How do Chinese people stay thin eating Chinese food all day?

I had forgotten that Americans didn’t all look as flawless as the actors on Friends. And that they weren’t all 20 to 30 year old, well-educated, well-off, well-dressed globe trotters.

So when I arrived in Chicago after spending over a year in China, I felt like I had walked onto the Starship Enterprise. There were teenagers. With real live acne.

Americans were also less slim than I had imagined based on magazines and movies. I quickly learned why, as I ate myself through the next 10 days and my own pants became even tighter. Though thanks to newfangled “Vanity Sizing” in stores, I learned that you can gain 5 lbs and lose a size all at once. America is still the best country, ever!

The past 14 months in China, I’ve often wondered why Chinese women are so thin, even though they eat Chinese food, which is almost always fried. Here’s are the 10 main reasons I’ve come across:

(1) They get large portions, but share them and don’t finish them. It’s totally okay to leave most of the plate on the plate, and just stop eating when you’re full in China. Not so in America, where I’ll put down that whole massive burrito, no matter how “overstuffed” it boasts of being. America, it’s time to face the truth: you do believe it’s not butter, and you did just eat the whole thing.

(2) They don’t eat dessert for breakfast. Breakfast tends to be bland (boiled egg, some steamed bread, some rice porridge, meat dumplings), not sweet (check out how much sugar they add next time you have a box of cereal with you; Kellogg’s so called “Smart Start” has 14g of sugar, for instance).   Of course this is changing.  Drinks are loaded with sugar, and Chinese bread is notoriously sweet.  We’ll see.

(3) They don’t eat late. The saying is “eat a good breakfast; eat enough at lunch so you’re full; and just a little food for dinner.” So no going to bed with a full stomach of stagnating food as per the massive 8 pm din-dins we’re used to.

(4) They eat Food.  Not chemicals.  Everywhere I went in NY “food” was packaged and processed, adulterated and additived.  There was a Michael Pollan article in the NYT back in January advising Americans to stop eating so much artificial stuff and calculating their diets (And Mr. Pollan makes a great argument in an article this week (thanks Shane!) that we eat so much corn- and soy-based processed stuff thanks to the Farm Bill.  Worth a read.

And the veggies even in NY were not nearly as good as the stuff in China — I’m serious. Something about having a country of 900 million farmers… Chinese veggies are freshly picked and awesome — really fresh, really full of flavor. Much more seasonal too. Actually, ALL seasonal. Here, I know when orange season ends. Back in NY, I would only know if I asked my commodity trading friends. Come to China and have a taste!

(5) They don’t eat nearly as much bread. I couldn’t get over how much bread is sold in NY: breakfast options are limited to bagels, toast, muffins and donuts; lunch is a selection of sandwiches. Only dinner provides some bread respite, but again, there are those rolls on the table. I love bread, don’t get me wrong, but it can’t be good to get so much of your nutrition from something that unnutritious. (Atkins was on to something.)

(6) They walk (or bike) everywhere. New Yorkers do too, but Chinese cities are just bigger, so they do it more. Bus stops in Chengdu were at least a 10 minute walk apart, and living “close to the subway” in Beijing means a 15 minute walk. In NY, “close” means 5 minutes.

(7) They don’t drink as much alcohol. Maybe it’s because baijiu tastes worse than rubbing alcohol (as some of you have discovered), or that Chinese red wine isn’t as good as foreign wine (but for $2/bottle, what do you expect?). Or that hard alcohol is prohibitively expensive in China prices (for 250 RMB you can either buy a bottle of Chivas or a banquet meal for 10). Or that women aren’t really supposed to drink. Or that Chinese women I know have much lower tolerance (though not sure if that’s weight-adjusted, given that I weigh 50% more than my roommate who is roughly the same height). Whatever the reason, Chinese women don’t drink the empty calories of alcohol.

(8) They do drink tea though. Tea is a pretty darn healthy drink. Much better than colas with all their chemicals, coffee with its milk and sweeteners and chemicals, and juices with all its sugar (and chemicals). Probably even better than drinking water. Drink tea!

