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How to make your favourite Asian dishes heart-healthy

From Thai through to Japanese food, there’s a lot to celebrate with the deliciously diverse flavours of Asian cuisine. If you regularly make noodle and rice-based dishes at home, there are plenty of ways to make them tasty and good for you too.

What can we learn from the Okinawans?

Okinawa is one of the most southern islands of Japan and is also one of the five ‘Blue Zone’ locations around the world where people live longer, healthier lives.1

People living here have lower rates of heart disease, which can be credited to a combination of lifestyle factors including active lives, regular social connections and low rates of smoking. The Okinawan diet also plays a key role in supporting good health and longevity and there is a local saying Nuchi Gusui, which means Food is Medicine.2

So, what do Okinawan people eat? The traditional diet is plant-rich and includes plenty of fresh root vegetables, green leafy vegetables, soy products like miso and tofu and other nutrient-dense foods like seaweed.2 But what’s probably most unique is that Okinawans eat mainly sweet potatoes and whole grains like millet instead of white rice.2 Fish is eaten moderately, particularly in coastal areas and lean meat (mostly pork) is eaten less often.2

A display of freshly caught fish on ice in an open market place

Building the perfect dish


1. Include plenty of colourful vegetables and leafy greens

Many Asian dishes rely on rice and noodles. Try bulking your dishes with extra colourful vegetables, mushrooms/fungi and Asian greens like Chinese cabbage (bok choy, pak choy or choy sum) or Chinese broccoli (gai lan).


2. Use fresh flavours where you can

Asian dishes often rely on sauces or meal bases which are high in salt (sodium) and can easily push us above the maximum amount we need each day. Try recipes that use spring onion, coriander, Chinese five spice, lemongrass, chili, lemon, ginger and garlic for flavour.


3. Swap to whole grains when it works

These days there are plenty of options like brown rice, wild rice and soba noodles (Japanese noodles made from buckwheat) to add whole grains to our meals. An easy step to include more whole grains is to go half and half.


4. Go easy on the frying and use healthy fats

Asian dishes usually require a lot of stove top cooking. Invest in a non-stick fry pan to help reduce your need to overuse oil when pan-frying or try steaming instead. Use sesame oil and roasted nuts like cashews and peanuts to add flavour and crunch.


5. Try heart-healthy protein foods

If a dish is dominated by meat, try using less and adding a heart-healthy protein food like tofu, black beans or edamame beans. Fish and seafood like prawns also work well in many Asian dishes including curries, stir-fries and salads.

Two Japanese bowls filled with soba noodles, fresh vegetables, avocado and sesame seeds. Also featured are a pair of chop sticks and a fresh lime cut in half.

Make the swap

Most sauces like sweet chilli, teriyaki, hoisin and fish sauce are high in sodium, but they give Asian dishes their unique taste and usually can’t be swapped. Instead of avoiding these sauces altogether, experiment with using a bit less or choosing one with the lowest sodium.




White riceBrown rice, black rice, wild rice, barley, quinoa, sweet potato or cauliflower rice
Egg noodles
Crispy noodles
Soba noodles
Veggie noodles (carrot or courgette)
Battered or fatty meatsLean meats, tofu, edamame
Seafood like prawns, white fish, salmon
Soy sauceReduced salt soy sauce
Coconut creamCoconut milk, light coconut cream
Coconut oilSesame, peanut, or olive oil
Cashew nuts, peanuts and sesame seeds
Dipping sauces like soy or sweet chilliPeanut satay dipping sauce

Food is more than nutrition

Food can be a means of exploring and connecting with another culture from your kitchen without even having to get on a plane. Whether that’s by rolling your own Vietnamese rice paper rolls or preparing fillings to make your own Chinese dumplings.

What’s most important is your overall meal and basing it around plenty of vegetables, heart-healthy protein foods, whole grains and healthy fats where you can, while still retaining the flavour and unique taste of the dish.

Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.



  1. Poulain, M et al The Blue Zones: areas of exceptional longevity around the world, Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, vol. 11, 2013, p. 87-108.
  2. Willcox DC et al. Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: a focus on the Okinawan diet. Mech Ageing Dev. 2014;136-137:148-162.