Feature Archive

The Chinese Secret

Many Veggies, Less Meat

WebMD Feature

Nov. 13, 2000 -- Scan the menu at your local Chinese restaurant and you're apt to find dozens of meat-centered dishes -- General Tso's chicken, orange beef, twice-fried pork. But don't be fooled. Most Chinese living in China don't eat such a meat-centered diet.

For centuries, for reasons both economic and historic, the traditional Chinese diet has been primarily vegetarian -- featuring lots of vegetables, rice, and soybeans -- and containing only shavings of meat for flavoring, says Lan Tan, owner of Lan Tan's Chinese Cooking School in Durham, N.C. Many Chinese simply can't afford mega slabs of meat -- or the cooking oil with which to prepare it.

Just as Americans may ask, "Where's the beef?" when visiting a traditional Chinese restaurant in China, the traditional Chinese might wonder, "Where are the vegetables?" when visiting a Chinese restaurant in the U.S.

"Even I forget just how healthy Chinese food really is until my mother visits from Taiwan," says Tan, who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago. "My mother will use one-third pound of meat to feed six people."

Indeed, the traditional Chinese diet is far healthier than the traditional American diet, which often features meat as the focus of the meal, says T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

But you don't have to travel to rural parts of China to eat healthy. Simply incorporate the Chinese way of eating into your diet, which can be done no matter where you are -- whether you're dining at a restaurant or preparing Chinese dishes at home.

The Meat Myth

Unlike the meat-heavy plates featured in many Chinese restaurants in the U.S., the traditional Chinese diet consists mainly of plant foods, small amounts of fish and poultry, and only occasionally red meat, says Campbell, the director of the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health, and Environment, a long-term study comparing the diets of rural China with average American ones. He has been tracking the eating habits of people living in 100 Chinese rural villages since the early 1980s.

According to Campbell's research, the traditional Chinese diet is comprised of only 20% animal foods -- far less than the amount in the typical American diet. As a result, the Chinese diet contains a formidable team of disease-fighting antioxidants and plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals -- all of which contribute to a healthier way of eating.

In rural China, in fact, the rates of major chronic diseases including breast, colon, and rectal cancer are mere fractions of those reported in the U.S. "There are some regions in China in which breast cancer and heart disease are almost unknown," Campbell says. Moreover, type 2 diabetes also is much less prevalent, as is bone-weakening osteoporosis, even though the Chinese consume far fewer dairy products than we do in the U.S., he says.

Just what do the traditional Chinese actually eat? "For breakfast, it's often congee, a thin rice porridge," says Shiny Qin, a 31-year-old account executive at a New York City advertising agency who grew up in a rural village near Shanghai. "Lunch might be rice with vegetables flavored with bits of pork, even at school." And dinner? "My mother always served rice and four other kinds of dishes, which we call main dishes. At least one main dish would be all vegetables -- different kinds of greens, sweet potatoes, or tomatoes. The rest were vegetables or tofu with a little bit of beef or pork."

Importing "The Chinese Way" American-Style

Crowding your plate with complex carbohydrates, such as rice and vegetables, and using meat as more of a flavoring for these healthier options, is the Chinese recipe for good health. And the best part is you can work this healthy diet into your everyday meals, no matter where you are. Just follow this traditional Chinese food for thought:

  • Out for Chinese food? Enjoy! But skip the deep-fried Chinese-American fare, such as sweet and sour pork. Instead, head for the vegetarian section of the menu and eat the way the Chinese really do. Look for entrees made with napa cabbage, bok choy, spinach, and broccoli, which are packed with vitamin A and C, as well as fiber and phytochemicals. Chinese vegetables are usually stir fried, which is a quick-cooking technique that tends to preserve water-soluble vitamins (such as A and C). If the menu indicates that the vegetables will be steamed, order them lightly steamed to minimize nutrient loss during cooking. If meat is a must, order your chicken or beef stir fried (not deep fried) with vegetables like snow peas, green and red peppers, string beans, or zucchini. Still hungry? Consider an extra serving of white or brown rice.

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