World diet’s – China: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 73.47 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 24.7 male; 33.1 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 1.8 male; 1.6 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 52.4 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
China might be a massive nation, but its individual citizens certainly aren’t. In fact, China comes in at an impressively low number 148 on the WHO’s list of the fattest countries, with only 28.9 percent of the population considered overweight. Life expectancy varies greatly in the different regions of China. Although The average life expectancy of a Chinese mainlander is only 73 years, residents of two major Chinese cities, Hong Kong and Macau, live longer than almost anyone else on earth. People in Macau, who top the list of global life expectancy rates, live an eye-popping 84.36 years on average, while Hong Kongers live 81.86 years.
Up in Smoke?
The Chinese diet makes up for some other lifestyle shortcomings. Roughly 67 percent of urban males smoke regularly and altogether more than 300 million Chinese smoke. That’s more people than live in the entire United States! The Chinese smoke more than any other people on the planet, and smoking contributes to four out of the five leading causes of death in the country.1
It’s no coincidence that Macau and Hong Kong are very different culturally from the rest of China, too. Macau was under Portuguese rule for more than four hundred years, while Hong Kong belonged to Britan from 1842 to 1997. Taiwan, which has an average life expectancy of almost 78 years, has also been a beneficiary of foreign influences. Over the centuries, the small island, which lies across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China, was colonized by the Spanish, then the Dutch, then the Japanese. Only after World War II did the Chinese Nationalist government take control of Taiwan once and for all.
Although the cuisines of Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan still bear the stamp of visitors from abroad, the predominant food is uniquely Chinese, and these cuisines rank among the healthiest in the world.
WHAT THEY EAT
When I say “Chinese food,” the image that might immediately come to mind is of a glistening platter of sweet-and-sour pork from the take-out place down the street, or maybe those miniature fried egg rolls that leave your fingertips greasy but taste oh so delicious. I want you to put those beloved dishes out of your mind for the time being, because the traditional Chinese diet has almost nothing in common with the high-fat, MSG-laden Chinese food that’s so popular in the United States.
The core of the traditional Chinese diet can be summed up pretty easily: plants, plants, and more plants. The Chinese build their meals around fresh seasonal vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. These nutritious ingredients generally make up at least two-thirds of the average Chinese meal, which is what accounts for the fact that the Chinese eat more than three times as much fiber as we do.2 I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Fiber is one of the most important components of a healthy diet, and North Americans simply don’t get enough of it. Fiber can slow down digestion (this is a good thing!), stabilize blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of developing diabetes and some cancers.
Another big benefit of the plant-based diet of the rural Chinese is that it’s naturally rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals. As a result, heart disease is rare in China. Whereas the average Chinese has a blood cholesterol level of 127, the U.S. average is closer to 215.3
The traditional Chinese diet is also good for your waistline. Some-how, even though Chinese people consume more calories per pound of body weight than we do, they have a much lower incidence of obesity. How’d they pull that off? One explanation is the low fat content of the traditional Chinese diet. According to a book called The China Study, rural Chinese derive 6 to 24 percent of their calories from fat. By contrast, the American diet consists of 35 to 40 percent fat.4
The virtual absence of meat in Chinese cuisine helps keep the fat content low. For economic reasons, Chinese chefs typically add only the smallest shavings of meat to their dishes. Meat acts as a garnish to add flavor to an entrée; it is almost never a stand-alone course as it is in U.S. Chinese restaurants. In fact, meat makes up only an astounding 2 percent of the traditional Chinese diet.
WHAT’S IN IT
Chinese Leafy Greens: The green vegetables indigenous to China break all nutritional records. Chinese (napa) cabbage and bok choy (the wordchoy means “leafy green” in Chinese) are not only high in fiber but rich in nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and iron. These veggies taste great stir-fried or steamed, which is how the Chinese typically prepare them. Chinese broccoli and mustard greens—which are similar, but not identical, to their U.S. counterparts—are also great options.
