Why you rarely see an overweight Chinese person
In November 2009, I visited China for 10 days as part of an elective International Operations course during my MBA program. I was most intrigued by how eating styles vary between what I observed in China and what I am used to in the United States. The following information comes from a report I wrote after my trip about the Chinese cuisine.
One major distinction between China and the United States is SIZE. China is about the same size as the United States in land area, but China’s population is more than four times the size. Because there are more people to fit into the same sized space, in China the taxis are smaller; the hotel beds are smaller; the leg room on buses is smaller; and, in general, the people are smaller. The following information is going to discuss differences in diets between the Chinese population and Americans based on observations and research.
Traditional Chinese meals
Our meals were not structured during our first couple of days in Beijing, so we got to explore and discover Chinese cuisine on our own. The first evening several of us went to a local restaurant near our hotel and attempted to order individual meals out of what was clearly designed to be shared by the whole group (we didn’t realize this until the food was served). My chicken and mushrooms was good but one girl in the group ended up with a massive bowl of soup that was meant to be shared with the group. Oops! After that day’s adventures, most of us decided to eat lunch at McDonald’s the next day, which was familiar and close to our hotel and where we could order ice cream for dessert.
Our structured group dinners were frequently served on a “lazy Susan” where dishes are shared by everyone at a table. In China, rice or noodles will often be served as a main dish with vegetables, fish or meat as additions. In contrast, meat is often the main dish in the American meals. Food is served in small pieces that can be eaten with chopsticks. For an American who is not accustomed to using chopsticks, this way of eating requires eating much more slowly and possibly less food gets ingested because of the work required. We learned during our trip that certain foods have meanings. For example, noodles are served when guests arrive at the beginning of the trip, and dumplings are served just prior to leaving on a long trip. Therefore we were served several varieties of dumplings on our last night in Dalian.
Hot pot cooking was popular and something we experienced in both Shanghai and Dalian. A pot with flavored broth is heated at the table and uncooked noodles, vegetables and meat to be cooked in the hot pot. Luckily by this time we had already had a few days of eating with chopsticks because removing cooked noodles, mushrooms and bean curd with chopsticks was probably the biggest eating challenge of the trip.
Chinese beverage consumption
Tea or hot water was served at all of the traditional style meals. The tea was made using leaves rather than tea bags and I could not get enough of the tea. Even the hot water was soothing as I do not prefer to drink ice water anyway. Hot beverages are believed to aid in digestion. Euromonitor’s Global Information Market Database for 2002 showed China consumed .6 kilograms of tea per capita compared to .2 kilograms per capita in the United States. This means on average in 2002 a Chinese person consumed three times as much tea as an American.
Beer was served at most of our evening meals. Very small glasses were provided for drinking beer from large bottles that were shared around the table. Snow Beer and Harbin were a couple of varieties of beers served during our dinners and Tsingtao was available at the Dalian hotel bars and in hotel mini fridges. Some of the beer was served cold, but as I understand this is not always customary in China. Despite the availability of beer at our evening meals while we were in China, the United States consumes much more beer than China does. Information from Kirin Holding Co in Japan for 2004 shows the United States consumed 81.6 liters per capita compared to China’s 22.1 liters per capita. This means on average in 2004, Americans consumed 3.7 times as much beer as their Chinese counterparts.
Chinese sugar consumption
I did not see sugary foods served during dinners. Pastries were served with tea at the Lao She Teahouse in Beijing, but not at the traditional dinners. One dinner included a green star-shaped dish topped with whipped cream and a cherry that appeared to be a lime dessert. It was actually a soybean based side dish that was surprising to eat when not mentally prepared for the taste. If a dessert type of dish were served at the end of a meal, it would typically be watermelon and other fruits rather than pastries or ice cream.
Information was obtained from Illovo Sugar showing the per capita consumption of the ten largest sugar producers during the year from September 2008 to August 2009. According to the data, Americans consume 29 kilograms of sugar per capita compared to ten kilograms per capita in China. This means Americans consume almost three times as much sugar as their Chinese counterparts.
Chinese meat consumption
The following is a comparison of meat consumption between China and the United States based on 1999 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Pork – China consumed 31.4 kg per capita & US consumed just a bit more at 31.7 kg.
- Poultry – China consumed 9.5 kg per capita & US consumed over 5x as much at 49.4 kg.
- Beef & veal – China consumed 4.2 kg per capita & US consumed over 10x as much at 45.3 kg.
The hotels we stayed at included Western style breakfast buffets in order to appeal to tourists. The food options had signs with the item name in Chinese and in English. Reading the English translations was humorous because the name did not always come across as we would describe. For example “deep fried twisted” was the name used to describe a doughnut type pastry that formed a twisted shape. Another example was “deep fried carrot cake” which was actually a fish that may have had carrot flavoring as well. Notice my favorite examples are also deep fried because American tourists must be known to love deep fried foods.
The one food that I would not eat during the trip was a cooked green leafy food that appeared to be sea weed. Normally I would have no qualms with trying something different, but this was served at one of the hotel breakfast buffets and the English translation on the name tag said “speculation bacteria.” This translation made me nervous. That was the only food I refused to eat during my trip because I wanted to experience everything I could while there.
Overall the Chinese diet consists of less cheese, sugary desserts, and deep fried foods than the typical American diet. The Chinese also consume much less beer and much more tea than Americans. While pork consumption per capita is about the same between the two countries, the Chinese people consume much less poultry and beef per capita than Americans. Overall these factors can greatly contribute to a much healthier lifestyle, lower risk of some diseases and less body fat.
Euromonitor. “Global Market Information Database.” Obtained from: <http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/foo_tea_con-food-tea-consumption>
Illovo Sugar. “International Sugar Statistics.” <http://www.illovosugar.com/World_of_sugar/Sugar_Statistics/International.aspx>
Kirin Holdings Company. Per Capita Beer Consumption by Country (2004). <http://www.kirinholdings.co.jp/english/ir/news_release051215_4.html>
U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Foreign Agricultural Service, Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade, annual.”