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Why The Chinese Don’t Count Calories

A summary/report on a lecture given by the author Lorraine Clissold on her new book Why The Chinese Don’t Count Calories, posted by Fiona Lee on the CN Reviews blogsite.  Being all about food, this is very close to my heart. The essence of the book is that all traditional styles of eating are better than ‘dieting fads’; however as the author is better aquainted with Chinese cooking than other forms this is used to press home her message.

Lee sums up the contents of the lecture [and book?] under five headings –    

1 strong cultural and culinary identities –  Traditional cuisines pass on the collected food wisdom of a culture from generation to generation, and China is no different.  As scientists begin to learn more about nutrition and how nutrients work in tandem with each other, much of what is passed on in Chinese cuisine is backed up by modern nutrition.   The Chinese also talk about food as being determinative of a regional identity–like the strereotype of Sichuan people having fiery tempers because of all the spicy food they eat.  By way of contrast, in The Omnivore’s DilemmaMichael Pollanmakes the point that because Americans do not have a unifying food culture, Americans tend to be particularly vulnerable to savvy food marketers and diet fads (think Atkins, South Beach diet, etc).

Like all other traditional cuisines Chinese cooking is the accumulated mass of lore and common sense gathered over the last few thousand years.  Examination of any country which has a strong culture and adheres to its traditional forms of eating will show that the population is in a much more healthy state than that found in a country where traditional food has been replaced by diets concocted by nutritional ‘experts’.

2 vegetables, vegetables, vegatables – Chinese cuisines tend to make vegetables the star of the show, with meat as a flavouring or compliment. Part of this is because of historical patterns of consumption, until very recently the average Chinese person simply could not afford vast amounts of meat.  Contrast this to an American or British diet which relegates vegetables to limp supporting roles for meat.

The backbone of all the Chinese cuisines is vegetables and meat is used sparingly [this is not what would be found on the menu of Chinese restaurant in the USA or UK]. Originally this will not have been out of choice but simply a matter of economics; most Chinese people could not afford meat. This is also the reason the Chinese people eat everything which is eatable and throw nothing away – offal, wild animals, insects; if birds and other animals could eat these things and thrive then surely it was possible for people to find a way of doing the same.  This, of course is in complete contrast with the modern western diet which is based on large quantities of meat and factory ‘food’.

3 balance is the key – Clissold invokes the Chinese concepts of yin and yang. A properly balanced meal includes both yin foods (cooling foods) like cucumbers and lettuce and yang foods (heating foods) like spicy foods and meats.  If you eat too much of either one, then your body will become unbalanced. The Chinese way of eating family-style with shared plates also allow for greater opportunities to balance yin and yang versus a Western-style one-plate meal.

Every dietary ‘expert’, no matter what they are selling you, says a balanced diet is essential for healthy eating. This sounds grand but then what exactly is meant by ‘a balanced diet’.  Talk to a chef or expert on Chinese food and sooner or later the notion of yin and yang will come into the conversation, as it did with Clissold’s lecture. Talk to a Chinese peasant farmer and he/she will explain it in a different manner, but the end result will be much the same.  There is nothing random about the way foods are mixed together in Chinese cooking and, in my own experience, there is a lot of level-headed common sense and logic behind it. Balance is an essential feature of Chinese cooking, esoteric explanations are not.

4 eat all five flavours – On a related note, the five flavors are bitter, sweet, pungent, salty, and sour.  Each of these flavors addresses a specific part of the body.  For instance, a bitter food like bitter melon feeds the heart, while a sour food will nourish the liver.  Again, balance is important–if you eat too much of one flavor then you are only feeding one part of the body.

The point about the five flavours could have been rolled up under the previous heading as again Clissold emphasizes the need to eat a mixture of foods rather than homing in on a few favourites.