Other Vegetables: Daikon, a versatile root vegetable, is incorporated into a wide variety of Chinese dishes. Bamboo shoots, Chinese mushrooms,and snow peas are used in many Chinese stir-fries. In general, the Chinese see vegetables as main dishes, not merely as accompaniments to meat.
Beverage of Choice: Oolong Tea
Tea is an ancient beverage, discovered more than five thousand years ago in China. According to legend, in 2737 B.C. the emperor Shen Nung—known as “the Divine Healer”—was sipping boiling water when the wind carried a few tea leaves into his pot. This accident of history changed Chinese culture forever. Today, more than six thousand varieties of tea are available in China, which is still the largest tea producer in the world. The Chinese drink their favorite beverage, which is 99 percent water and naturally zero-calories, with meals and throughout the day. Syrupy, high-calorie soft drinks are a relatively recent innovation in China and utterly foreign to rural Chinese.
Although Chinese drink all types of tea, oolong is the mainstay of the Chinese diet. Called the “champagne of teas,” oolong is generally darker than green tea and lighter than black tea. Oolong is rich in polyphenols and catechins, antioxidants that are renowned for their anti-inflammatory qualities. Drinking oolong tea regularly can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and possibly even fight cancer. Oolong tea has also been shown to decrease stress, aid digestion, and help detoxify the body of smoke, alcohol, and other toxins. A recent study found that oolong tea also can increase metabolism by 10 percent for two hours after drinking it.
Tea still ranks among the most popular beverages in the world, second only to water. About half of all Americans regularly drink tea, 85 percent of which comes iced (and all too often sweetened as well). Most of this tea (about 83 percent) is black.5 Black tea also contains polyphenols and has weight-loss benefits, but it has more caffeine than oolong and green varieties.
Soybeans: Like other Asians, the Chinese eat soy products in many different forms. Tofu and soy sauce, both key components of the Chinese diet, can be a great source of vegetable protein.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Corn, Soybean, Canola, or Peanut
Vegetable oil (corn, soybean, or peanut) is a foundation of Chinese cooking. Traditionally, the Chinese have added oil only sparingly when preparing food, but recently this has changed. Over the past twenty years, the per capita annual consumption of vegetable oil has skyrocketed, and peoples’s weights are increasing as a result.
White Rice: Instead of white bread, the staple carbohydrate of the Chinese diet is white rice. Although white rice does make your blood sugar spike, especially compared to the more nutritious brown and wild varieties, it is still healthier than the white bread that Americans often eat many times a day.
Garlic and Ginger: These disease-fighting herbs make an appearance at just about every meal in China.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Stir-Frying: Stir-frying meats and vegetables in a wok is great for preserving water-soluble vitamins such as A and C. A wok is a must-have item in Chinese cooking. You can prepare just about any food—rice, vegetables, meat, fish, edamame, tofu—without using too much oil. With a wok, you can just braise or flash-cook veggies without overcooking them. Slightly crunchy veggies have more nutrients, and they taste better, too. Stir-frying gives food all the flavor of deep-frying, with only a fraction of the fat.
Steaming: Next to stir-frying, steaming is the most popular cooking method in Chinese cooking. Steaming is also one of the gentlest ways to prepare meat and vegetables, preserving nutrients and flavor.
Red Stewing: Red stewing is the process of cooking food in soy sauce and water, instead of just water alone (which is the Western idea of stewing). The Chinese use this method—which adds both flavor and color to dishes—to prepare pork, beef, ham, chicken, duck, and other meat.
Adding Flavor with Healthy Sauces
Sauces make an appearance in nearly every stage of Chinese cooking. They’re used for marinating, stir-frying, and dipping. Most Chinese sauces—oyster, hoisin, black bean—are soybean based. Ginger is another core sauce ingredient. It has a delicious tangy flavor and has also been shown to soothe an upset stomach.
