Busting Vietnamese Food Myths

Published October 26, 2015 in Episode 27

As Vietnamese, we may be just a tad biased when we say Vietnamese food is delicious! Vietnamese cuisine is also often cited as one of the healthiest in the world. Looking beyond the fresh ingredients and distinctive flavors, many claim Vietnamese dishes pack the ideal balance between nutrition and taste.

Are these myths or realities?

This week, nutritionist Minh Nguyễn goes on the record to bust or confirm these claims.

Nguyễn received her Masters in Nutritional Science at California State University, Los Angeles. She is a health coach, helping people make positive lifestyle changes. In her free time, she enjoys cooking up new recipes and exploring new restaurants.

Lilly Nguyễn: Hi Minh. Welcome to Loa. How are you?

Minh Nguyễn: I'm doing well. Hi, Lilly.

Lilly Nguyễn: Today we are discussing about a very interesting topic: food! My first question for you is that in the past couple of years, we have seen quite a few articles with headlines such as this one from Yahoo News “Why Vietnamese Food Is Good for Your Health” or “Healthy Eating: Seven Reasons Why You Should Eat Vietnamese Food” from the Huffington Post. CNN even ranked Vietnamese food among the healthiest ethnic cuisines.

Well we all know Vietnamese food tastes fantastic, but is it really healthy?  As a registered dietitian nutritionist, what’s your take on this, Minh?

Minh Nguyễn: For me, I personally love Vietnamese food but I can also be biased because I’m am also Vietnamese and that's the food that I grew up with. But in terms of being healthy I think there's parts that can be healthy while other parts [are] not so healthy. For example, Vietnamese food they use a lot of fresh herbs and vegetables in their cooking and also spices. But at the same time, Vietnamese food could also be high in sodium just due to the sauces, like fish sauce. So depending what your current lifestyle is and also your health status, it could really depend.  

Lilly Nguyễn: Diabetes is something very big in the Vietnamese community because of our diet, eating rice. So my question is, does it add any risk to our diets?

Minh Nguyễn: For Vietnamese people, Asian people in particular, it’s a very special population because they've been noticing that people have been having diabetes and hypertension but we’re not showing the weight gain that most people associate those diseases with. So even though a Vietnamese person could look very healthy and skinny - they could still be at risk for diabetes and hypertension as well.

Lilly Nguyễn: Earlier you also mentioned the sauces in Vietnamese cuisine. But we all know that sauces are a very important part of the Vietnamese dining experience. You have all kinds of nước mắm. A Vietnamese meal without sauce is like a French meal without bread or mezze without hummus. The problem is these sauces can be very sweet or very salty. What are some of the nutritional values or typical health problems that come with the Vietnamese sauces?

A jar of dipping fish sauce, or nước mắm chấm, next to a bottle of nước mắm from Phú Quốc. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu) 

A jar of dipping fish sauce, or nước mắm chấm, next to a bottle of nước mắm from Phú Quốc. (Photo: Loa/Kathy Triệu) 

Minh Nguyễn: So with these sauces, either fish sauce or soy sauce,  looked through my pantry, and a typical serving of fish sauce would be about one tablespoon. Just that alone has almost over 1500 milligrams of sodium, which is a lot. And for one tablespoon of soy sauce, my bottle says 575 (milligrams) and that's a low sodium soy sauce too. And just to give you a rough idea, the American Heart Association, they recommend consuming less than 1500 milligrams per day. So eating these sauces with your meals or using these types of sauces with cooking could easily put you overboard.

Lilly Nguyễn: So what are some of the complications that come with sauces? Is it safe to say that we consume more than what's recommended?

Minh Nguyễn: Of course, it's definitely very easy to consume these, especially if you eat out, eat packaged food. And also with Vietnamese cooking, they use a lot of these sauces too as well. One of the issues with the high sodium, it causes hypertension, which is marked as a silent killer. Meaning, there's no symptoms. Sometimes you can't even tell that you have hypertension but it could lead to stroke, vision loss, heart failure. Which is why it is really important to make sure you get checked up every year to make sure everything is healthy.

