The Chinese Secret – Many Veggies, Less Meat
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.
- Dining elsewhere? Or at home? Give vegetables and grains (including rice or pasta) entree status. Consider meat a flavoring rather than the main attraction. To safeguard your intentions, buy meat in quarter to half-pound packages or ask the butcher to divvy up a larger package for you. As a general rule, that amount should feed two to three people, according to traditional Chinese dietary principles. Along with the meat, have a baked potato and spinach, for example, or a tossed salad and asparagus. Once a week, it’s a good idea to go all out and have a totally vegetarian meal, such as vegetable lasagna or baked white or sweet potatoes with vegetarian toppings.According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans should make up two-thirds or more of the meal — like they have in rural China for centuries. Animal foods should make up no more than one-third.
But before you pat yourself on the back for eating your broccoli, take heed. Variety is key. “Each fruit, vegetable, or grain has its own profile of cancer-protective substances that tend to work as a team,” says Melanie Polk, RD, an AICR spokeswoman. In short, when it comes to disease-proofing your diet, eat more plant foods like the Chinese do. For the best health insurance, expand your repertoire to include vitamin-packed Chinese favorites, such as bok choy, kale, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts, spinach, and eggplant.
- Sneak in fruits and veggies — it’s a good way to heighten the produce quotient of your diet without realizing it. The Chinese stir fry, for example, is a sneaky way to get a host of vegetables all in one sitting. Try these American ways to do the same thing: Top off your morning cereal or yogurt with bananas, berries, or peaches. Layer sandwiches with dark leafy greens such as spinach and watercress; order your chicken or fish sandwich with extra lettuce, tomato, and onion. Roll bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and slices of green or red pepper into tortillas or flat bread; heap salsa onto low-fat tortilla chips; toss petite peas, tomatoes, onion, celery, carrots, and peppers into a salad. Tuck mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, onions, and carrots into pasta sauce, meat loaf, soup, stew, and chili.
- When you do eat meat American-style (as the star attraction), choose low-fat cuts. (Hint: The leanest cuts of meat have loin or round in their names, for example, round steak or pork loin.) Also, limit portions to 2 to 3 ounces — about the size of a floppy disk — and trim all visible fat from the meat before cooking: You’ll save an average of 11 grams of fat (roughly 100 calories) per serving by pre-trimming, which prevents fat from migrating into the meat during cooking. Also skip the skin, and you’ll save an additional 100 calories per 3-ounce serving.
- Choose fruit for dessert. Cloying concoctions such as brownie chocolate cheesecake and pecan pie after a meal are a bit of a head scratcher to the Chinese; their culture doesn’t participate in the post-meal ritual we call dessert. Fresh fruit, on the other hand, is the unofficial national treat of China. Of course, because it has no fat and fewer calories than most classic Western desserts, fruit is a much better nutritional deal: It offers up disease-fighting nutrients, such as fiber, folic acid, and vitamins A and C to boot.
As you can see, with a few diet modifications, “the Chinese way” is easily available for importing. All it takes is an adventurous palate, some inventiveness in the kitchen, and the desire to stay healthy for the long haul. “The closer you get to a plant-based diet,” says Campbell, “the better off you’ll be.”
By Sandra Gordon
The China study : The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health is a book by T. Colin Campbell and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II. It was first published in the United States in January 2005 and had sold over one million copies as of October 2013, making it one of America’s best-selling books about nutrition.
The China Project
In the early 1980’s, nutritional biochemist T. Colin Campbell, PhD of Cornell University, in partnership with researchers at Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, embarked upon one of the most comprehensive nutritional studies ever undertaken known as the China Project. China at that time presented researchers with a unique opportunity. The Chinese population tended to live in the same area all their lives and to consume the same diets unique to each region. Their diets (low in fat and high in dietary fiber and plant material) also were in stark contrast to the rich diets of the Western countries. The truly plant-based nature of the rural Chinese diet gave researchers a chance to compare plant-based diets with animal-based diets.
The China Study examines the link between the consumption of animal products (including dairy) and chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and bowel cancer. The authors conclude that people who eat a predominantly whole-food, vegan diet—avoiding animal products as a main source of nutrition, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk, and reducing their intake of processed foods and refined carbohydrates—will escape, reduce, or reverse the development of numerous diseases. They write that “eating foods that contain any cholesterol above 0 mg is unhealthy.”
The book recommends sunshine exposure or dietary supplements to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D, and supplements of vitamin B12 in case of complete avoidance of animal products. It criticizes low-carb diets, such as the Atkins diet, which include restrictions on the percentage of calories derived from carbohydrates The authors are critical of reductionist approaches to the study of nutrition, whereby certain nutrients are blamed for disease, as opposed to studying patterns of nutrition and the interactions between nutrients.
The book is “loosely based” on the China–Cornell–Oxford Project, a 20-year study—described by The New York Times as “the Grand Prix of epidemiology”—conducted by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford. T. Colin Campbell was one of the study’s directors. It looked at mortality rates from cancer and other chronic diseases from 1973–75 in 65 counties in China; the data was correlated with 1983–84 dietary surveys and blood work from 100 people in each county. The research was conducted in those counties because they had genetically similar populations that tended, over generations, to live and eat in the same way in the same place. The study concluded that counties with a high consumption of animal-based foods in 1983–84 were more likely to have had higher death rates from “Western” diseases as of 1973–75, while the opposite was true for counties that ate more plant-based foods.
The book was first published in 2005. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2016.
Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said in his documentary The Last Heart Attack in 2011 that The China Study had changed the way people all over the world eat.
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