Chinese food has a bad reputation in the UK. The rice-heavy meals and fatty meat dishes are thought to lead straight to obesity and heart disease. But properly prepared, says Chinese food expert Lorraine Clissold, the very opposite is true: the Chinese way of eating is healthy and fulfilling, fights illness and prolongs life. She also insists, in her book Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories, that a real Chinese diet won’t make you fat, and that the rising levels of obesity observable in China are in fact caused by sugary, overprocessed Western food. Here are some of her Chinese dietary secrets – and the verdict of two Western nutrition experts, Patrick Holford and Ian Marber.
1. Stop counting calories
The Chinese don’t have a word for “calories”. They view food as nourishment, not potential weight gain. A 1990 survey found that Chinese people consumed 30 per cent more calories than Americans, but were not necessarily more active. Clissold says their secret is avoiding the empty calories of sugary, nutrient-free foods.
Holford says: “The latest research into weight loss shows that calorie-controlled, low-fat diets are less effective than low glycemic load diets, which is exactly what a traditional Chinese diet is.”
Marber says: “There is one calorie in a Diet Coke, and 340 calories in an avocado. Which one is actually good for you? It’s a no-brainer. The avocado supplies you with monounsaturated fats and omega-6, which actually help increase metabolic rate.”
2. Think of vegetables as dishes
Rather than an uninspiring accompaniment to meat or fish, the Chinese treat vegetables as meals in their own right, rather than add-ons, as in the West.
Marber says: “I’m a great believer in combining protein and carbohydrate. There aren’t many complex carbohydrates in vegetables, but they should count as a dish. If the majority of your meal is vegetables, and you add some protein, you’ll always have a perfect meal.”
Holford says: “Vegetables should make up half of what’s on your plate in any given meal, so this fits perfectly with the Chinese diet.”
3. Fill up on staple foods
Without rice, which is low in fat and high in nutrients and fibre, claims Clissold, it is impossible to eat until you are full. Low-carb diets promise to burn fat, but Clissold says that replacing carbs with food that is higher in fat and lower in nutrients is not a long-term answer to weight loss.
Marber says: “I don’t agree. That Chinese person shovelling rice down is slightly pudgy because they eat too much rice. But from a financial point of view it’s very useful, because Atkins-style diets are very expensive.”
4. Eat until you are full
The Chinese eat until they are full, and then stop. Westerners often take a feast-and-famine approach to eating that is ridden with guilt – purging during the week and binging over the weekend, or skipping lunch to make room for cake, The Chinese tend to eat three good meals every day.
Holford says: “Provided that a meal has a high intake of fibre-rich vegetables and a balance of protein and carbohydrate, which a typical Chinese meal would, then you should eat until you are full. But the combination of high sugar, refined carbs (the white stuff) and high fat allows for more food to be eaten in a short space of time before the body’s ‘appestat’ kicks in and tells you to stop.”
Marber says: “What does ‘full’ mean? I think so much of that message is lost in the conspicuous consumption of the Western world. But be careful: it takes a while for the brain to recognise CCK, the hormone released when you are full, so you’re actually full quite a lot earlier than you realise.”
5. Take liquid food
Soup, or a soup-based dish, is present at every Chinese meal, often in the form of a watery porridge, zhou. Western diets can be very dry, and nutritionists compensate by urging us to drink more water, which the Chinese would never do with a meal. Instead, they make a nourishing liquid food part of the meal. And it’s a great way of using up leftovers.
Holford says: “Thirst is often confused with hunger. Also, drinking does tend to fill you up. So soups help you control your appetite.”
Marber says: “I’m a great believer in soups before food. Miso soup, for instance, or anything fermented – these are probiotics, which help release nutrients from the food you are about to eat.”
6. Bring yin and yang into your kitchen
A good Chinese diet balances yin (wet and moist) and yang (dry and crisp) ingredients. Yin foods cool the body down, while yang foods – meat, spicy dishes, wine, coffee – heat it up. The sharing, multi-dish approach to eating in China means most meals contain yin and yang in equilibrium.
Marber says: “You should have complex carbs, a protein and a grain together for many different reasons, one of which is the experience of eating. The typical English bastardisation of Chinese food, chicken and cashew nuts, is a good example: you’ve got the softness of the chicken, the crunch of the nut and the satisfying rice.”
Holford says: “Most protein foods are seen as yang, carbohydrates as yin. The combination of these two helps stabilise blood sugar, which is the key to good energy and minimising weight gain.”
7. Raw power? not necessarily
Chinese people don’t eat raw salad. While raw food has a higher concentration of vitamins than cooked food, Clissold says the research ignores that lightly cooking food makes its nutrients easier for the body to take on. This way, it can conserve energy for other tasks. The stomach is unable to digest too much raw food; this can lead to bloating and weight gain.
Holford says: “The rawer the better. In almost all cases, raw food has more nutrients, though lightly cooking some vegetables can make those nutrients more bio-available.”
Marber says: “I don’t hold with this one. Eating a big salad with lots of different raw vegetables in it is very satisfying, and I can’t believe your average Brit is going to blanch salad.”
8. Use food to keep fit
Chinese medicine prescribes various foods as medical treatments: chillies to promote digestion and dispel cold; garlic to counteract toxins. The ultimate purpose is to ensure all the organs are working correctly to allow energy, or chi, to circulate smoothly around the body.
Holford says: “Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates said, ‘Let food be your medicine.’ But we in the West forgot. Peasant communities tend to have more respect for the cycle of food and how it supports life.”
9. Drink green tea
Green tea eliminates toxins, aids digestion and allays hunger. Scientists have found that it also fights free radicals, which cause cancer and heart disease.
Marber says: “I’m a great believer in green and herbal teas. Green tea is an important antioxidant, but it will only help you lose weight if you drink 40 cups a day. I’m also a great believer in a skinny latte once in a while – or every morning, in my case.”
Holford says: “Traditionally, when the Chinese want another cup of tea, they’ll keep the same leaves and add water to the pot. That’s like only using one teabag a day – which means much less caffeine.”
10. Take restorative exercise
Try regular, gentle exercise such as tai chi. A sweaty workout might shed fat, but it is stressful for your body. Energetic, aerobic workouts are yang – they heat us up – while breathing exercises are yin.
holford says: “Exercise after a meal promotes an active metabolism and helps control appetite. Although no one has worked out how to measure chi, the vital energy that these exercises promote, it’s a real thing that can easily be experienced. Many trials now show benefits to energy levels and immunity from these chi-generating exercises.”
Marber says: “Tai chi gives you a sense of balance, calm and peacefulness. Sweating it out at the gym is the precise opposite, but I can’t help it – I’m vain, shallow and modern. I think we’ve got a really messed-up view of how the body should look, and that it’s how we look, rather than how we feel, that matters.”
By Sophie Morris