5 eat until you are full and enjoy your meal – This seems like a no-brainer, but Clissold is specifically addressing the different attitudes that Chinese and Americans and the British have regarding food.  While Americans and the British food cultures often incorporate guilt and unhealthy cycles of binging and purging, Chinese people just plain enjoy their food.  They talk about food all the time, and a common Chinese greeting is “Have you eaten yet?”  Make eating a pleasurable activity, instead of one that induces guilt.

On the face of it, this is more a matter of culture than cuisine, but no less important.  If you have faith in what you are eating there is no excuse to not enjoy it and no reason at all for counting calories and measuring everything as you go along.

All of which ties in with what Professor Michael Pollan has written and said about modern western eating.  That in the west we are the victims of a conspiracy, driven largely by the food manufacturers but also by dieticians, journalists and other ‘experts’.  Following any traditional cuisine from anywhere in the world will give you a better chance of good health than eating a western diet of meat and industrialised food, but to achieve that benefit it is essential to accept the whole package and not just a few favourite dishes from here and there.  For those who want to eat healthily but not necessarily follow the Chinese way, simply follow Pollan’s advice given in his book In Defense of Food, “Eat [real] food. Mainly plants. Not too much.”

Other related posts –

 A consuming passion,  

China, health and us, 

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,

Unhappy Meals.


China, health and us.

I came across two articles [vaguely] related to the 2008 Olympics, China and health. The first is an article from ‘The Guardian‘, ‘A cultural revolution to make London sit up and take notice‘ [2008.8.13], written by Marina Hyde, and the second is an item from the Reuters news agency, written by Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Armchair Olympics fuels obesity fears‘ [2008.8.15]. Although, on the face of it, they seem to be at odds with each other on closer inspection they are both correct.

The substance of the Reuters report is China is facing a [potential] obesity crisis. Work patterns have changed, average family spending power has risen and there is an increasing demand for western style foods so is it any surprise that some of the problems which have bedevilled western societies for some time are now cropping up in Eastern Asia. Over the last two decades fast food chains [MacDonald’s, KFC etc] have found their way into the middle kingdom and have been enjoying considerable success. They are quite expensive compared with normal run of the mill Chinese restaurants and dining there is something of a mark of status; children from middle class families are often taken to fast food eating places for birthdays or other treats, so the habit is established at a very early age. In the early days, shortly after Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world, someone in the Politburo made the mistake of thinking that such chain restaurants represented the very highest in western cuisine and as result they were allowed in to China to trade. One hopes that after the mistake was discovered the culprit was taken away and sent on a suitable programme of re-education or at the very least, shot.

At present approximately 14% of Chinese adults are overweight and about 3% are obese [ref BMJ August2006], compared with 21% of men and 23% of women in the UK, but these figures do not paint the full picture. In China obesity is more likely to be found amongst younger people than the older generation, in the UK the reverse is true, the older the age range examined the more prevalent obesity becomes. This is good news for China as it shows the problem is a recent one, new problems are more easily remedied than those long standing, but not so good for the UK. Perhaps the most worrying thing for China, and for anyone else interested, is just how fast the population changed from one of the slimmest and most sveldte in the world to its present position. Another interesting twist to the picture is that in China obesity is more common amongst the middle classes while in the UK it occurs most frequently amongst unskilled working classes, although it must be stressed that no sector of society is free of the problem. In China most children have enough to eat but an increasing number of families have the spending power to buy more meat and to overfeed and having only one child per family, who is often tended by both parents and grandparents, the child, especially if it is a boy, is spoilt beyond belief. In the old days to be overweight was a status symbol, as it demonstrated your wealth and showed you did not have to work and this is now being re-echoed in modern China. Similar things have been happening in the UK for much longer, although one observation I would make is that with the UK, and other western nations, it is the coming of industrialised foods which has been our final undoing. Make of all that what you will but one thing which cannot be avoided is that we are faced with a health problem which, if unchecked, will become more than just a nuisance in the future.

