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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will show that the population is in a much more healthy state than that found in a country where traditional food has been replaced by diets concocted by nutritional ‘experts’.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.


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.”

Getting your head around big numbers

Everything in China happens on a big scale. This should be no surprise when bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s population live there, but this snippet of information usually slips past without our accepting or realising its implications until we come face to face with it.

Some of the most arresting features of the world are located in China, the Taklamakan Desert, one of the coldest and driest deserts on earth, the Karst Mountains, one of the most stunning scenic spots in existence, the Changjiang, the third longest river in the world [Yangtze to most of the world] but it is when we get down to looking at some of the man-made features that we really start to sit up and take notice. The trend started many centuries ago when the ruling dynasty decided to build a wall to keep out the uncouth louts from the North. It took a while to build the wall and it was redesigned, re-jigged, re-hashed, restored and rebuilt many times before we finally ended up with the Great Wall of China, a fortified structure extending 6,400 kms from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who brought all the little bits of China under one rule [bashing people around doesn’t quite equate with the word ‘unite’] liked to do things in a big way and planned and built the biggest mausoleum for himself, ever. And the trend has continued ever since. The world’s first long distance canal, the Grand Canal, coupling Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province with Beijing was started in the 5th century BC but was not extended into its modern day form until the 6th century AD. It is 1,770 kilometres long, contains 24 locks and is still in use for carrying commercial traffic. By comparison canals in Britain were not built in a serious way until the 17th century and the difference in scale is striking. For example the Grand Union Canal, connecting London with Birmingham, built in the 18th century, is 220 kilometres in length, contains 166 locks and on average is only 6 yards wide.

In more modern times the structures built in China are even more ambitious. Earlier this year, after less than 5 years construction work, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge 36 kilometres long, connecting the cities of Shanghai and Ningbo was completed and opened. This will be the world’s longest sea bridge and the second longest, overall. The Chinese people love tall buildings and they are to be found in every city, some are quite likeable, some grotesque and others just a little quirky as every architect tries to leave his mark on the world. Probably two of the best known modern buildings in China are both found in the Pudong district of Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl Tower, the third tallest TV tower in the world at 468 metres high, and the Jin Mao Dasha, the fifth tallest building in the world at 420 metres high, but one of the strangest is the new CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, still under construction – it looks as if it will never stay upright. While we are on the topic of tall buildings the very tallest in the world, at the moment, is the Taipei 101 building, built in Taiwan, with 101 floors – and also rated, by some, to be one of the ugliest buildings of the world, click here. When I first visited Shenzhen, a very modern city in the south of China, it had no subway or metro system, but when on returning only two years later a system was in use and was being extended further. Some things take a while to build, such as the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, but other things in China can be done on a scale and at speeds which most of us are just not familiar with.

One of the best known projects to be built is the Three Gorges Dam which was started in 1993 and will not be fully complete until 2011. The dam, which is 2,300 metres long, 101 metres high, 115 metres thick at the base will produce a lake 660 kilometres long, approximately 1.5 kilometres wide and holding 39.3 cubic kilometres of water. To do this more than 4 million people have been relocated so they don’t go under the water; many small towns and innumerable villages plus over 1,000 sites of archaeological or historical interest will be lost. But navigation through the Three Gorges on the Changjiang will be easier and the power station will generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity. Before we leave this item and glibly skip forward to the next wonder of the world, just imagine trying to persuade 4 million people to move house in the UK; that’s more than the population of Glasgow, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Sheffield all rolled up together – think about it for a moment.

How many people in China live in big cities? Visiting any city in China you might be excused for thinking that everyone lives there, the streets are so busy with people, and most Chinese cities seem big by comparison with western counterparts but it isn’t quite as might be expected. The Chinese definition of a big city is a population centre of 5,000,000 people or more – and there are more than 10 of these in China! Although there has been a substantial shift in the population the majority still remain in rural areas, towns and small cities. Actual population figures vary according where they are obtained and how they are calculated in the first place, but possibly the largest of the municipalities, of which there are four [Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin], is Chongqing which is reputed to have a population of approximately 30,000,000 and an inner city population of between 4,500,000 and 12,000,000; this figure varies according to where the boundary between the urban area of Chongqing and the rural area is set and no one seems to agree on where that is.

On the sporting front it seems that if you give any game or activity to the Chinese it will come back twice as big and complicated as it was before, if not more. Take a simple tug-o’-war, stage it in a Chinese city and it isn’t quite so simple any more as we saw earlier this year when an event, involving two teams of 10,000 people each, a rope 1 kilometre in length and weighing 3 tons, was held in Changsha. Or a simple track event. I’m sure everyone knows what a 3-legged race is, a feat of cooperation between pairs of runners performed at a moderately quick pace. Not content with that the Chinese have come up with a 21-legged version of the race, which transforms a relatively sedate activity into something with the potential to break several limbs simultaneously should anything go wrong.

Returning to natural events, the recent disaster in Sichuan has involved some figures which are quite numbing. The number of people dead and missing is bad by any standard but these are small when compared with casualty lists and the numbers who are now homeless – more than 300,000 injured, and more than 5,000,000 people displaced. Five million; that is more than the population of the Republic of Ireland. One of the problems to be dealt with during the aftermath was the danger posed by earthquake-lakes and in one instance approximately 1.9 million people had to be moved to safer ground – that’s the population of Dublin plus a few more, shifted in one move to solve one small part of the problem. Last year the UK was beset by floods unseen before. No one doubts it cost a lot of money and was a real disaster for those directly affected. There was certainly a lot of noise made about it but I’m not sure it ranks the same as a disaster on a Chinese scale; 8 people died and 55,000 homes and other properties were damaged. If things were bad enough for 8 people to die and the population to get hot under the collar about it, how bad must it be for more than 60,000 to die and 5,000,000 to lose their homes? For up to date figures on casualties and how things are progressing, click here.

When China was an enclosed and inward looking nation none of this mattered to the rest of the world but now that it has chosen to interact what goes on in the Far East starts to matter a lot – and in a very personal way too. While China remained self-sufficient it made very little impression on the rest of the world but now there is a demand from within China for imports this has an effect. Remember, this is 20% of the world all under one government. Importing enough rubber boots to keep the population happy would have a big effect on everyone else i.e. no one else would have rubber boots for that year, there simply isn’t enough rubber in the world; but this is hypothesis, how about sticking to reality? In the days before China began importing oil the price of petrol was relatively steady, now that China is buying up supplies the price is rising. There are other factors involved too, but undisputably China is one of the major influences. This year, 2008, will probably be the last year that China is self-sufficient in food, this is due to rising expectations of the Chinese population and an increase in demand for higher living standards. Dietary shifts in China have been quite modest and the average Chinese person eats far less meat than any westerner but when that average change is multiplied by one fifth of the world population an overall world change becomes inevitable. If the squeals were loud when petrol prices started to soar, how loud will the noise be when food becomes expensive.


Related articles –

More Wealth, More Meat

From Poverty To Fast Food

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.