Healthy Chinese Food? It’s not the Food, It’s This…

January 23 | 17 Comments

Is Chinese food healthy? Although there’s something to be said for China’s excellent use of vegetables and limited use of sugar in their dishes, that’s not the whole story. Having lived in China for the past decade, I’ve discovered that there other factors that contribute to the notion of “healthy Chinese food”.

Healthy Chinese food? It's not always the food

My experience with healthy Chinese food has been quite positive. Despite my aversion to diets, I’ve lost close to 10 kg (22 lbs) during my first year living in China.

A lot of this better health in China can be attributed to:

  • More walking;
  • A better sleep schedule;
  • The occasional post-meal stomach virus I like to call Mao’s Revenge;

…but I think there was a little more at work here.

After a couple years living as an expat in China, I’ve come to the realization that although I was never officially on a diet, and I certainly wasn’t focused on eating healthy Chinese food options, I was definitely learning how to eat better.

Fact: Chinese People Eat Better

Let’s be clear about one thing: not all food in China can be considered healthy Chinese food. There’s plenty of junk food here too.

And China doesn’t always have a clear understanding of food either. Take this Chinese health notice I received about the 20 dangerous food combinations as a good example.

But in spite of all this, the Chinese people eat better than most Westerners like me do.

Most people I know tend to think that Chinese people are skinnier and generally healthier-looking because they eat healthy Chinese food.

But that’s not the real reason…

The Real Reason Chinese People are Healthier

The real reason that Chinese people are healthier has to do with their food culture.

It’s hard to understand food culture when you visit a Chinese restaurant back in the US, UK or Australia. The only thing you see is the food.

But the culture of food in China is what makes the food so appealing.

In my experience, I’ve seen four aspects of Chinese food culture that contribute to general health and make up for any lack of food nutrition.

1. China Uses Smaller Food Plates

I distinctly remember the first time I sat down to eat a plate of Xinjiang DaPanJi. This enormous dish of food was set down in the middle of the table…

Dapanji (大盘鸡), or "Big Plate Chicken" is great Hui cuisine

…and then each person was handed a plate the size of a Chinese mooncake (i.e. about 3-4 inches in diameter).

There were pieces of potato bigger than the plate I was eating off of!

I think I would describe the plate in China as serving two different functions:

  1. A pit stop between the dish and my mouth;
  2. A discard pile for bones and other things I don’t want to ingest.

Very rarely did a plate serve as my personal buffet.

Smaller plates promote smaller portions.

Obviously a small plate can’t stop me from gorging myself, which I still did on occasion.

But I did learn that I don’t feel quite as obligated to continue eating when my plate is often empty.

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2. They Share Their Healthy Chinese Food

Instead of getting a plate of food just for themselves, most meals in China consist of multiple dishes spread out in the middle of the table for all guests to share.

At best, I’ll have my own bowl of rice, but that’s it.

Eating in China taught me to eat better

Sharing dishes at a Chinese restaurant is common and usually ends up decreasing the amount of food I consume.

Unfortunately western food doesn’t always lend itself to sharing but my wife and I have learned a simple lesson that has been both cost-effective and healthy…

We eat less when we share the table.

When going out to eat in America, we now tend to either split a plate (restaurants serve more than enough food on a plate nowadays!) or we get our own plates, split them and take half home as leftovers.

3. Chinese Meals Don’t Include a Dessert

Have you ever noticed that Chinese restaurants usually don’t have a desert menu? Or if they do, it’s full of obviously non-Chinese dishes?

It was both a shock and a disappointment to me when I first realized that Chinese food culture doesn’t serve dessert. Sure, a couple of them serve dishes of fresh fruit to end the meal but I think we can all agree that’s not most people’s idea of “dessert”.

It’s not mine, anyway.

Of course, China does have its own kind of Chinese sweets and candy, but it’s usually a street food and not a part of the meal itself.

Chinese bing tang hulu sweets certainly aren't China health foods!

Sometimes my wife and I will treat ourselves to one of these treats as we walk home (walk, not drive)…but it’s a special occasion, not a mandatory meal course.

4. Chinese Meals Don’t Come with Refillable Drinks

Did you know that beverages account for almost 21% of the calories the average American consumes in a day?

Even outside America, I’m sure that number is quite high.

I come from a place where the cups are extra-large and the refills are free…I was NOT happy being served hot tea out of an 8oz. shot glass during meals.

It was good for me, though. China helped me kick my habit of compulsive drinking.

I used go to a restaurant in America and tip a waiter based on how well my glass was kept full…and I worked them hard! Glass after glass of either Dr. Pepper (oh, such sweet nectar!) or iced tea, both of which contained more sugar than I probably needed for the entire week.

Is it all about healthy Chinese food? Maybe, but China helped me realize that my beverage consumption is important too.

5. Chinese Eat Slowly (Which is Healthier)

This seems like such a common-sense idea, yet somehow I fail to catch onto it. A banquet in China usually lasts a couple hours, with the food slowly rolling by on a lazy Susan.

Some Chinese officials I know have to go to a banquet every night…

how do they survive?

I once sat next to a vice-mayor in our city during a banquet and asked her that exact question. Her response?

Watch me…I’ll look like I’m eating but in reality I will eat very little tonight“.

Sure enough, she didn’t eat more than 10 bites throughout the entire banquet.

Eat slow…eat less.