The gist of The Guardian article is that the Chinese people take responsibility for looking after their own health and many are quite fanatical about staying fit and healthy. The main reason is quite simple; no-one else is going to do it for them.  There is no free health service in China to sort out all your ails.  The phenomenon observed by the writer Marina Hyde in her Guardian article is something which can be found all over China, in cities, towns, villages, taking place in parks, near lakes, in back-streets or on any convenient patch of ground. Reading her article the reader may be excused for thinking that only older people are involved, in fact at schools, colleges and universities morning exercise periods are as fixed a part of the day as the sunrise. Every morning at different places around the campus where I taught people would gather for exercise, sometimes individually but more often in groups. Almost every activity could be seen, taijiquan, sword dancing, fan-dancing, wushu, or just a routine of faithfully repeated exercises. All of which goes a long way towards persuading people that they have a responsibility to look after their health and giving them the means of doing just that. In the evenings, in the Peoples’ Square, similar things took place, although these were usually of a more social nature, line-dancing, ball-room dancing. At weekends, in the park, clusters of people would gather for more of the same thing, more practice on the communal exercise parks, Peking Opera, more ballroom dancing, group singing, traditional music – I was captivated and awed by the range of activities which the people would organise on their own initiative. When it comes to looking after themselves and their peers, and with the minimum of resources, the Chinese people win hands down.

As Ms. Hyde says, “Mao declared that the Chinese should civilise their spirits and be brutal on their bodies. “; he may not have been right about everything but this is one gem of wisdom which seems to ring true, judging by what can be seen in China and the contrast which can be found in “London: that far-off land where the increasingly familiar sight of mobility scooters outside pubs suggests that late-capitalism is either a mixed blessing, or bold initiatives are called-for in the run-up to the [2012] Games“

It is hard to see how a couple of weeks of elite sportsmanship in 2012 could alter the health of the British nation or have any impact on the growing obesity problem. As quickly as the 2012 games come they will go, and so will the euphoria and any nine-minute wonders that the government dreams up. If we are not to end up glued even more firmly to our remote controls and TV sets [see “Success will inspire us … to pick up the remote” in The Guardian, written by Emma John] drastic action is required. As stated in The Guardian, free swimming for the over-60s is a start, but measures need to go a little further and deeper than that. At the very least we could take a leaf from the PRC government and invest in low cost, low grade exercise equipment such as is found in Chinese towns and cities and restore playing fields to all schools; these are relatively superficial things but could be part of an overall scheme. Reaching out to the population with more funding for games and sports probably wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but relies on people being willing to respond. Are those most in need of shaping up most or least likely to respond? This is not just a matter of offering opportunity and providing the hardware and infrastructure but one of culture and attitude, neither of which are easy to influence. Or maybe we must turn to Chairman Mao once again and be more brutal with the population and give people no option other than to take responsibility for their own health or suffer the consequences.

Here’s some really important health information – especially good at this time of the year!

Q: I’ve heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life. Is this true?

A: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that’s it…don’t waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; that’s like saying you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap.

Q: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruit and vegetables?

A: You must grasp logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism for delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Sheep are a good source of field grass (leafy green vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily intake of vegetable products.

Q: Is beer or wine bad for me?

A: Look, it goes back to the earlier point about fruits and vegetables. As we all know, scientists divide everything in the world into three categories: animal, mineral, and vegetable. We all know that beer and wine are not animal or mineral, so that only leaves one thing, right? My advice: Have a burger and a beer and enjoy your vegetables.

Q: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?

A: Well, if you have a body, and you have body fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.

Q: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?

A: Can’t think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: ‘No Pain…Great’.

Q: Aren’t fried foods bad for you?

A: You’re not listening. These days foods are fried in vegetable oil. In fact, they’re permeated in it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?

Q: What’s the secret to healthy eating?

A: Thicker gravy.

Q: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?

A: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.

Q: Is chocolate bad for me?

A: Are you crazy? HELLO …… Cocoa beans .. another vegetable!!! It’s the best feel-good food around!

