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Staying healthy: China vs the West

Who's healthier, China or the West? Why?


Staying healthy: China vs the West

Who's healthier, China or the West? Why?


It’s a well-known fact that Chinese diets are perceived as healthier by those in the West. As conventional wisdom goes, the smaller, freshly cooked portions mean that people are generally exposed to a more balanced meal. If headlines are anything to go by, the biggest health concerns for most Chinese come from an outside source: air pollution.

While in the West, people often have unhealthy diets, consume large portions and rush to eat meals as quickly as possible. They like to think that they are balancing it all out with exercise – which is a lot easier to do when there is plenty of clean air around!

But what are Chinese people doing right regarding health and fitness, and where can they improve?

Pollution: The smog gets in your eyes

A report by the European Union said that in China “only one percent of the country’s city dwellers breathe air considered safe”, but the relative risk of health problems caused by air pollution are much lower compared with other lifestyle factors such as a bad diet, lack of exercise or smoking. The biggest killer in China is still the same as other countries – heart disease. There are also a lot of steps that can be taken to avoid the worst of the pollution, especially now as so many people are working and spending most of our time indoors.

As Doctor Richard Saint Cyr, a Beijing online health guru and family physician at Beijing United Family Hospital, told The Beijinger last year, Don’t be afraid to exercise outside! As long as the AQI pollution index is reasonable (under 150).”

Or you can even get on your bike and cycle according to a Dutch report, which said, “Car drivers actually breathe in dirtier air than cyclists.” which might be true of Holland, but who know about the streets of Beijing? Anyway, the report recommended cycling a short distance every day, and that it all would “add up enough to give you the recommended heart-healthy exercise levels.”

Here at TWOC we definitely recommend getting out there and joining in on a serious session of plaza dancing, don’t forget to read our post about our top five plaza dancing songs.

Exercise: A nation on the move?

According to data from the World Health Organisation, the USA has an obesity rate of 32 percent, compared to just six percent in China. For people considered to be just overweight, China’s figure is 25 percent, while the US has a mind-boggling 69 percent. This sounds pretty impressive on China’s part, but the large differences in the figures might soon shrink as the waistlines of Beijing’s kids get larger.

As the China Daily  reported earlier this year, out of “1.3 million Beijing primary and secondary school students polled, 21.46 percent of them were obese.” According to a survey, “those between 20 and 39 are the least active exercisers”. Fifty-one percent of them “don’t exercise regularly”,  and this is because they have “no time due to overloaded schedules.”

Nowadays time is so precious that the thought of wasting it uncomfortably sweating seems like a terrible idea, but it is important to raise the heart rate a little. “Deskercise” might be a simple answer for those stuck behind a computer all day. Time Out Beijing came up with a nice shortlist of suggestions, our favorite at TWOC being the “chair dips”:

Chair dips

What it does: This upper-arm workout will beef up your biceps.

How to do it: Sit on the edge of a wheeled office chair and grip the sides of the chair with your hands. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, hip-distance apart, and make sure your toes are pointing forward. Hold the seat tight and lift yourself off it a little, then, while raised, let the chair roll back slowly, keeping your feet firmly in place and lowering yourself down. Stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Pull the chair towards you to get back up again. This movement works your biceps and triceps – contract your stomach and legs while doing the dips for a full body workout.

While in China, beliefs around health have often persisted for centuries, in the West it often seems like the outlook of health is very focused on passing fads like, fruit and juice cleanses and extreme workouts, purging or bingeing on food and exercise – all for a temporary solution. But those “healthy and fit” Westerners are significantly outnumbered compared to those who prefer to lead an inactive life with large portions and fast food. Still, many fit and healthy Westerners can be found going for a power walk around a park at in their lunch break, and now many offices run running clubs for  and hour or so after work.

Food: Authentic Chinese cooking vs Western Chinese Takeaways

In The West “Chinese food” is considered one of the most unhealthy meals that you can get. According to some reports, Western Chinese takeaway meals can contain an: entire day’s worth of sodium,  a small wine glass full of fat, and if something is marked as “crispy” it’s going to be deep fried. As one writer for the British Guardian put it, “Chinese food has been slurred again.”

According to travel writer Kathy Flower: “It is debatable whether, in purely Western terms, the Chinese eat a “healthy” diet. [The Chinese] eat many vegetables, things are cooked fast so that the goodness is not  destroyed, and people eat smaller quantities fairly frequently  “grazing,” rather than eating huge meals in one sitting, which is one reason why they tend to be slimmer that people in the increasingly obese West.”

She goes on to write that: “On the other hand a [there is a] large amount of very salty MSG in Chinese cooking.”

But the food in Westernized Chinese restaurants is often far from authentic, and perceptions of authentic Chinese food are very different. Some of the main reasons why authentic Chinese food is seen as so healthy by the West is portion size. Plates in Chinese restaurants are about 9.5 inches to 10.25 inches, as opposed to the standard 12-inch plates in most Western restaurants, and portion control is extremely important. “We tend to let exterior cues dictate how much we eat,” says Brian Wansink, the main author of the study  “Eating Behavior and Obesity at Chinese Buffets“. His study also found that using chopsticks, instead of a fork or spoon, keeps portions down.

Chinese recipes rarely call for more than two tablespoons of oil and soy sauce, and the oil is usually heart-healthy peanut oil. According to calculations, if you cooked chicken breast authentic-Chinese style five days a week instead of American style, that would reduce your dinner each night by about 125 calories just through portion control alone. That’s 32,500 calories in a year — or almost 10 pounds.

In general, Chinese diets result in lower rates of obesity than those in the West, but in the increasingly urbanized environment the gap is narrowing. Perhaps at this point, the country just needs to get out of the polluted air and focus a little more on exercise.


Cover Image from pdpics