Eating Healthy at Asian Markets: All You Need is Willpower and a Taste for the Unusual

Bitter melon is good for what ails you, if you can stand it.
Bitter melon is good for what ails you, if you can stand it.

As exhibited by my tribute to junk foods post last month, I don't always have the best buying habits whenever I make my Asian grocery store visits. Fortunately, aside from the occasional evil treats, Asian market aisles can also harbor several items associated with very useful health benefits. Here's a quick list to try for your next visit:

Bitter Gourd aka Bitter Melon Benefits: This aptly named vine fruit is not messing around when it comes to getting to the point with its moniker. Very bitter tasting, this fruit -- mainly used in soups and stir fries -- aids in digestion and helps with constipation. It might leave an unappealing taste in the mouth for novices, but many Asian diners love this stuff for its refreshing and healthful qualities. This is truly some sort of wonder melon for many as its used in Eastern medicine to fight against malaria, diabetes and various viral diseases.

Cons: It is very much an acquired taste. Bitter melon should be avoided during pregnancy, and its red seeds can be toxic.

Seaweed Benefits: Eaten either in soups or as a side dish dressed with sesame oil, seaweed helps in staving off the appetite as it expands in the belly. It is also said to aid in hair growth and keeping the follicles healthy. It contains several needed minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iodine, potassium, iron and zinc. There is also an abundance of vitamins, such as Vitamin A, niacin, and folic acid.

Cons: Stay away from rotting seaweed as it can cause serious digestive problems and try not to eat too much of the algae as it has potentially high rates of iodine toxicity.

Shiitake Mushrooms Benefits: Dry shiitake mushrooms that are bought dehydrated then rehydrated before cooking are high in amino acids and vitamin D. A compound extracted from the fungus -- AHCC -- is used in Japan to fight cancer.

Cons: If eaten raw, a nasty, 48-hour rash called shiitake dermatitis can occur.

Lychee Benefits: First of all, it tastes delicious in a martini. More important, this sweet pulpy little fruit is high in vitamin C and carcinogen-fighting polyphenols.

Cons: Fresh lychee grows best in tropical climates, so it can be expensive in certain seasons. Canned lychee normally swims in thick, sugary syrups.

Tofu Benefits: High in protein, iron and calcium, tofu has long been wrongly maligned into the gross health food category. Fried or silken and served with ginger syrup are two scrumptious, if not especially healthy, ways in which bean curd can be eaten.

Cons: Although isoflavones can have antioxidant affects, the verdict is still out for soy-isoflavones. Although some studies have shown women who have a diet high in soy have lower rates of breast cancer, isoflavones, in general can have different effects on different people and animals. For instance, other studies have shown a diet high in isoflavones can cause fertility issues.

Cilantro Benefits: This herb is found everywhere in Asian cuisine and has an abundance of health benefits. Here, here and here are a few lists and reads on the leafy herb.

Cons: It can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Sesame Seeds Benefits: These are a super food rich in almost everything: vitamins E and B1, magnesium, iron, copper and calcium. The little seeds also aid in fighting free radicals and are a good source of fiber. Sesame oil is a good source of poly and monounsaturated fats. There are ongoing studies of sesame oil's usefulness to lowering blood pressure. As for fighting off the bulge, the oil's strong flavor and essence means only a very little amount needs to be used.

Cons: Besides causing allergic reactions in a few people, sesame seeds can normally be found on the worst possible foods, such as cakes, cookies, pastries and fried meats.

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