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will show that the population is in a much more healthy state than that found in a country where traditional food has been replaced by diets concocted by nutritional ‘experts’.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