This isn’t a mind-blowing revelation or anything, but I think that because I’m using chopsticks and because I’m reaching into the middle of the table to grab my food, I end up eating much slower than I do in America.

Final Thoughts | Healthy Chinese Food

Is there such thing as healthy Chinese food? You bet there is!

But is that the only reason why Chinese people are generally healthier? Absolutely not.

The Chinese culture of food contributes to a healthier style of eating. If you live in China, you start to feel it. For those who just visit a Chinese restaurant back in your home country…it might not be as obvious.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. Enjoyed your post! I also learned these same lessons while living in China. I lost almost 35 lbs. in just 4 months from walking everywhere and modifying my eating / drinking habits drastically. It was for the good, then I returned to America and gained it all back. Curses!

    Side note: the receipt that had the scratch-off window is actually a lure for customers to ask for them. The reason being is that if they are issued then the restaurant is responsible for paying taxes on that income. Most restaurants will either not give them out at all or will bribe you with free drinks or something so as not to report the income. Monthly the tax agent will come around and check the number of receipts issued that month and demand payment as necessary.

    [Reply]

    Josh on June 9th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I had a guess that those scratch-offs had something to do with tax evasion. One of the first phrases I learned how to say in Chinese was “Would you give me a discount if I didn’t ask for the fapiao?” Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes we got 5 RMB!

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    Baoru on June 10th, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Really it does? Have to learn this technique then!

    Joel on June 11th, 2010 at 7:50 am

    I just innocently ask for the fapiao, and then they usually offer us free bottle of whatever. Happens all the time, when I remember to do it.

    Josh on June 11th, 2010 at 7:55 am

    That’s interesting. I never got offered anything, I always had to ask. They’d usually take off 2-3 RMB if I didn’t grab the fapiao.

  2. Can’t remember if I actually put online what I wrote about the lessons from food in China (ah, yes, this at least: http://www.positive-ecology.org/blog/2010/02/02/food-rules-china/), but I concur fully.

    Chinese cooking has a somewhat bad reputation for using too much oil, for example, but – home-style – it is truly a world treasure: yes, hearty, but fitting most lifestyles; kinda simple, but tasty; and truly made to be well-nourished without getting too little or too much.
    I just started writing about simple Chinese cooking on my http://www.chilicult.com/chillilabor

    Of course, it’s still a matter of things working together. Witness the popularity of KFC and the rising obesity amongst kids.

    Oh, science talk: There are quite a few studies on how (or whether) people choose how much they eat depending on how much is on their plate or by their sense of satiety. Scientists went so far as to make secretly re-filling soup bowls. French, for example, came out rather well, Americans were found to want to eat until the plate is empty, not until they are sated.

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  3. Great post Josh and I only wish the same was true to me. Unfortunately I’ve gone the opposite way and gained about 10-20KG in my half-decade here. But the logic of the items above is bang-on… I just need to follow them more (and eat more Chinese food).

    One change I’ve noticed from my early days here until now is that I don’t walk nearly as much as I used to. I used to walk, bike or bus everywhere because I was poor. I’m still pretty poor, but for the amount I go out, I rarely do it in anything but taxi-style… and I know that’s had a huge effect on why I’ve gained weight.

    I guess the trick will be now that you’re home — can you maintain it or get supersized? ;-)

    [Reply]

    Josh on June 9th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Very true, Ryan…since getting back in America I’ve definitely gained. Not good. Everybody keeps baking us all these huge meals, though! I swear its not my fault.

    Also, as far as walking goes, I was also guilty of walking less. My excuse wasn’t a taxi, though…it was my motorcycle. Why walk around sweating when I can run around on a sweet bike? :)

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  4. i love this. i gained 25# when i lived in japan for a year – i think it was all the carbs (rice) that i wasn’t used to eating. that said, the part about the dish being a pit stop makes me laugh. great post!

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  5. Thank you for bringing back fond memories of China. What you have written is so true. Eating was often a fun event in China yet I lost 20-22 pounds while there for four years. Like others have experienced, I gained it back in about six or seven months after I was back in the US.

    [Reply]

    Josh on June 12th, 2010 at 5:03 am

    Glad you had such fond memories!

    I know exactly what you mean about losing in China and gaining it back in the US. It’s so difficult to do otherwise!

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  6. Glad you had such fond memories!

    I know exactly what you mean about losing in China and gaining it back in the US. It’s so difficult to do otherwise!

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  7. First, I want to thank you for your great posts about Xin Jiang. If you’re interesting in more of the psychology behind some of your observations, the book by Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink goes more into depth about several psychological studies behind these principals.

    [Reply]

    Josh on July 26th, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Thanks, James! I’ll definitely look into that book, although I’ve never heard of it before.

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  8. just thought you might like to know the reason behind the scratch-ticket receipts. Basically it is an attempt to increase the tax base. The potential to win prizes is an attempt to induce people to ask for official receipts with every purchase. When a restaurant issues an official receipt the purchase previously made goes on record and the restaurant will later pay taxes on it. Without official receipts, the government would have to rely on restaurateurs to report their monthly revenue and accordingly determine how much is owed in taxes. If not for the scratch offs, most customers — with the exception of receipt collecting businessman and party officials — probably wouldn’t pay much attention to whether or not they received a receipt, allowing a restaurant to under-report revenue and essentially evade paying taxes.

    [Reply]

    Josh on August 1st, 2010 at 5:17 am

    Thanks for clearing that all up! I had my suspicions but this definitely makes a lot of sense.

    [Reply]