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The Asian on Keto

By: Jonnathan Zin Truong

When I first learned about the Keto “diet” from my brother in law, I was skeptical of the idea of cutting out all carbs and all sugars. Also, I’m ashamed to admit, another thought I had was, “How could an Asian, like me, adapt to a life without rice and rice products?” Rice, afterall, was an essential part of an Asian’s diet.

I am the first born, Asian-American, in my family with parents who are Vietnamese/Chinese immigrants. Both my parents were born in Vietnam, however both of their parents were born in China, meaning they were Chinese born in Vietnam. Both my parents came from wealthy families in Saigon Vietnam. My mother’s family was by far one of the wealthier in the city, living off of rental property accrued by my mother’s grandfather, who was one of China’s top physicians and one of China’s last emperor’s main doctors. However, everything changed during and after the War. Once South Vietnam was invaded by North Vietnam, my families lost everything.

My mother’s family had all the amenities, such as maids, butlers, nannies, drivers, and chefs. With all of the “help” the family had, my mother and her siblings got to focus on things they enjoyed. My mother loves food and spent a lot of time in their professional kitchen, learning to cook traditional Vietnamese cuisines from some of the best chefs in Saigon, Vietnam. Also, luckily for my mother, the family chefs loved her and took the time necessary to equip my mother with the knowledge and skills needed to create amazing dishes. Her master chefs taught her the importance of picking the freshest meats and produce, allowed her to taste each spice and ingredient they used, such as curry powders, herbs, sauces, as they masterfully created each dish.

Similar to my mother, I grew up with a love for food and the curiosity it takes to learn the art. Once my mother realized my curiosity in the kitchen, she forced me to spend many hours assisting her in the kitchen, learning the craft taught to her by the masters in Vietnam. It was during this invaluable time in my life that my nose and taste were refined to be able to blend various tastes and smells together in my mind, melding them to make quick decisions while cooking. However, it was also during this time that I was taught to believe that every good meal started with a big steaming bowl of jasmine rice or a bundle of noodles. My mother and family taught me that rice was not only a delicious base to every meal but it was also a great low fat filler which completes every “healthy” Asian diet.

Then in 2018, my wife, Olivia and I started to research the keto with the aim of “educating” and disproving my brother in law of its benefits, by showing him that the “diet” was just a clever repackaging of the Atkins diet. However, our research instead shifted everything we knew about health and nutrition. For example, when I was taking kinesiology courses at my university in the early 2000s, we were taught that to raise your metabolism, a person needed to eat multiple small meals per day. However, it is now encouraged by keto experts and health professionals to incorporate intermittent fasting regularly, if not daily, as a way to boost your metabolism and increase your overall health. The contradiction caused us to keep researching. We reviewed data, read research, and listen to experts, the keto diet made sense. The keto diet was not Atkins 2.0, but rather, a healthy alternative way of living, which promotes good health, clearer thinking, consistent energy, and weightloss.

Atkins 2.0?

What about all the naysayers who speak against the keto diet, saying it is “Atkins 2.0,” or “Atkins repackaged.” We thought the same thing and instead of listening to the “experts” or “celebrity fitness gurus,” we did our research to see if their claims were legitimate, and, well, they are not.

Is the keto diet simply a reinvented/tweaked version of Atkins diet? No. I can easily disprove their claims with the following facts. The ketogenic diet was created in the 1920s to help children dealing with epilepsy, whereas the Atkins diet was invented nearly 50 years later in the 1970s, as a quick weight loss diet. The ketogenic diet was around well before Dr. Atkins hit the market with his low carb craze.

It is also important to note that there are significant differences between the keto and Atkins plans. For instance, it is widely recommended to eat a lower percentage of protein with the keto plan verses the Atkins diet. There’s no protein limit on Atkins, while most versions of the keto plan recommend restricting protein intake to about 15-20 percent of your daily calories. Another big difference is that keto success depends on the body being in ketosis during the entire period. For a person following the Atkins diet, ketosis plays a role only during the first and possible second phases only.

Secret to Success

Now, how does a person like me, who grew up in a culture rich in food traditions adapt to a life without the “essential” carb source? Easily. Here are some secrets to living a successful keto lifestyle as an Asian American:

  • Change Your Ways. As humans, we have been conditioned to form habits, follow traditions, and trust “experts.” However, I promise you that not all habits are good, not all traditions benefit you, and not all experts are right. You must be willing to change what you believe, breaking habits, create new traditions, and do the research yourself.
  • Expand Your Taste. Most of us allow our culture and family to dictate what we eat, the spices we crave, the textures we love. However, we live in a big planet, full of diverse cultures, rich foods, and unique ingredients. Your willingness to try new flavors and textures will revolutionize your keto lifestyle.
  • Do Your Research. With so many so-called experts out there, you must do your research and then test out your research to make sure that your research works with your body composition. We all have different metabolisms and burn sugar and carbs, and/or produce ketones at different speeds. Know your body.
  • Introduce Variety. From experience, introducing some variety in to your diet, will help you keep from being bored. Afterall, a bored dieter is a dangerous one.
  • Eat Out Occasionally. Although we encourage people to eat in as much as possible because when you eat in, you know exactly what you’re putting into your body. Occasionally eating out gives you a mental break. If you do eat out, make sure you ask questions about your dish, like if it is floured, if there any sweeteners, any fruit juices, or any MSG (monosodium glutamate). All of these things spike your insulin. And an increase in insulin + high fat = stored fat.
  • Learn to Cook. Cooking your own food allows you to monitor the ingredients, calories, fat, sugar, and carbs.

The fact is, it took me months to adapt to eating “keto”. The biggest challenge was overcoming my programmed mindset about eating and bypassing my cultural norms. Now, months later, my wife and I are reaping the benefits of the keto lifestyle and gradually losing weight, to boot. Now, go and expand your mind, try new foods, test out new ingredients, and enjoy the benefits that come with the keto lifestyle. Cheers!

Here are links to my recipe Keto version of Vietnamese favorites called Bún Thịt Nướng and Thit Kho: