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Compliments to Your Health #19

Where Are the Fat Chinese??
by Joann Flora,
Acupressure, Nutrition Counseling, Qigong


November 19, 2003
Wednesday - 12:50 am

For the last several weeks, I have used this column as both a travel log of my trip to south China as well as a forum for health related subjects. This is probably the last column I will write specific to my Asian adventures, though I will continue to provide information on medical qigong and other Asian health practices.

During the five weeks I spent in Hong Kong and the PRC, I was always in the presence of thin people. Whether we were in the company of the affluent Chinese or among the service people and beggars, everyone we came in contact was thin. No, let me be more specific. These people were skinny by western standards. I would estimate that ninety percent of them sported 2-3% body fat. As a middle aged western woman, who would certainly benefit from losing a few pounds, and as someone working in complimentary health care, I found this fact not only fascinating but occasionally irritating. I came to hypothesize that Asian people are inherently thinner than westerners. Where are the fat Chinese? Why are all these people so thin?

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Some students in my group offered theories on this topic, pointing out that, as a group, Chinese people appear to have very slight frames: translation, small bones. Though true, this fact alone surely doesn't account for the overall slimness of the population at large. Let's list this premise anyway.
Persons of Asian decent are generally small boned.
Another point of interest is that though the Chinese people were very thin as a group, they ate as though every meal was their last. We would tease our teacher about his 'hollow legs'. Every meal consisted of large volumes of rice topped with up to six other dishes. Sample menus are as follows:
BREAKFAST: oatmeal, pickled cabbage, steamed or sweetened buns, boiled eggs, or
BREAKFAST: noodle bowl with fried egg, 1/2 corn on the cob
LUNCH: soup, rice, protein (chicken, tofu, or fish), 2 green vegetables, potatoes, tofu
DINNER: rice, potatoes, pork, squash, mushrooms, 2 green vegetables
The meals were high in the two food components we are repeatedly warned of in the west: carbohydrates and fats. All the food is fried, either in deep fat or in a wok. Three weeks into the class we actually had to request some steamed foods. Why the meals are fried is surely associated with the standard kitchen arrangement of two gas burners (no oven) in the middle class home. In poor homes, there is not really a kitchen by western standards at all. There, everything is prepared in a wok, which has been their standard cooking tool for many generations. The Chinese people did not appear at all concerned about dietary fat the way we are. The other dietary component which frequented our table, carbohydrates, is found in oats, rice, noodles, squash, potatoes, buns, and corn. Every meal is 50 percent high carb selections, with protein and green vegetables making up the balance. None of the Chinese people I dined with had any concerns about their carbohydrate intake either. So, it was that I ate each meal with my teacher and his family, as concerned about carbs and fat as they were unconcerned. They were all slender and I was the fattest person at the table. This was very annoying! Why should I have to work so hard to manage these elements in my diet while they chowed down with no regard for them? One might take the position that as Asian people evolved on rice and wok prepared foods, they may have a genetic predisposition to metabolizing fried meals of a high starch content. Let's add this second premise to our hypothesis of why the Chinese are so thin.
Persons of Asian decent are generally small boned.
Persons of Asian decent are genetically predisposed to metabolize fats and carbohydrates.
"But they physically work so hard", one of my classmates suggested as we pondered this topic amongst ourselves. This is definitely a factor if one is referring to the lower income populous. Many tasks in China fall to the less well-off and are still performed without the aid of convenience devices: the streets are swept by hand with large brooms; the hedges are clipped with manual shears; merchants and trades-people haul freight on the backs of bicycles or pull freight carts with their bikes; a lot of road construction is done with hand tools. As I write this, the current population is 1,292,175,444 and rising by the second. I believe that with such a large population, many tasks are performed manually because it provides jobs. Labor saving devices would actually be counter-productive to the society at large. Manual labor jobs provide exercise and physical activity which contributes toward a healthy body weight, but what about the upper middle class and rich? They are not shoveling dirt and clipping hedges. They have cars and work in offices. How do they stay thin if physical activity is a significant part of this process? Culturally, the Chinese have traditions that provide even the elite with more activity than the average westerner. Early morning Tai Chi and Qigong groups can be observed in parks and on roof tops in the cities. Among the well to do, bicycles continue to be used for transportation and recreation alike; their housing complexes often have fitness centers. Traffic in the cities is horrendous, so many people utilize the excellent public transportation options; this necessitates walking to and from bus stops or train depots, and chasing down taxis. Walking within city centers, shopping areas, or suburbs is a very common way of getting around. It seems that being physically active is simply a way of life in China. Their cultural traditions promote an active way of living that continues into their modern society. And, the very temperate, warm climate makes it possible to be active outdoors most of the year. Hence, we add a third premise to our hypothesis.

