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Is the Chinese Diet Healthier?

June 27, 2011

I hope everyone in the UK has enjoyed the scorching weather today. I love the sunshine and I like feeling warm (at last, a day without circulation problems!), but I am being plagued my heat rash and my frizz-prone hair has gone crazy. I’m trying to enjoy it while I can though, it’s going to get cooler later in the week.

My post today is inspired by Jessica’s post last week where she pondered whether the Asian diet is healthier than the “Western diet”. It got me thinking about the time I spent in China and my experience with Chinese food. In 2005 I visited China for three months and spent most of my time staying with a Chinese family in Jiangsu Province, near Shanghai (although this photo was obviously taken in Beijing).


I was the only non-Chinese person in the town and I ate most of my meals with the family and with the workers from the factory that they owned. The cuisine varies vastly across China and in this particular area the staple is rice and the food tends to be salty and bland (I don’t mean this in a bad way, I just mean that they do not use any spices apart from a little ginger occasionally).

One of the first things I noticed was that in this part of China people eat virtually no wheat or dairy. I did eat a little wheat as the family would buy me bread to make me feel at home (although it didn’t much resemble the bread in the UK!), but I didn’t really miss it and I was happy to eat rice and rice noodles. I did crave dairy though and would occasionally go to the supermarket to search out yoghurts to keep me going. One benefit of this diet was that I didn’t suffer from indigestion or heart-burn, which I frequently suffer from at home.

Other aspects of the diet were also healthy, in particular there was lots of fresh fruit and vegetables on offer and they were only available in season. When I first got there in early September it was melon season and I was in heaven! After the melons finished there were lychees – yummy! This area of China is rich in freshwater fish, so there was fish available at every meal and it was fresh – so fresh that it could normally be found swimming around in a bucket only an hour before being served at the table. It was in China that I first developed a taste for tofu – I have yet to find bean curd as nice as what I had over there.

However, not all aspects of the typical diet that I observed would be considered healthy. First of all people ate vast quantities of white rice – the men would easily eat 3 or 4 large bowls at every meal, as well as the meat, fish and vegetables on offer. Nearly everything, including vegetables, was cooked in lard and had lots of MSG added to it. I quickly learned that lard + MSG = very tasty food, but it’s not a habit that I wanted to carry on when I got back to the UK. The pork that was served at every meal was incredibly fatty and the Chinese people relished it, often leaving the meaty part in favour of the fat. I also observed an obsession with KFC, although in the town I was in I think it was more of a treat than something that the average person would eat every day.

On balance people seemed slim, although I couldn’t say whether that had anything to do with diet – certainly I put on weight trying to keep up with what my tiny host mother was eating. Whilst I was there the grandfather of the family had a heart attack in his early 60s, so Chinese people obviously do suffer with some of the same health problems.

I loved the food over there, although I picked and chose what I ate – I have never been a fan of fatty meat. I took inspiration from my time there for my dinner this evening. I needed something quick after yoga, so I decided on scrambled egg with tomatoes (from my organic box) and mushrooms just fried with some soya sauce and black pepper, served with some steamed cabbage … minus the lard and MSG!


I think this might have been one of the tastiest meals I’ve made in a while and I think it would taste just as good with tofu to make it vegan.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 8:51 pm

    such an interesting account. I think it’s wise to take the healthy ideas from the diet in China and eliminate the not so. When I was in SE Asia I loved the rice and noodles. But like you said, often a lot of MSG and fat was added.

    Cutting out wheat and dairy would probably make me feel a lot healthier I reckon

  2. June 28, 2011 7:49 am

    Very interesting post, sounds like the more traditional cuisine is becoming more mingled with the Standard American Diet that seems to be spreading across the whole world. My friend lived in China for several months and reported a very similar experience to you. I would love to try out tofu (as its definitely one of my fave foods now) in China to see how it differs from what we have here 🙂

  3. June 28, 2011 9:02 am

    I read ‘In Defense of Food recently, which provided much food for though (ahem) because in it Pollan argues the Western/Standard American diet isn’t terribly unhealthy, but the obsession with reducing food down to its composite nutrients has opened food up to being tampered with, so you get unhealthy sugar-laded breakfast cereals which are marketed as being healthy because they’re fortified with vitamins and iron. At a work do the other day we had whole-grain Pringles and we joked you could eat more because whole grains are good for you…

    Pollen also notes that when people from other countries adopt the western diet they are afflicted by the worst of the diseases that come along with it – diabetes, heart disease and the rest.

    People think that other countries’ diets are healthier because they cherry pick the healthy bits, which isn’t a bad thing of course.

    The only foreign diet I know very well is that of the Levant. It does have a lot of unhealthy food and they rely in ghee for deep frying and drown dips and salads in olive oil but it does contain lots of fresh fruit and vegetables which are mostly locally-grown.