• Oyster Sauce: This thick, dark brown sauce is a key ingredient in many Chinese stir-fries. Traditionally, Chinese cooks made oyster sauce by boiling fresh oysters, then seasoning them with soy sauce, salt, and spices. Today, most oyster sauces in America have nothing whatsoever to do with oysters. Instead, they are “oyster flavored,” with a high content of sugar, cornstarch, MSG, and caramel coloring. Some even include sodium benzoate as a preservative. These mass-produced sauces have zero protein and tons of sodium.
• Hoisin Sauce: The Chinese equivalent of our barbecue sauce is made from ground soybeans mashed together with garlic, chiles, salt, and other spices.
• Black Bean Sauce: Sauces made from boiled black soybeans—the oldest known soy-based food—are common in Cantonese cooking. Orange peel, ginger, and five-spice powder are often added to the sauce for extra flavor.
Deep-Frying: I would be lying if I said that the Chinese never under any circumstances deep-fry their foods. They do, but only occasionally—by no means as often as American interpretations of Chinese food might lead you to believe.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They philosophize about their food.
There’s a traditional Cantonese saying: “Eating is as important as the sky.” Often in China, food and philosophy go hand in hand. Many aspects of food are infused with the country’s ancient philosophical traditions.
Accordingly, the Chinese take the concept of a “balanced” meal to new levels. I’m not just talking about combining protein and carbs here. A cornerstone of Chinese philosophy is yin and yang, which states that all opposing forces in the universe are interdependent. According to this view, most problems in life, from a domestic disturbance to a massive thunderstorm, result from an imbalance of yin and yang.
So it makes sense that in China, foods don’t just have flavors. They also have specific energetic properties, dominated either by yin (feminine, passive, cool) or yang (masculine, active, hot). Most vegetables, for example, are considered yin foods, while most animal products and grains are considered yang. When preparing a meal, Chinese cooks try to balance the yin and yang of the foods, as well as their colors, flavors, and textures. This emphasis on balance extends to all aspects of the meal. A food from the sea is typically paired with a food from the land, just as yin vegetables are paired with yang whole grains.
The Five Elements Theory
The five elements theory is an extension of the yin and yang principle and a perfect complement to my 5-Factor World Diet principles. An ancient Chinese medical text recommends “five grains for nutrition, five fruits, five meats for benefit, five plants for fullness.”
The number five also informs the five elements theory of Chinese cooking—yet another example of the link the Chinese see between a person’s diet and his or her physical and spiritual well-being. According to Chinese philosophy, all matter in the universe is composed of five elements (also referred to as the five phases or five forces): fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. There are also five flavors—bitter, sweet, spicy, salty, and sour—and five major organs—heart, spleen, lungs, kidneys, and gallbladder. The wood element corresponds to the gallbladder and sour flavors; earth to the spleen and sweet flavors; metal to the lungs and spicy flavors; water to the kidneys and salty flavors; and fire to the heart and bitter flavors.
To keep the five elements in balance, the Chinese recommend eating all five flavors at every meal. A properly balanced meal also contains five colors: red, yellow, white, blue, and green.
Even cooking methods reflect this philosophy. Stir-frying is considered a yang technique, and so yin vegetables are often prepared in this manner. Similarly, garlic, chiles, and ginger—all yang foods—work well at countering the yin of vegetables.
Mixing different types of foods and cooking methods is an important part of Chinese cooking. Individual ingredients don’t matter as much as the combination of elements united in a given meal.
They slow down the pace with chopsticks.
The Chinese invented chopsticks and still eat most of their meals with them today. Using chopsticks—especially if you’re not used to them—can be a great technique for slowing down a meal. Chopsticks prevent diners from taking overly large bites. Despite their name, chopsticks are not designed to chop. That’s why Chinese food is traditionally prepared in small, bite-size pieces—just enough to fit between the two slim sticks.
