YANGON—When American fast food giant KFC arrived in Myanmar in 2015 there was a storm of excitement. Falling in the same year as Myanmar’s first free and fair election in decades, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD come to power, the opening day had people queuing down the street and around the corner to get their piece of fried chicken. This was confirmation that Myanmar was opening up; food trends from the modern world had arrive on the doorstep. Today there are 23 KFC outlets in the country.
Several more international chains of fast food have set up in Myanmar since then including Pizza Hut and Burger King. But what effects does the modern fast food trend have on our health? Will the swap of htamin phyu for French fries mean the expansion of our waistlines and longer queues at the doctor? Should we strictly stick to traditional food for the sake of our health? The good news is that it is as easy as ever to eat a healthy, balanced diet—and that doesn’t mean a total boycott of popular food trends.
Back to basics
Breanna Baildon is a nutrition counselor with a degree in nutrition dietetics and a certificate in diabetes education and has been practicing in Yangon since 2017. She says that at its core, Myanmar food is very healthy because it usually follows recipes which use fresh, local produce and a range of herbs and spices that are endlessly good for our health. She says it is easy to avoid unhealthy elements of food and still enjoy the eclectic and tantalizing Burmese cuisine.
“At its core, when you break down [Myanmar] food to how it’s traditionally prepared, it is very healthy. But you have to notice when it crosses the line between healthy and unhealthy,” said Baildon.
Taking the breakfast favourite mohinga for example: the fish soup is made from a broth which contains plenty of vitamins and minerals derived from the fish bones. Baildon says the trick to keeping it healthy is to reduce the amount of noodles added and to choose the boiled egg option over the fried toppings like bean fritter or battered gourd.
Meanwhile the typical lunch of rice and curry can be very good for your health too. Curries that don’t have much oil are full of nutrients and beneficial to health. Baildon says that as they are made of fairly simple mixes of meat, herbs, onions, garlic, water and a little oil, they can be a very good option for lunch.
Myanmar’s traditional salads containing vegetables are loaded with fiber and antioxidants. Disease-fighting compounds exist in the herbs and spices of a salad and sesame seeds and peanuts have healthy fats and fiber.
But that doesn’t mean farewell to fried chicken: Baildon says that rather than totally cutting out a certain dish or type of food, making a habit of eating the good things more often and reducing how often you eat the unhealthy is better. Eating at the likes of KFC and Pizza Hut is not bad for your health as long as you don’t make it a regular habit.
“Fast foods have empty calories, meaning they give us some energy, but none of the vitamins, minerals, or fiber that our bodies need to survive. They also tend to be high in processed carbohydrates and to have the unhealthy fats, which are components of food that have been associated with an increased risk of weight gain and chronic diseases,” said Baildon.
However, as young food photographer Ko Aung Myin Thu says, fast food fits in with an increasingly fast pace of life many people are now living:
“If I’m on my way home from a tiring day I would stop by a fast food outlet because they are located everywhere which saves my time and energy.”
But like many young people, he is also aware of the health risks presented by this wave of unhealthy fried menus.
“I only eat at fast food outlets one to three times per month. Fast food is typically high in saturated and trans fat which increases the chances of heart diseases and stroke. These effects are why I would often choose a healthier option,” he said.
BBQ is OK
The good news is that the barbecue culture here can be healthy too. At barbecue restaurants, choosing from the wide range of fresh vegetables to be grilled is perfect for getting the vitamins you need, and if you order grilled or steamed fish to go with that, it’s a healthy, balanced meal. Of course, the meat and vegetables are seasoned, dipped in sauce and probably include MSG, but as Baildon says, MSG has not been proven to be unhealthy if used in moderate amounts.
“MSG has not been proven to be bad. There’s nothing bad about it except that some people don’t tolerate it very well. It’s actually a compound that’s naturally found in all protein foods. When it’s been isolated and added in extreme amounts, some people don’t tolerate it well and it might cause the migraines or swellings.”
Choosing meat skewers from the display however, does present higher chances of catching food-borne illnesses.
Processed meat a dangerous trend
One growing food trend here is putting people—especially children—at higher risk of heart disease other health issues in the future. Processed meats, which are often skewered and deep fried, are sold at a rising number of mobile food stalls in urban areas and near schools. What seems like simply a cheap and tasty fried snack probably has long list of unknown additives and preservatives, high salt content and a low quality of the meat which could be detrimental to health if eaten in large quantities, especially during childhood. As Myanmar is still catching up with other countries in terms of food regulations and labelling, we often have no idea about the amount or quality of the additives, flavorings and preservatives included in these.
Positive food trends
There are positive food trends too: many supermarkets here now have a section for organic produce and recently a small number of chicken farms like Shwe Taung Nyo Gyi have begun supplying the market with organic eggs and chicken. Moreover, the regular popup ‘Yangon Farmers’ Market’ has sparked the growth of a community of sellers and buyers who focus especially on locally produced healthy, natural foods.
“I think it’s a good sign because people are questioning more the sources of their food,” said Baildon.
The local love of hotpot meals is another positive trend: dropping fresh vegetables and lean meats in your pot and drinking the soup keeps nutrients and vitamins within your dish. To keep it healthy, avoid ingredients like fish balls which have little nutritional value, fatty meats like pork neck and go easy on the seasoning.
It can be perfectly healthy to seize the modern food trend of the day. With a little more thought to our meal choices and by limiting how often we treat ourselves to our favourite fast foods, we can have a perfectly healthy diet that increases our chances of a long and wholesome life.