Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How healthy/bad is the Chinese diet?

Our visiting friends are real food junkies. Not only do they love and appreciate food –they live for food, and plan their days around their dinner. The idea of them coming to visit us here in Shanghai was born last summer, when me and my bf were over at their house, enjoying a delicious dinner (it’s a yearly tradition since 3 years back) and x bottles of wine. We were discussion the usual things (long distance running, training, food and China) and the more we talked about China, the more we started saying: “you guys must come! The two of you in food heaven –it’s meant to be!”

Six months later they told us they were game. And now here they are!

They must qualify as some of the best visitors to China ever. They are 100% positive and curious about everything. And they love the food over here, making it a pure joy to introduce them to some of our favorite restaurants (and, funnily enough, it makes US appreciate what we have over here even more!).

As we have been enjoying spicy beef, tofu, cabbage, dumplings and bowls of white, fluffy rice, however, our discussions have as usual moved into the usual, common grounds of interest: health and fitness. To our visiting friends, the Chinese food is delicious but oily and heavy. Me and my bf can agree on the fact that it is oily, but for some strange reason it doesn’t feel that heavy anymore. Despite the fact that I down at least 2 bowls of rice every day.

-How can you eat like this and still stay in shape!? Is the most common question asked (not only asked by our visiting friends, but pretty much asked by everyone that comes to China and have dinner with us). How can Chinese people eat like this and still be so small and skinny?

I try to explain it by mixing some knowledge with some assumptions:

* Chinese people have been eating like this since they were kids, they have grown up eating noodles, oily food and rice –their bodies are used to it.

* Chinese people don’t eat a lot of dairy (which I believe is a big reason to a lot of western people’s weight gain, just think about our creamy pasta sauces and how much cheese there is on a pizza), most of them don’t drink alcohol, they don’t eat much candy/chocolate, they drink a lot of hot water and tea, they don’t really have sandwiches for lunch.

* Typical snacks over here are things like nuts, sunflower seeds, dried meat, and fruit. Not muffins and chocolate bars (even though it is becoming more and more common).

*People here eat more veggies than meat.

But then it becomes trickier when people ask us why WE are not huge, seeing that we eat loads of oily, Chinese food. Shouldn’t we be getting fat from eating all of this food (according to western standards I mean. According to Chinese standards I’m already a fatty but back home I’m considered “normal” or even “skinny” at some places)?

And this is where I don’t really know what to answer. I believe that even though Chinese food is heavy on oil and that it (here in Shanghai) always comes with a bowl of rice (at least every time I order), it’s still healthier than the western diet of pasta and bread. Despite the fact that we always order at least four dishes and eat a LOT. Also, when it comes to Chinese food you can throw all kinds of Atkins, LCHF and south beach diets out the window. Here you eat everything (fat, protein and carbs) and unless you go overboard (and stay away from eating loads of deep fried and dairy every day) I believe you can do so, and still stay in a reasonably good shape. Or what do you think? Is Chinese food healthier than the typical, western diet? Or do you believe that it make you fat?


Anonymous said...

Restaurant food in China is not representative of common, day-to-day Chinese food. Restaurant food should be considered a feast, which most Chinese people eat very rarely. Traditional Chinese food is very low in oil. Note the design of the Chinese wok, where every little drip of oil slides down the sides to the middle, to be used as frugally and efficiently as possible. Chinese food eaten daily stresses freshly bought veggies, low/no meat, abundance of fresh rice, noodles or mantou (steamed bread). All these are very healthy. Chinese, traditionally, also do not overeat.

This also applies to Western Food. Western restaurant meals should be considered feasts and are therefore rare. Food eaten daily is completely different. You choose how you eat, reap the rewards or suffer the consequences. There are obese Westerners, and similarly there are obese Chinese (much fewer, but China is catching up).

Unknown said...

I lost about 10 kg while in China and gained them back again when I came back. I did more exercise there than I do back home, but I usually ate out and had lots of big meals.