Well, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets. Now go and have a biscuit……..flour comes from wheat, which is a veggie!

Finally; if swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.

Oh, and one more thing… “When life hands you lemons, ask for tequila and salt.”

Consuming Passion

Isn’t this just what we wanted all along, a sensible article about eating and some simple advice about diet, all of which can summed up in the opening seven words – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.

According Michael Pollan, the author, we are victims of an all-round conspiracy driven by the government, the food manufacturers, the nutritionists and the other million and one ‘experts’ who ‘advise’ us what we should and shouldn’t eat. And it doesn’t take much logic to see why they are so keen to close our eyes – if we followed the advice contained in those seven words the food manufacturers would be out of business, the experts would be out of a job, the government would have less to tell us and one lever less to mess us around with.

What Mr Pollan has to say fits in well with my own experiences, both here and while living in Asia. There, people ate real vegetables and meat, not stuff processed in factories with additives injected, which was bought directly from local producers. There were no rules about which bits of which animal were permissible as food, which was totally contrary to many of the guidelines laid down by our own government. I cannot remember one part of a chicken, other than the feathers, which was not eaten [feathers would be used for other purposes] and every part of a pig was eaten, offal and all, but the bulk of the menu consisted of vegetables. The people were not obese, didn’t suffer the same disorders we do and were generally in a far better and healthy state than most Brits. Read more here.

You know you have been an expat. in China for too long when . . . .

– you have a collection of umbrellas.

– you give a beggar a handful of fen and he gives them back.

– you tell people you don’t understand when they speak so they write it down for you, in Chinese.

when you visit home to see your family you have difficulty sleeping because it’s too quiet.

– at a restaurant you actually put some thought into which live snake you want cooked for your meal.

– you drink warm sodas and find them refreshing.

– you believe absolutely everything that can possibly be eaten is in some way good for your health.

– you forget that vegetable soup is actually pesticide broth.

– you begin to like fruit salad and mayonnaise.

– you love doufu because there’s nothing to spit out and it doesn’t have any taste.

– you comment that the pollution today “isn’t really that bad……..”

– you start wearing a face mask on windy days, and wonder at the “silly foreigners” who don’t do the same.

– you no longer use articles when you speak.

– you know words in Chinese for which you don’t know the translation in English.

– you reply “So is mine” when people say their English is poor.

– you telephone home and your family tell you to speak faster and stop correcting their grammar.

– you use expressions such as : “I very like . . ”

– your boss thinks you’re a stupid foreigner if you let him cheat you, but thinks you’re a bad foreigner if you don’t.

– your boss speaks really good English until you ask for more money.

– you have no qualms that someone who thinks you’re stupid and gullible has total control over your life.

– you bargain with the grocer over the cost of a lettuce.

– you see nothing wrong with standing on a white stripe in the middle of a highway while cars whiz past you at 90kph.

– you buy a movie that hasn’t been released yet at home.

– you complain about the price differences of DVDs/VCDs/CDs bought in the stores and those sold on the streets.

– you point out foreigners to your Chinese friends.

– you answer “China” when people ask where you’re from.

– you burp, fart, and scratch so much even your Chinese friends get embarrassed.

– you eat cake with chopsticks.

– you ask “Into what?” when people say China is developing.

– you hold hands with others of the same sex and think nothing of it.

– you avoid touching those of the opposite sex as if they have bird flu.

– you’ve got a pre-paid ticket with a reserved seat on a train, but you still run like mad to get there first.

– everyone wants to be your friend – all you have to do is teach them English for free.

– your Chinese lessons consist of 50 words your teacher wants to know in English.

– you too think that the ugliest western man always has a beautiful Chinese girlfriend.

– the more you listen to the news, the more uninformed you are.

– it fascinates you that when the national news is on, your forty TV channels magically become the same channel.

– only five minutes of preparation time for an unannounced class no longer fazes you.

– you believe you’re here to teach English.