Keeping a Healthy Diet in the Tropics

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young girl eating watermelon slice
Image: Jill Wellington

Living in the tropics means warm weather all year round and lots of opportunities to engage in outdoor activities. And we get lots of free Vitamin D from our daily sunshine. So you’d think that would automatically make people living in the tropics healthier, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Climatic and social factors make it easier for communicable diseases to spread, and life expectancy in tropical countries is generally lower than in temperate climate countries. Serious infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are more prevalent in the tropics than other parts of the world.

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Bacteria and other nasty microorganisms LOVE heat and humidity! Skin infections take longer to heal, and diseases like dengue, typhoid fever, and cholera are much more common here than in dry climates.

It is more crucial than ever to have a strong immune system when living in the tropics so that you can fight off any disease or infection that comes your way. The key factors to achieve that are diet and hydration in addition to regular exercise.

woman doing stretching exercises
Image: Engin Akyurt

The often-stifling heat and humidity can of course make exercising challenging, especially for the elderly, or those with pre-existing medical conditions. This could lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, thus increasing health risks. That makes diet and hydration even more important.

How do hot weather and humidity affect diet?

Humidity and hot weather can affect your diet in different ways. Have you ever noticed that the hotter it is, the less appetite you tend to have? This is because when your body senses that it’s too hot, it sends a message to the brain telling it to save energy by decreasing the amount of food that’s being digested.

In addition, it is vital to stay hydrated during hot weather to regulate your temperature and prevent dehydration. However, drinking heaps of water increases the feeling of fullness and might lead to a decreased appetite.

Why is a tropical diet different to cooler climates?

Tropical countries have a much warmer climate and, therefore, different plants and animals compared to colder climates. Tropical plants and animals need to be able to deal with the long periods of strong sun and heat, so it makes sense that they develop in very different ways than plants and animals in cold climates.

Consisting of numerous options of fresh produce and whole grains, tropical foods tend to be higher in nutrients and lower in calories than many other types of food. The proteins and fats found in tropical foods also have different effects on your metabolism than those found in other diets.

What types of fruits are optimal for hot weather?

Fruits are an excellent addition to the tropical diet as they provide plenty of fluids, hydration, and vitamins to boost the immune system. They are also a source of natural sugars that can help replace the glucose in our bloodstream that is lost when we sweat.

While fruits like grapes, apples, and peaches are frequently imported and available, it is always best to eat locally. It’s just one of the ways that we can live more sustainably in the tropics. Tropical fruits that are grown locally include dragonfruit, passionfruit, guava, mango, soursop, papaya, and banana.

tropical fruits in market stall
Image: Manuel Willer

Most of these fruits are available all year round, whilst others like rambutan, longan, lychee, lanzones are seasonal. Others like jackfruit, mangosteen and some citrus fruits are semi-seasonal depending on where you live. I have an incredible amount of passionfruit in my garden and they grow like weeds, flourishing during the wet season.

You know what else grows like weeds? Aloe vera! Although not a fruit, they can be easily harvested and the gel inside added to a smoothie to make it even healthier. Aloe vera gel can also be used on sunburns to soothe the skin.

There are so many different tropical fruits available at any one time of the year, you can easily eat 4-5 different types in a day. That’s good for your health because they all contain different vitamins and different levels of nutrients. And don’t forget that the humble coconut is a fruit too!

What are the best veggies to eat in the tropics?

Eating vegetables is an important way to stay healthy and enjoy tasty food. After all, stir-fries are part and parcel of almost every eating place in tropical countries. Here are some common vegetables that are usually locally grown and widely available in markets.