I am also rather puzzled about how it works out. But I too think that the lack (or relative lack) of chips, choclate bars and cakes may have something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

agree with the above,however please also keep in mind that the Chinese are now dining out much more frequent than before, and that they are also more cases of child obesity problems happening in China.

i think the question here is not to ask if chinese food are healthy or bad, what we need to do is to make sure eat everything in moderation, too much of anything is not going to be good for us. sounds cliche i know, but its the truth.

Anonymous said...

You, considered skinny?

No matter how many times you may say it to yourself it still won't make it true.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonna,

It's an interesting subject you've brought up. I can't think of a scientific reason, but there's a few that occur to me:

1. Chinese food is not trans fat soaked. The huge amount of fast food which westerners eat is soaked with the stuff. Trans fat has been shown to be more difficult to burn, so you stay fatter longer.

2. As Don said, restaurant food and feasts is not the normal daily fare. The normal meals are of real food, which is fresher and again not laden with trans fat.

3. Asian tastes are less sweet than Western tastes. Thus there is a lot less sugar, and a lot less high fructose corn sugar. What Asians call sweets and deserts would not even register on the palates of westerners.

There's probably a lot more reasons, but these are the ones which occur to me at the moment:)

Have a good one J.


Tarja said...

What is the effect of green tea? I´ve heard it may help you stay skinny?

Have you read the books of Mats-Eric Nilsson "Den hemliga kocken" and the lates one "Äkta vara"? When it comes to western diet I think the biggest problem is chemicals and preservatives. People eat food where there isn´t any nutrition in it. And within few hours you´re hungry again. Then you eat more junk. Veggies, rice and meat simply prepared are better options than processed foods. I believe chinese food is all about that?

In Finland people eat so much processed stuff. Traditional foods like berries, mushrooms, simple potato and meat dishes are rare. People eat tv-dinners instead of home cooked food. Rye bread is not about the rye, its made out of wheat. Dairy is heavily processed and for example light milk is not milk at all.... I think this is problem! When we lived in Shanghai I was surprised that I didn´t get any fatter all though I wasnt able to eat the "light" stuff I was used to eat in Finland. And this kind of opened my eyes about nutrition.

Unknown said...

It's all that walking you must do everyday. That is the difference. You have to walk, and rely on public transportation every day. Apartment on the 7th floor? - you have to climb the stairs to get to it. No parking spaces for your private auto. Same thing in many other Asian and European cities. Look at Paris, there are hardly any fat people there. And my, do they know how to eat!

Yuan Zhang said...

Hi Jonna,

Been a long time lurker on the blog. Love your work, makes me miss Shanghai!

Anyway, there was a big discussion on Fuchsia Dunlop's site a while ago.

I actually asked my uncle about the oiliness of the food when I went back the last time. He said typical home cooking is still very light. In the rationing era pre-90s, oil and lard was a very precious commodity. So now when cooking for guests or in a restaurant, using a lot of oil is a sign of generosity and wealth.


Jonna Wibelius said...

Cheers for all your insightful comments and shared knowledge. Of course I should have realized that traditional home cooking is lighter than what u eat at restos... silly me. I think I've been blinded by the amount of people that I see, carrying around 5 liter bottles of oil... I've had dinner at Chi people's houses a few times and then it hasn't been obvious to me that they don't use as much grease, but then again, maybe they put a bit extra when they have guests. I know I make an extra effort if I have to cook for someone else but me and my bf.

Don- very insightful, thanks!

cjr -wow...but I think it makes sense. U don't eat as much candy over here as u do back home (where it is EVERYWHERE. My god, the candy sections in grocery stores back home. SCARY!)

Anonymous1 -of course. Moderation is the key to everything. It's just that I think Chi people don't eat that little... but maybe that's just when they are eating out.

Anonymous2 -Hahahha! Aren't you a happy person to have around! Well, u know what, just to annoy u a little bit more: I will say it to myself so many times that I finally believe it -regardless if it's true or not! How's that? Are u going to be able to live with that, or are you gonna start harassing me by sending me bully emails where u call me fat? I bet you are 100% perfect btw. Just like everyone who leaves nasty anonymous comments. Big hug to you!