Lilly Nguyễn: What about our favorites? I've surveyed 30 friends of mine for their favorite Vietnamese food. The running list included phở bò, bún bò Huế, bánh mì, canh chua, cá kho tộ, bún riêu, bánh bèo, bánh ram, bánh nạm, cơm tấm, tré miền trung, bánh xèo, chả cá lã vọng, mì quảng, and so on. The results indicated the top three favorites are bún bò Huế, phở and bánh mì. Some people even eat them every day for breakfast. Would that be too much of a good thing?

Minh Nguyễn: So with phở and bánh mì, they are really popular, they’re really tasty as well. But I looked up a recipe for phở in a cookbook and roughly about one serving of phở has about 1500 milligrams of sodium, which is the maximum suggested rate by the American Heart Association. That’s only one meal. And with bánh mì, it's almost about the same too.  Even though they are very popular and very tasty, I wouldn't recommend it on a daily basis but you know once in a while you can definitely treat yourself to a bowl of phở or bánh mì.

Lilly Nguyễn: But we’re always craving for phở or bánh mì.

Minh Nguyễn: We always crave for what's not good for us.

Lilly Nguyễn: I've mentioned phở as one of the favorites. What about the claim that phở is “the best hangover cure”?  What’s  the scientific explanation behind this claim? Or is there one?

Minh Nguyễn: So with this, I actually feel that it is also the best hangover cure too as well. With phở, it is a bone broth so it's very nutrient-rich, from simmering the bones. And what's really unique about phở is that, it does have a lot of sodium. What happens when you drink, you are depleted of sodium. You also become very dehydrated because alcohol is a diuretic. So when you have phở, it is a lot of liquid, it's a lot of sodium to replenish thesodium that is lost from drinking. And also, there's carbohydrate, so it's a very complete meal. So I think it could be a cure for hangover as you have noticed.

Lilly Nguyễn: For someone who loves Vietnamese food, but wants to eat in a healthy and balanced way, what do they have to do differently about the way they’re making or cooking or eating Vietnamese food?

Minh Nguyễn: So with Vietnamese food, traditionally it’s made with fish sauce and sometimes they do use the sugar too as well, to make the nước mắm chấm, and that could really add up to a lot of sugar and sodium in the end. I think if you want to enjoy Vietnamese food on a daily basis, the best way is to make it at home because you can control how much sodium is going into your food.

Lilly Nguyễn: What about Vietnamese superfoods? Is there any Vietnamese superfood, like a dish or a product with superior health benefits that you can think of?

Minh Nguyễn: So the term superfoods just means any nutrient-rich food that is especially beneficial for health and well-being. To be honest, I feel the word superfood is thrown out so much as a marketing ploy. I think all fruits and vegetables are superfoods because they’re high in nutrients. They all have fiber. But if I had to pick one Vietnamese food, I’d probably say the durian. I don’t know how well this is going to catch on as a superfood but it’s a high fat fruit. It has fiber in it as well. Most of the fat is actually monounsaturated fat, which is great for heart health. It has nine grams of fiber per cup, which is more fiber than most people get in their diets. It has a good source of Vitamin C, B6, and Magnesium.  

Lilly Nguyễn: What about bitter melon?

Minh Nguyễn: Bitter melon can also be considered a superfood, too, because of the bitterness, the tannins in the vegetable. So with bitter melon, it’s considered a functional food and it contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charantia. And this one, there’s a lot of scientific papers showing it has a positive blood lowering effect. So people who have high-blood sugar levels, bitter melon could be helpful and beneficial. So this could counter-balance the high sugar in our diet.

Lilly Nguyễn: So in conclusion, as a health professional, is Vietnamese cuisine healthy or not so much?  

Minh Nguyễn: Vietnamese food, I think it can be healthy. It just depends on how you make your food and what foods you decide to eat. Obviously, you can’t be eating phở   and bánh mìevery day, even though they are delicious. But I think you can definitely have certain things in moderation. I think moderation is key. But learning to kind of involve more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet is the key takeaway.

Lilly Nguyễn: Unfortunately, we’re out of time. But if you have to leave a short message to our listeners, what would it be?

Minh Nguyễn: In terms of healthy diets, I don’t think there’s one healthy diet for everyone. I think it really depends on the individual and also your health status as well because any diet can be good, just depending on what your health needs are.

Lilly Nguyễn: And eat more durian.

Minh Nguyễn: Oh yeah!

Lilly Nguyễn: Thanks Minh for your time.

Minh Nguyễn: You’re welcome.