    How is the organic veg box going? I’m thinking of joining a scheme but I’m unsure as to if it worked out economically. How is the cost working out? Is it convenient? I’m worried I’d join a scheme and since there’s only 2 of us we’d end up not eating all the food, or still need to buy staples because small boxes in the scheme near us don’t include items like onions.

    • June 28, 2011 5:40 pm

      I’ve just finished reading In Defence of Food as well.
      My veg box is going very well, although I think I will have to buy some extra things, especially spinach – I miss it too much. I have a medium box and I don’t have a problem eating it all to myself, but then again I eat a lot of veggies!

  4. June 28, 2011 10:00 am

    When I read the title of the post I though “well of course because the traditional western diet as I understand it has very little processed *gumf* added to it” and then you mention mounds of MSG going into everything so I guess not. I suppose it all goes back to a matter of balance and also some degree of what your body is used to eating.

    Very interesting to read that they used little spices to flavour foods, I always thought they used loads of spice to flavour their foods and not just MSG.

  5. June 28, 2011 10:22 am

    I think traditional Chinese food is healthier, as it incorporates a lot of fresh ingredients and sea food. However, the Chinese food over here doesn’t really compare to the real stuff in China! My friend has a Chinese restaurant that serves only authentic Chinese cuisine and it tastes amazing!

  6. June 28, 2011 11:38 am

    I’m so pleased that my post prompted you to write such an interesting, thoughtful and infinitely superior reflection on the differences between Eastern and Western diets. I must admit that I never realised MSG was acutally popular in China: I always assumed it was a Western addition! LIkewise the meat thing: everything I’d read had previously stated that meat was very much a luxury for the wealthy only, so it’s really informative to hear about what really goes on from someone that has actually been immersed in Chinese culture.

    Like Laura, I would love to try ‘authentic’ tofu.

    I do wonder how much of the slim build of most people in Asian countries is genetic and how much is diet-related, percentage-wise. It’s certainly an eye-opener that your host ate an awful lot yet still remained tiny.

    I think perhaps the blandness is why I love Japanese and Chinese food of late: I think I’m a hyper-taster and therefore spices just seem too overwhelming for me.

    Good timing as well, as a shop specialising in Chinese/Japanese/Thai food just opened in Durham. It also has a little hole-in-the-wall restauranty bit to it. I really wanted to pop in and have a look but I had a hair appointment I had to rush to (in which I scared the poor hairdresser with the sheer amount of hair that came out of my head when I washed it…shame).

    Fantastic post 🙂

    P.S Do you live in Cambridge? Or have you mentioned Leeds at some point as well? Sorry to ask, it’s just that I might have to go away for career-related stuff to Leeds and Cambridge this year and, should I be in any shape to run, I’m worrying about how to find running routes of any decent length and safety in the area. Thanks!

    • June 28, 2011 5:35 pm

      I love spicy food, but I also enjoy bland, more savoury food sometimes.
      I live and work in Leeds, but my boyfriend lives in Cambridge, so I spend a lot of time there. I don’t know too many routes around Leeds, but I could probably give you a few pointers. I do know some routes in Cambridge, so drop me an e-mail nearer the time.

  7. June 28, 2011 5:38 pm

    Wow, what an amazing experience to live in China!
    I love all kinds of chinese food, but have never really stopped to think about weather it’s traditional or not…for some reason i always assumed that MSG was just in takeaway food rather than actually used in China which is quite a shock. I’ve heard it said that MSG causes headaches, did you notice anybody suffering with that sort of thing while you were out there?
    This is such an interesting post it’s made me what to look into the chinese diet a bit further.

  8. June 28, 2011 7:29 pm

    I didn’t know you’d spent time in China. What was it for? (Nosey me!)

    I don’t have much experience of “healthy” Asian food as I’ve only ever had it when I’ve been out to eat for a treat. I have heard similar things to what you are saying though, both in terms of for and against. Certainly I think that fresh food, lower dairy and wheat consumption and less meat(?) is going to lead to a healthier diet. But if there’s a lot of lard and MSG thrown in? Not so much! There’s a big debate about this in the vegan community too, with relation to soy consumption. Here’s a post I read about it:

    Beyond that though I don’t really feel like I have a clue what I’m talking about with this!

    • June 28, 2011 8:20 pm

      Thanks for the link – it’s a really interesting post and certainly my experience was that tofu is an everyday part of the Chinese diet.
      I was in China doing a teaching placement. It was pretty scary – average class size is 50! It was a brilliant experience and I can’t wait to go back sometime soon, maybe not teaching this time.

  9. July 25, 2011 7:32 pm

    ooh this reminds me of something from In Defense of Food — have you read it?! ahhh it was life changing for me! Pollan was discussing different cultures and how their practices on their own aren’t something that we would view as healthy (the mass quantities of rice or some cultures lard/blubber consumption) but eating a natural, traditional diet that is culturally.. well, traditional somehow keeps that group heatlhy! Now if only we could get on board with an alternative american diet eh?

    love this post!

    and i’m totally one of those people sensitive to MSG… omggg I can tell when its in food by how I feel after! yikes!

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