(9) They don’t eat as much meat. Someone once told me that the food pyramid was built by the Food Lobby Pharaohs — dairy wasn’t originally its own category (can someone confirm this?), and meat a smaller piece of the nutritional pie. Here meat is mostly flavoring, added to a mix of veggies, and not a dead slab of protein and fat lying as a centerpiece on your plate. Having said that, the roast beef sandwich I had on a roll, lettuce, tomato, a little mayo … delicious! I’ll never be vegetarian, but there’s something to be said for eating less meat. (Actually, there’s a lot to be said for that, but I’ll keep it short. Did you know it uses as much water to raise and process one pound of beef as you use showering all year? So either cut out showering, or eat one less pound of beef a year…)

(10) They don’t say cheese. (They say eggplant.) (Really.) I am not sure that eating cheese in the quantity that we Americans eat it is really good for you. Any nutritionists out there?

Long story short, if you want to eat like a Chinese person, cut out bread, cheese, much of your meat, packaged foods, non-tea drinks, alcohol, and dessert, and then bike/walk a lot, share your dishes, and eat your main meal at lunch.

Or what might be easier, just move to China.

Yours, from Beijing,


6 thoughts on “How do Chinese people stay thin eating Chinese food all day?

  1. The Michael Pollan described in #4 answers the question posed in #9 in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. the USDA is responsible for the pyramid and the USDA is lobbied by industrial food peoples :-/ To illustrate this point let us examine regulations for a meat packing plant. rule #1: the walls must be impermeable, white and washed after every shift. rule #2: there must be a bathroom that is to be used solely by the meat-packing plant inspector. a rule that does NOT exist: bacteria levels in meat must be under a certain threshold. that’s right folks … the amount of bacteria on a piece of meat is not regulated by the USDA, however, the restrooms for inspectors is mandated 🙂

  2. NOO!!!!! I NEED CHEESE!!! I’m a grad student, how can I NOT eat ramen? Pre-packaged and all! When I go to a chinese restaurant though, I have to say, I’m always hungry afterwards (at least for dim sum). But then again, it’s tasty. . .mostly. I do have to admit though that chinese food here is very different from in China. . .meat is important here, because there is more here. I dunno, maybe you do have to live in China. . .Also, instead of bread, there is rice.. .Hmm, maybe I’m more Filipino than Chinese in this case, and my Filippino culture is overpowering the Chinese.

  3. It’s all changing fast:

    I can’t find the articles, but I read a few about health crisis in the
    big cities, between air pollution, smoking like chimneys and eating a
    traditional fatty diet without the traditional farm work, life
    expectancy in the big cities has plummeted.

    There’s a big difference depending upon how old you are. When I was teaching in China my older students
    still remembered waiting in line with their moms to get food rations.
    My younger students messed that and consequently had far more calories
    in their diets. My younger students are
    noticeably bigger than my older students with at least one “fat” kid
    per class that was really overweight and would introduce himself
    (usually it was a guy) as “the fat kid”.

    As much as the Chinese will tell you their diet will allow you to live
    to 150 years old, I’m not sure I’d buy it 😉

  4. Yeah, I second Shane. When I was a kid growing up in China in the 80’s, we had to buy food with foodstamps because a lot of things were rationed, which meant our whole family could only have a pound of meat or some ridiculously small amount every month. I always ended up picking out all the meat in all the dishes and hoarding them in my bowl.

    That’s why I will probably never become a vegetarian. Meat = yummy 🙂 It’s also why I go to the gym 3 or 4 times a week to maintain my weight.

  5. While it is true that the various food lobbies influenced the “four basic food groups” and the “food pyramid” (both the old “eat lots of bread” one and the new “it’s all relative” one), there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with meat & cheese. I imagine the reason cheese (and dairy in general) is less popular is because of lactose intolerance (remember HumBio? I know you didn’t take it, but everyone else in Toyon did!). As for meat, obviously some are healthier than others (particularly in regards to saturated fat), but in general it is healthy (hence protein-heavy Atkins/South Beach Diets)…albiet bad for the environment/humanity (cf your discussion about water for showering).

    Two other partings shots:
    – “Chinese red wine isn’t as good as foreign wine (but for $2/bottle, what do you expect?)” Have you already forgotten the glories of Two Buck Chuck?
    – Allegedly dark chocolate is actually better for you than green tea!

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