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How Healthy is Your Nasi Lemak?

Nasi lemak is one of Malaysia’s most popular dishes. It’s also believed to be unhealthy, especially if you eat it on a regular basis.

Nasi lemak served on a circular rattan bowl

What is Nasi lemak? It isn’t just Malaysia’s favourite food. It’s a national dish and must be preserved at all costs. Why? Although It’s simple – coconut rice, fried peanuts and anchovies, cucumbers, boiled egg, and sambal – it brings people who enjoy it, together. Essentially, that’s what it means to be Malaysian. 

Alas, opinions are divisive about whether nasi lemak is healthy. Here are a few facts about the iconic dish, which will help you decide if getting your regular nasi lemak fix is worth it.

Woman wincing as she holds her chest with both hands
Too much nasi lemak can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Nasi Lemak: Good or Bad, that is the Question 

Is nasi lemak healthy? In 2016, TIME magazine listed nasi lemak as one of ten most healthy international breakfasts. Questions were raised about the high-fat content of the dishes’ coconut rice, but the magazine believes that “it’s balanced with lots of manganese, protein and carbs”. On the contrary, clinical experts regard the dish as one that contains high amounts of oil, salt, and calories.  

A regular plate of nasi lemak with a boiled egg has approximately 494 calories, 13 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat and 80 grams of carbohydrates, according to website fitivate.com.

Eating nasi lemak on a regular basis will put an additional strain on your cardiovascular system (blood, heart and blood vessels) and cerebrovascular system (blood vessels that transport blood to and from the brain). It can also elevate blood pressure, increasing your vulnerability to conditions such as: 

  • Stroke 
  • Heart disease  
  • Vascular occlusion – blockage of, or clotting in a blood vessel 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that because of Malaysia’s hot and humid weather, the frequent consumption of nasi lemak can damage the Spleen and Stomach, and increase Dampness and Heat in the body.

“The Spleen and Stomach are responsible for digesting food and absorbing nutrients, transforming them into blood and qi, and transporting them throughout the body,” explains Eu Yan Sang Physician Sam Ng Teck Xian. Impairment of Spleen and stomach functions can manifest as abdominal pain, bloating, indigestion and loose stools.

Ikan bakar served on a bed of banana leaves with a saucer containing soy sauce, and cut chillies and onions.
Ikan bakar or grilled fish, is a healthier alternative to nasi lemak.

Balanced Eating the Malaysian Way 

According to the guidelines of the Healthy Eating Plate, a nutritionally-balanced meal consists of: 

  • Half a plate of fruits and vegetables 
  • A quarter of a plate comprising whole grains 
  • A quarter of a plate comprising a protein-rich food 

Aim for colours and varieties when choosing your fruits and vegetables. Limit your consumption of potatoes as they can elevate blood sugar levels. Whole and intact grains, such as whole wheat, barley, quinoa, and oats have a better effect on blood sugar than white bread and rice, and other refined grains. Meanwhile, fish, poultry, nuts and beans are a leaner source of protein than red meat, but red meat has a higher quantity of nutrients. 

Nasi lemak is a popular meal choice for all times of the day but might not be the healthiest. You can choose alternatives such as high-protein thosai or congee for breakfast. Thosai is a crepe made from ground rice and lentils, and served with vegetable curry. Congee is a savoury, porridge-like rice dish that’s sometimes served with boiled meat, egg and preserved vegetables. 

A healthier version of nasi lemak is a viable breakfast option, too. Swap the coconut milk for virgin coconut oil to retain the rice’s nutty flavour, and cook anchovies in a microwave or air fryer instead of deep-frying them. Replace white sugar and cooking oil with brown sugar and olive oil when preparing the sambal. Baking chicken marinated with salt, yoghurt, and turmeric can also give it a crunchy texture.

Nasi kerabu is another healthy lunch alternative made up of fresh vegetables, grilled or steamed fish, boiled egg, and butterfly pea flower rice. Another protein-rich option is ikan bakar – a marinated white fish flame-grilled on a banana leaf – which is a staple in Malaysian cuisine and a suitable meal choice for dinner.

Supplements to Maintain Digestive Health  

You may also consider using health supplements to address Spleen and stomach-related imbalances and improve your appetite. A multi-grain meal that contains ingredients like flaxseeds (ya ma zi, 亚麻子) and red sage (dan shen, 丹參) can boost vitality and maintain vascular health. In addition, a multi-grain meal that’s formulated using Chinese yam (huai shan, 淮山) and si shen (四神, four herbs) – a combination of four herbal ingredients – removes Dampness, strengthens the Spleen and enhances physical fitness. Hawthorn vinegar (shan zha, 山楂醋) too, can be consumed to better appetite and digestion.

It’s understandable that you may give in to a craving for nasi lemak every now and then but do so consciously. In other words, be mindful of how frequently you’re eating it and make healthier choices where possible. Do speak to a licensed TCM practitioner if you’re looking to use herbal remedies to maintain your digestive health.

References

  1. The Straits Times. 2016. Nasi lemak a healthy breakfast? Yes, says Time Magazine. [online] [Accessed 30 June 2022]  
  2. Harvard T.H. Chan. Healthy Eating Plate. [online] [Accessed 30 June 2022]  
  3. International Citizens.com. Eating Healthy – A Guide For Expats in Malaysia. [online] [Accessed 30 June 2022]  
  4. FITDAY. White Meat vs. Red Meat. [online] [Accessed 30 June 2022] 

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