  • Asian greens – There are dozens of different types of Asian greens available in markets in tropical countries. They are all amongst the healthiest vegetables that you can eat, both in stir fries, cooked dishes and salads. Most have high iron content as well as many other vitamins.
  • Eggplant – Eggplants are rich in antioxidants which protect the cells from oxidative stress that is caused by exposure to pollutants and other environmental factors. The antioxidant properties of the eggplant make it a good choice for people who live in hot and humid areas with constant exposure to bacteria and viruses.
  • Radishes – There are many different types of radishes grown in tropical countries. Radishes are also an excellent source of vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron. They are rich in potassium, which helps regulate blood pressure and heart health. Radishes are low in calories and have a very high water content, which makes them perfect for hot weather.
tropical vegetables in vietnam market
Image: Falco
  • Okra – This very common tropical vegetable can be used to make soup or fried in oil with spices. It is good in hot weather because it is a cooling vegetable. You can fry it, use it as a pickle, or use it in a salad – okra will fit in anywhere.
  • Cucumbers – With their high water content, they help with hydration and have a cooling effect on your body temperature. These are of course best used in salads, but there are other cucumber and gourd-type vegetables available in tropical countries that are good for use in stir fries or cooking.
  • Tomatoes – They are rich in vitamin C, a potent antioxidant that helps you fight off infections caused by bacteria or viruses that exist in warm weather. Like cucumbers, tomatoes are best used in salads, but can be used in cooked dishes as well. It’s best to add them right at the end of the cooking cycle so you don’t cook the nutrients out of them.

Top sources of protein in the tropics

Protein is an essential nutrient with a variety of functions in the body. It is the building block for muscles and it helps to maintain healthy bones, skin, and blood cells. In cooler climates red meat is usually the dominant source of protein, but that’s often not the case in many tropical countries. The best sources of protein in a tropical climate are:

  • Poultry – Chickens and ducks have been an important part of the diet in many tropical countries for centuries. After all, most villages in the countryside often have chickens everywhere running free. There are some running around right outside my house as we speak. Poultry doesn’t need as much space as other livestock animals, so it’s easier to raise them in small areas that don’t have a lot of room. Plus, free eggs all day!
  • Eggs – The protein in eggs is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids you need to build muscle. Eggs are also high in vitamin B12, which is necessary for red blood cell production and maintaining your nervous system. Eggs are also a good source of choline, which can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Choline can also help with brain development and function. Lastly, eggs are rich in selenium, a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
tropical fish for sale in market
Image: Julita Pasja
  • Fish – Many different types of fish are available in tropical countries, often caught the night before so much fresher than available in cooler climates. A rich source of omega fatty acids, fish is also good for the brain, heart, and skin. Fish can be cooked in many different ways. It can be fried, baked, grilled, or steamed. Often served with vegetables, rice, and noodles, fish is one of the best low-fat protein sources in the tropics.
  • Legumes – A lesser-known fact is that legumes are little protein powerhouses and are often used as the primary source of protein for vegetarians and vegans. These little wonder foods are jam-packed with fiber, protein, and all kinds of essential nutrients that make them an ideal addition to every meal. In addition, they are extremely affordable and readily available in the tropics in many different forms. My favorite are chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzo beans. Because of their long boiling time, I boil a huge pot at a time, and freeze them in smaller portions for later use.
  • Oysters – Sought after by many, oysters are a great option for people living in tropical climates, especially those living on islands. Seafood provides an excellent source of protein, omega 3 fatty acids, and minerals like calcium and iron. Oysters are also a rich source of vitamin D and vitamin B12, which are important for proper cognitive functioning.

Top sources of carbs in the tropics

Carbohydrates are one of the most important sources of energy for the body and are mostly found in rice, bread, cereals, pasta, and potatoes. In the tropics, rice and sweet potatoes and other taro-like vegetables tend to be the dominant type of carbohydrates as well as a range of flat breads in some countries. They are an essential part of a healthy diet and are necessary for people to function properly. Some of the best sources of carbs for the tropics are:

