Compliments to Your
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
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?
by Dan Hart ©2003
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
So when we ask the question, "where are the fat Chinese",
it appears that the very sad answer is,
E-mail Joann Flora
To Your Health
Joann Flora 2003
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