Adrian -yeah I think the sugar thing is true. People over here don't pig out on chocolate bars the way I do (I'm ashamed...)

Tarja -U left China?!?!?! Oh, how is life back in FI? Every summer when I go back I always wonder how people on FI or Swe can be overweight with all that amazing, fresh food around... everything looks so nice and fresh in grocery stores. But I guess when u are used to it it's not that special.

I went to a tea shop the other day and the old lady told me that their number 1 tea for weight loss now is red tea? But no, I don't get it either. I prefer coffee anyway.

chan -yeah, but do u think a lot of CHi people do a lot of walking every day? I know my workmates do not... But yes, of course exercise also plays a part in this.

Yuan -cheers for lurking around :) I'll def check out the forum! I have another related food topic that I might write about today or tomorrow. Food is a delicate subject!

Li said...

I gained 6kg in half year when i lived in Sweden and i lost 7kg after eight months back in Shanghai. I am chinese. From my personal experience, i put some cheese and butter when i eat bread in Sweden. Food in Sweden normally has some creamy stuff which i still have no idea what they made of. I do love eat all kinds of swedish pie and dessert. It seems that most stores in Sweden always have the candy section. I always think that only kids eat candy, but in sweden seems most adults also eat candy which is not very common in China.I did buy potato sallad very often when i was in sweden because i do not really know how to cook. Back in Shanghai, i eat my normal chinese food, lots of dumplings and noodles,(i am northern chinese and i do not eat rice, maybe once every month), and of course three meals out normally always lots of green stuff and no dessert. After 8months i lost 7kg.I go to gym in shanghai the same as i did in Stockholm.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Li -wow, u must have eaten a LOT of creamy stuff to have gained 6 kg!! And u are right about the candy sections in Swedish grocery stores (not to mention the pure candy shops -whoooot?!), makes it hard not to eat all that sweet temptation. I also love pies and cakes, but I try to stay away from it otherwise I'd look like a balloon. Anyway, glad to hear that you only needed to change your diet back to your usual one in order to lose the access kilos once u got back to China! If it only was so easy...!

Anonymous said...

On the flip side, the Chinese food tend to be not high in fat but rather, high in sodium. Many young people tend to be very skinny but have very high cholesteral/deal with hypertension. Sure, they are skinny...but they're far from being healthy. It's a growing problem. Many people get a stroke by the age of 30. Many people tend to have a problem with heart disease due to always eating fried/barbequed dishes from vendors. I actually lost weight but I was by no means "healthier."

I agree with the person about moderation.

Anonymous said...

If my memory still serves me, I've always gained 2-3 kg after my vacations in China. The reason is simple; I didn't exercise and ate too much food. In general, I do think that daily Chinese food is quite healthy, since it emphasizes using fresh vegetables and fish (south-eastern cuisine anyway).

Yeming said...

I think there are two scientific reasons. One is, western vegatables is morelikely to be cooked. Chinese veggies are more prepared in the wok. where as when you cook your veggies you will cook out the vitamines and eat veggies with hardly no nutrition. Whereas with wok veggies its very healthy ! Also western cooking uses lot of saturated fats where as chinese sunflower oil cookcing is a unsaturated fat.Also westerners eat more milkproducts (milk from animal) where as chinese ppl hardly drink milk and if they do its sojamilk.

Blksno said...

Fat isn't bad for you, your body actually requires good fats to transmit nutrients to your cells. The process sugars in all the of processed foods that are being consumed today is the main cause to why people are gaining weight and becoming obese. You should read The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet by Robb Wolf, its very enlightening and should answer most of your questions.


Anonymous said...

i'm a chinese in hong kong. i think that shanghai food is the most oily in the country and almost every dish in their restaurants or food sold inthe streets is cooked with lots of oil. but i think they dont eat like this at home.

i think cantonese food in the south may be the healthiest.

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