  • Brown rice – Although most people eat white rice, brown rice is much healthier. It is a whole grain, meaning that it has not been processed. It is the only grain that contains all three parts of the grain: endosperm, bran, and germ. Brown rice contains more fiber than white rice, which can help lower cholesterol levels and control blood sugar. Brown rice also contains more vitamins and minerals than white rice.
brown rice cooked and uncooked
Image: Bom Taraissara
  • Sweet potatoes – They are high in potassium which is important for heart health. Sweet potatoes also contain vitamin C, vitamin A, and fiber which are all good for your health. Sweet potatoes are a great source of carbs which you need to fuel your body with energy. They also contain vitamin B6 which helps with the production of serotonin in the brain. This makes you feel happier and boosts your mood.
  • Lentils – Lentils are an excellent source of plant-based protein and fiber. They contain iron, folate, and minerals like phosphorus, calcium, and potassium. Lentils also have a low glycaemic index which means they won’t spike your blood sugar levels, making them suitable for folks with diabetes.
  • Bananas – Although usually just thought of as a fruit, bananas are a good source of carbs too because they provide the body with energy. They also contain potassium which is essential for muscle contraction and nerve impulse transmission.

Here are some of my favorite things to put in my tummy:

Breakfast
  • A smoothie made primarily with dragonfruit and yoghurt. It also contains chia and sunflower seeds.
  • Fresh fruit salad with mangoes, papaya, and banana.
  • Whole-grain cereal topped with sunflower seeds and nuts.
  • Oatmeal and banana.
Lunch
  • Vegetarian soup made from beans, rice, vegetables, and herbs such as thyme or cilantro leaves.
  • Curry and rice.
  • Stir-fried veggies and rice.
Dinner
  • Locally-raised beef or chicken steak.
  • Air-fried potatoes or mashed potatoes.
  • And always, stir-fried veggies with rice.

The importance of staying hydrated in hot weather

It is important to stay hydrated in hot weather because it helps to maintain your body temperature. If you are not drinking enough water, your body will be less able to regulate its temperature leading to dehydration.

Dehydration is the excessive loss of water from the body. It can occur when your body does not have enough water to balance the amount of fluid you lose through sweat, urine, or other bodily functions.

dog drinking water from tap
Image: Maguiss

There are many potential health risks that come with dehydration. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, dry mouth and skin, constipation, and even kidney failure. Dehydration can also lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke which is a life-threatening situation.

To avoid dehydration, it is important to drink at least eight glasses of fluids each day in hot and humid weather. I drink plenty more, averaging about three liters of water a day depending on the activity level. Gulp gulp!

Tips for avoiding weight gain in the tropics

It can be easier to gain weight in the tropics because many people become more sedentary because of the heat. That means a healthy diet and regular exercise are essential to avoid weight gain. Although the scorching heat sometimes makes you lethargic during the middle of the day, it is still important to get some exercise in. Since I’m not a morning person, that usually means a quick run or bike ride in the evenings.

One of the most important factors is what you eat. It’s best to avoid processed foods such as deep-fried foods, desserts, and soda. Instead, go for nutritious foods such as whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and lots of vegetables.

dragonfruit in market stall
Image: Marissa Rodriguez

It’s also essential to avoid or at least minimize junk and processed foods. And important to understand the reason behind junk food craving in order to overcome it. Some people might crave unhealthy food because they are hungry, while others might do so because they are stressed out.

The most common craving triggers are usually social media, advertisements, and convenience stores. Keep only healthy snacks available, so your peckish-ness is satisfied without putting junk in you. Switch out a bag of chips for some carrot sticks and hummus!

For those who get stressed out and crave food, it would be better for them to find a healthier substitute, such as going for a short walk, running, or meditating.

High in sodium, fat, sugar, and chemicals you cannot pronounce, processed foods are terrible for our health. High consumption of processed foods can cause weight gain and lead to various diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

woman looking at healthy vegetables
Image: Jerzy Gorecki

While occasionally I might relent and decide to buy candy or a deep-fried snack, I try to stay away from these as much as I can and opt instead for whole foods.

Whole foods include vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts. Whole grains like brown or red rice provide more fiber than processed grains such as white rice or white bread. Fresh vegetables contain more antioxidants than processed vegetables such as canned tomatoes or baked beans.

Beans have a lot of protein that is way healthier than the protein from processed meat such as hot dogs or bacon. Nuts have less saturated fat than processed cheese or butter from cows that were fed corn instead of grass.

It can be tough to maintain a healthy diet in the tropics, but it’s not impossible. With a little bit of knowledge and some creative thinking, you can stay on track while enjoying all that tropical living has to offer.

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