8 Lessons From A Vietnamese Market

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Recently a dear friend invited me to come with her to a Vietnamese community in San Jose.

I readily said yes. She and I always have fun shopping in Asian markets and her knowledge of Asian ingredients is far superior to mine! I learned quite a few things about Asian food and shopping habits and then discovered the differences in BMI between their culture and ours here in the US! So of course I wanted to share the insight I gleaned from my recent trip.

According to a study in the European Journal for Clinical Nutrition, Vietnam's obesity rate is at just 5% of the total population. That's much smaller than the whopping 35% that the CDC has found in the United States. That thought kept running through my head at the market, informing some of the conclusions I drew as I walked through the aisles of food.

Thanks to that outing, I assembled a few tips that I thought would help in any shopping situation, not just Asian markets. Take a look at what I've collected and let me know what you think!

  1. Candy DisplayPay with cash. You'll be shocked at the impact it has on your shopping habits! In Asian markets, you need to use cash in almost every store. This practice made me treat my money differently because I only had a limited amount with me! Packages of expensive processed food like cookies and candies no longer held quite the same allure when I was down to what I had in my bag. This also  leads nicely into the next lesson about processed foods.
  2. Forget about processed foods. Most of the markets had tons of whole foods like seafood, poultry, pork, vegetables, and rice. Aisles of processed foods like cake batter, sugared cereals, soda, cookies, crackers, frozen meals, colored drinks, the deli, and the bakery simply did not exist.
  3. Use a hand basket. I purchased food more thoughtfully and made more limited selections because a hand basket was all I had available to hold my market finds.
  4. Try a variety of lean protein foods. The seafood selections in the Vietnamese market were amazing! I could not believe the prices on the crabs, fish, chicken, and pork. And the seafood counter personnel were willing to cut the fish any way I preferred! What a treat!
  5. Fill up on seasonal products. In these markets, the fruits and vegetables were all seasonal, exotic to me, and very fresh. They really add appeal to the thought of shopping seasonally. These offerings were also interspersed with some of my favorite flavorful foods -- green and herbs like bok choy, Thai basil, cilantro, ginger, mint, and scallions.
  6. Skip the deli for takeout. I found fun packaged foods that were a nice change from typical (and calorie/sodium-dense) deli meals. The selections of packaged foods were rice based, not bread based. One package of spring rolls was very delicious, featuring shrimp, basil, mint, and rice.
  7. Dried fruit replaces candy. The candy section was not full of what I expected. Instead it was stocked with all kinds of dried and jarred fruits. It also had beef jerky, dried fish and many other things I wouldn't have guessed would be considered candy. The candy I did find was in small, wrapped pieces in and was mostly sugar-based. I didn't see any chocolate or oversized candy bars. In one fruit store, the fresh fruit and dried fruit was especially amazing.  We had a fresh, warm dessert made with cooked rice, a fresh banana, and black beans rolled in steamed banana leaves.
  8. Spring Rolls and Other Takeout OptionsSnack on cooked rice cakes instead of sugared bars. When we went to the market, we were one day away from the Chinese New Year. That meant that there were a lot of people standing in long lines to buy rice cakes. Why? It turns out that these cakes were the base of many different snacks and meals. Imagine using a rice cake (made of cooked rice) rolled with pork into banana leaves as a pick me up instead of calorie-dense cereal bars and power bars! Cooked rice contains about 571 calories per pound while power bars and snack bars average about 1891 calories!

Here are a few more photos that I snapped on my journey through the market...

Seafood choices
Check out all those crabs!
My basket

You can view the whole album here.

Of course, I couldn't resist whipping up a bunch of fun new recipes with my market finds. Take a look at the member-exclusive post Winter Fruit Plate, which is sure to pep up any gathering! That recipe, and it's printable nutrition education handout are available only to members, so if you haven't joined the Food and Health community yet, consider signing up!

Works Cited:

  • Adult Obesity Facts, Center for Disease Control, Web, Accessed February 2016.
  • Tuan NT1, Tuong PD, Popkin BM., Body mass index (BMI) dynamics in Vietnam. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jan;62(1):78-86. Epub 2007 Feb 14.

Consider the topic, Real Food Grows, for your next wellness fair or presentation:

Oh, and before this blog post ends, don't miss the latest installment of printable nutrition education materials: a healthy shopping handout! Get your copy now!

Vietnamese Market Tips

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