The Chinese use spoons for soups and occasionally forks as well, but one thing you’ll almost never see at a Chinese table is a knife. Again, there’s a philosophical reason behind this dining practice. Because the knife could be used as a weapon, it has the potential to disrupt the peace and harmony of a meal and is therefore banned from the table.
They skip dessert.
Although Americans think of fortune cookies as the typical Chinese meal ender, these cookies actually originated in Japan and appeared in California in the early twentieth century. In fact, fortune cookies weren’t produced in China until 1993! The Hong Kong entrepreneur who started importing them to China in the late 1980s advertised them as “genuine American fortune cookies.”6
Dessert in general is a foreign concept to most Chinese. Instead of rich, dairy-based pies, cakes, and cookies, Chinese usually polish off their meals with a bowl of soup, especially red bean soup. According to traditional Chinese medicine, excessively sweet foods can weaken the spleen and hamper digestion. Fruit is a less common alternative, since it’s often a main-course ingredient in Chinese cooking. Some Chinese also like to end a meal with sunflower seeds.
The Snack That’s a Meal: Dim Sum
Snacking has been part of Chinese culture for a very long time. The Chinese tea ceremony—known as dim sum, which translates as “touch the heart”—came into being when travelers on the ancient Silk Road needed to stop for refreshment but didn’t want to spoil their appetites for dinner.
Tea is the most important component of dim sum, which consists of a series of small dishes. Steamed dumplings and buns, pot stickers, and rice noodle rolls are among the most popular dim sum dishes. All of these dishes were created to give travelers energy to continue the journey through central Asia. In recent years, most Chinese grocery stores have started offering microwavable, fast-food versions of these traditional afternoon snacks.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Every morning, right before dawn, millions of Chinese gather in public parks all over the country and exercise together. One of the most popular early-morning activities is tai chi, which began as a martial art.
The tai chi symbol is the yin and yang, and the word chi means “energy” in Chinese. The purpose of tai chi is to break up energy block-ages in the body. Once this chi is released, it flows through the body and opens up energy channels, which leads to better digestion, a stronger respiratory system, and a body capable of healing itself.
A series of gentle, flowing exercises that often seem to be performed in slow motion, tai chi promotes balance, concentration, and stability. After a typical tai chi workout, you probably won’t be very sweaty, but you will feel calm and centered. Just as the Chinese believe that you don’t eat simply to fill your belly, they also believe that you don’t work out simply to tone your booty. Tai chi does build muscle tone, however, while also promoting inner relaxation and focus. Another benefit: you can learn tai chi at any age. In fact, in China the majority of the sport’s practitioners are elderly.
Another traditional Chinese form of exercise is qigong. (The qi comes from the same Chinese word as the chi in tai chi.) Qigong uses aerobic and breathing methods to release pent-up energy in the body.
How We Misinterpret It
The boundaries between traditional Chinese cuisine and Americanized Chinese cuisine have become increasingly blurry in recent years, as the urban Chinese adopt a diet that looks more and more like ours. But Americans also broadly misinterpret the food they call “Chinese” in this country.
In 2004, there were more than thirty-six thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States. Chinese food has become our national ethnic food of choice. But from the very beginning, Chinese food in America has been a hodgepodge of Chinese and American tastes. When the first Chinese restaurants sprang up during the California gold rush, they catered to both Chinese and American laborers.
A report by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest found that traditional heart-healthy Chinese cuisine is the last thing you’ll find in many North American Chinese restaurants. Our versions of Chinese dishes tend to be battered, deep-fried, and sugary sweet. Consider that a dinner-size order of lemon chicken packs 1,400 calories, 13 grams of cholesterol-raising saturated fat, and 1,700 milligrams of sodium because of the deep-fried breading and salty sauce. That’s a caloric load equivalent to three McDonald’s McChicken sandwiches plus a 32-ounce nondiet soft drink. An order of orange crispy beef—a dish of flour-coated, deep-fried meat—has 1,500 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, and 3,100 milligrams of sodium. Even the vegetable dishes studied were surprisingly high in added fat and salt. An order of stir-fried greens was found to deliver 900 calories and 2,200 milligrams of sodium; eggplant in garlic sauce weighed in at 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.
