The Good and the Greasy: Eating Right in China

The Good and the Greasy: Eating Right in China
Apr 03, 2010 By Brandon King ,

While China is a diverse country with a wide variety of regional cuisines, many of them are cooked in the same way - by being fried in a wok. This practice produces a meal that is quick, tasty, and unfortunately, fatty. Combine China’s love of the wok with the carbohydrate-heavy nature of many traditional dishes and a gan bei drinking culture, and suddenly the unscrupulous expat has a recipe for a waistline longer than The Great Wall. However, those who learn to make the right dietary choices can have a culinary adventure in China that is both tasty and healthy, and they might even leave the Middle Kingdom in better shape than they entered it.

Rice is China’s staple food and is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A rice-heavy diet is perfectly fine if carbohydrates from other sources are limited, but in China, they usually aren’t. A myriad of noodle dishes, steamed buns and bread products from China’s many bakeries are all readily available, making it easy to develop a diet that is almost exclusively carbohydrate-based without realizing it. What’s the problem with that? Once eaten, carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar glucose and any excess glucose that is not used for energy stays in the body as fat. The Atkins diet craze has died down, but many dieticians still argue that carbs, not fat, are the biggest culprit behind weight gain. So, unless you are carbo-loading for The Long March, you should moderate your intake of starchy foods and balance out your diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and protein.

A second pitfall of Chinese food is that it is often fried. This adds grams to its fat content, as most foods absorb the fatty oil they are cooked in. Even a plate of greens, which appears relatively innocent, has absorbed an average of 11 grams of fat. Chinese dishes are also high in sodium, which, along with Chinese traffic, is known to raise blood pressure.

Expats drinking Tsingdao beer start seeing double immediately, as it usually comes in 24 ounce bottles rather than 12 ounce ones. This larger bottle size and the fact that any outing with Chinese men will include countless gan bei’s (a toast while finishing one’s glass), make it easy to put on a few pounds without eating anything (a 24 ounce bottle of Tsing Tao has 314 calories). I won’t even mention the cigarettes.

All that said, the worst food in China isn’t even originally from China. Even those expats who never ate at McDonald’s back home can relate to that sudden urge for a Big Mac. In China, western cuisine is sometimes necessary, even if it’s the worst the west has to offer. It is certainly convenient, since a McDonald’s is never far away in a large city and also now delivers 24 hours a day. Along with McDonald’s, chains such as Pizza Hut and KFC are suspected of fuelling a rise in obesity, especially in cities. Currently, between five and 10 percent of Chinese youths are considered obese, a number that is expected to double within a decade.

That the oven hasn’t caught on after 5,000 years of history means it probably never will, but China offers a few alternatives to fried food. Steamed items like baozi and mantou are excellent alternatives to a plate of greasy noodles. If you really crave noodles, order them in a soup. Also keep in mind that, if you can fry it, you can boil it. Chinese restaurants are usually very flexible and you can request a method of preparation that fits your dietary needs.

Green tea is China’s most popular type of tea and has been consumed here for at least 2000 years. Conveniently, it provides a number of health benefits. Studies have linked green tea consumption to lowering the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Green tea can also prevent tooth decay and perhaps even memory-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It has even been shown to speed up the metabolism and suppress appetite.

A plate of fish is never far away in China, with boiled carp a popular dish throughout the country. Fish contains tons of protein, nutrients like vitamin D and selenium, and most significantly, omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids can lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve other cardiovascular risk factors. If you don’t want to eat around the bones in a carp, grab some fish balls, which can be found in stalls throughout southern China. If you don’t want your fish balls fried, get them in a hot pot.

Studies confirm that people tend to completely fill their plates with food, regardless of their size. In China, the plates are small, so even a full plate doesn’t offer a ton of calories. The long, leisurely lunch in China might also be a factor in its slim collective waistline, as studies show that those who eat slowly, consume fewer calories than those who don’t.

While the dietician might frown at certain Chinese dishes, there is no reason to give up your chao mian. After all, the Chinese subsisted on a greasy, carb-heavy diet for centuries without experiencing any problems with obesity. It wasn’t until the introduction of western fast food in recent decades that it became a problem. In the end, it will probably be that food which gets the best of your belly.


Related links:

Intro to Chinese Manners at the Restaurant 101
Lost in Face?
Eating at a Restaurant

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