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. 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.
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."
2. 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.
3. 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– 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 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."
4. 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.
Holford says: "Thirst is often confused with hunger. Also, drinking does tend to fill you up. So soups help you control your appetite."
5. 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.
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."
6. 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 experts ignore that lightly cooking food makes its nutrients easier for the body to take on. The stomach is unable to digest too much raw food; this can lead to bloating and weight gain.
7. 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 people in the West forgot. "
8. 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. "
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."