Here’s the scoop on some of Americans’ favorite “Chinese” dishes.
• Chow mein—crispy-fried egg noodles served with vegetables and meat—is an extremely popular “Chinese” dish in the United States. It was actually invented here, in the mid-1800s, by Chinese immigrants working on the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese have their own version of chow mein, but it’s much less oily than what we find in the States. For instance, the noodles in China are lightly stir-fried rather than deep-fried to a crisp. It’s no wonder that a single serving of beef chow mein at P. F. Chang’s has 770 calories and 24 grams of fat!
• Chop suey is another “Chinese” dish that originated in the United States. One legend claims that Chinese chefs in New York invented this dish in honor of Chinese ambassador Li Hung Chang’s visit to America in 1896. Another claims that chop suey (which translates literally as “little pieces”) was another product of the California gold rush around 1849. Typically made from bits of bamboo shoots, celery, onion, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, and some sort of meat, chop suey is served over rice and cooked with a salty, cornstarch-laden gravy that is virtually unknown in China. Although chop suey might be a bastardized version of tsap seui, a stir-fried dish from Toisan, a rural town south of Canton and the ancestral home of many nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States, it would be hard to find a meal in rural China as bad for you as a dish of American-made pork chop suey, which might have as much as 680 calories and 50 grams of fat.
• Crab rangoon and pot stickers are foods born in California. It’s no coincidence that people refer to these “Chinese” dishes as “fried ravioli.”
What else do the Chinese do to stay fit? They walk everywhere. Until relatively recently, very few Chinese owned cars, so most conducted the daily business of life on foot.
Breakfast: Soup, or watery porridge (sometimes called congee), is a component of almost every meal in China. The Chinese also eat leftovers from other meals, such as rice and pickled vegetables, for breakfast.
Lunch: Lunch in China tends to be pretty simple, perhaps a bowl of hot noodles, vegetables, and a few scraps of meat in broth. Dim sum is also a popular lunch choice. Busy urban Chinese on the go might pick up a quick lunch from a street vendor. When I was in Beijing, I passed through a mall-like network of street vendors selling every kind of lean protein you can imagine, including octopus, lean pork, and tiny fish.
Dinner: Dinner is typically the most elaborate meal of the day in China. The main meal might include tofu with cabbage; fried rice with onions, garlic, and vegetables; stir-fried rice with vegetables and tofu skin (yuba); or a whole steamed fish flavored with garlic and ginger and served with rice.
• Use chopsticks to slow down your meal.
• Adopt a philosophical approach toward your food: think before you eat.
• Build your meals around fresh local vegetables.
• Think of meat as a garnish, not a main course.
• Try replacing soda and calorie-dense coffee drinks with green tea.
1. World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific, “Smoking Statistics” (fact sheet, May 28, 2002).
2. T. Colin Campbell with Thomas M. Campbell II, The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted (Dallas, Tx: BenBella Books, 2004), 90.
3. Ibid., 78.
4. Ibid., 82, 86.
5. Tea Association of the U.S.A., “About Tea,” http://www.teausa.com/general/501g.cfm.
6. Mary Jo Manzanares, “Help! I’m a Prisoner in a Chinese Fortune Cookie Factory,” Fly Away Cafe, BlissTree.com, April 10, 2007.
7. “Wok Carefully: CSPI Takes a (Second) Look at Chinese Restaurant Food,” Center for Science March 21, 2007, cspinet.org/new/200703211.html/.
8. Irish Independent, “How the French Really Have Their Gateau and Eat it.” February 28, 2008.