t be as nutritious because it uses food enhancers.
To discover the beauty and diversity of Vietnamese cuisine, watch this nice video
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Click Here to see our selection of Vietnamese restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City
*Credit: Antoine Yvon – Dietetician/Nutritionist at the CMI Ho Chi Minh City. You can contact him for an appointment (in French). His website: www.nutrytion.fr.
|References: – Food database CIQUAL 2013 – SMILING 2013 – Food composition table for Vietnam, National Institute of Nutrition, Vietnam. 2013 – World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/. 2014 – Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2014 – L’histoire de l’alimentation. Jean-Louis FLANDRIN, Edition Fayard. 1996|