Persons of Asian decent are generally small boned.
Persons of Asian decent are genetically predisposed to metabolize fats and carbohydrates.
Persons of Asian decent traditionally have an active lifestyle.
Are these three premises sufficient to explain the hypothesis that Chinese people are inherently thinner than westerners? Maybe. But there is an interesting observation that can be made when Asian people relocate to the west for any significant period of time: as a group, they begin to gain weight. What changes cause them to put on the pounds? We know their bones don't change. And, it is unlikely that they lose their ability to metabolize fats. Possibly, they get less physical activity than in China as the west is geared more toward motorized transportation than bicycles and walking. This suggests that there are possibly additional factors missing from our hypothesis.

While in China, I had the opportunity to observe the eating habits of local residents, shop in their grocery stores, and visit their convenience markets. The conclusion I arrived at is:

Chinese people don't snack as frequently as westerners.
Chinese people don't consume large amounts of refined foods or hydrogenated fats.

When they do snack, their choices are significantly lower in refined sugar, white flour, and hydrogenated fats. Keeping in mind that I am working from simple observations rather than scientific study, I believe I am pointed in the right direction in explaining this major variance between the girth of Asian and western people. While the Chinese ate large and diverse meals, the snacks I did see them consume were generally local fruits or foods made from rice or fruit. They did not snack with the frequency or volume of westerners. Though imported candy, cookies, and chips were available in stores, the packaging was smaller (probably a cost factor) and I simply didn't see these products selected and consumed with near the frequency I do at home. In a nutshell, it was my observation that, for the most part, people in China eat regular meals, snack infrequently, consume foods that they are genetically predisposed to processing well, and avoid highly processed foods and hydrogenated fats.

An interesting side-note, is that Chinese people have become fond of American fast food, and US convenience food companies are making a significant impact on the Asian food culture. It was not uncommon in Hong Kong and Guandong Province shopping districts to see Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds. A local person told me the teens are especially fond of McDonalds and KFC. They will occasionally eat pizza, but as they don't tolerate dairy well, they eat cheese sparingly. The introduction of western fast food into the Asian diet presents the possibility that this population will increasingly consume hydrogenated fats, refined sugar, white flour, non-food preservatives, and better colors and flavors through chemistry. How long will it take before the slender Chinese people suffer from the effects of obesity as a direct result of dietary changes? It took roughly one century for obesity to go from an occasional health concern to a major disease factor of contemporary Americans; this is approximately the length of time it took for pre-packaged foods to go from being a household convenience to a major industry. Kevin Fontaine, PhD, estimates that an average of 316,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of obesity related diseases. These illnesses include, but are not limited to heart disease, and adult onset diabetes. Additionally, obesity contributes to hypertension (high blood pressure), hypercholesterolemia (elevated cholesterol), arthritis, depression, and emotional disorders. Before the advent of fast and convenience foods, many of these health challenges were non-issues for most of the US population. In the the 21st Century, they are a major factor. As a killer, obesity is hot on the tail of smoking which claims 440,000 Americans each year.

So when we ask the question, "where are the fat Chinese", it appears that the very sad answer is,

"they're coming"


E-Mail Joann Flora
 E-mail Joann Flora


©Compliments To Your Health
Joann Flora 2003


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