Lu Zhigang, an employee of the Bank of China, eats out at least three times a week.
Due to a busy work schedule and frequent social engagements, Lu often doesn't have time to go home, so he often opts to eat at restaurants.
Like Lu, more people choose to eat out nowadays owing to faster life rhythm and more frequent socializing. But while they order a take-away or have dinner in town, they're also becoming increasingly cautious about one thing: health.
The average Chinese last year spent about 120 times more on eating out than people did 20 years ago, according to an official report released recently by the Ministry of Commerce.
But unlike a decade or two ago, dining out now is not simply a way to get delicious food, but a chance to pay more attention to one's dietary health.
Health experts said that some bad eating habits dramatically increased the incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes and other related health hazards.
But as more people realize the importance of a diet in terms of health, some restaurants have embraced the trend and provided healthier dishes.
As usual, Lu ordered vegetable, meat and bean dishes as well as a bowl of soup. He prefers a balanced diet.
He said sometimes he would also hear the advice of the waiters, who would suggest to customers what kinds of dishes should come together to ensure enough nutrient intake.
"For customers who do not have a healthy eating concept or do not know how to choose a healthy diet, our waiters will give them guidance. Most of the customers are gradually accepting our advice," said Gong Guiying, manager of Fengzeyuan Restaurant in southern Beijing.
Gong has been engaged in the dining industry for more than 30 years and she has witnessed the changing dietary habits of people who dine out.
"Years ago, people ate and drank whatever they liked, especially favouring the rare delicacies. But now, they are ordering less oily food but more vegetables and mushrooms, and are drinking less liquor and more red wine," she said.
At banquets in the past, people tended to order rich dishes to show off while neglecting the balance of nutrients.
"But now most of our customers at least know they should order a reasonable combination of meat dishes and vegetable dishes," said Pang Xiaolong, manager of Laogenrenjia Restaurant in Huilongguan in the northern suburbs of Beijing.
Some far-sighted restaurants have adjusted their traditional menus, and changed to raw materials and cooking methods to provide healthier options to their customers.
High-cholesterol food such as guts and abalone were tossed off the menu of Fengzeyuan Restaurant. Instead, sea cucumber is strongly recommended in the restaurant. Gong said that nutritionists have confirmed that sea cucumber is rich in protein, which plays an essential role in building and repairing the body. So eating the dish can enhance immunity.
People nowadays favour green food that is free of fertilizer and chemicals, according to Jiang Wenqiang, chief cook of Dongfanghong Restaurant in Beijing.
"Though they are commonly more expensive, the customers seem to be willing to pay it for better health," he said. "We are selling a health concept to our customers, not just the food."
Jiang believed that providing a healthier diet was the industry's ultimate development direction.
Traditional Sichuan hotpot has been popular across the country. But it also stimulated health concerns in recent years that the butter in it is recycled and then used repeatedly after filtering.
"Through high-temperature cooking, the chemical structure of the butter might change and do harm to the body," said Li Deyi, owner of Lilaodie Hotpot Restaurant in Beijing. He believes that a new class of hotpot prepared with non-recyclable grapeseed oil is healthier.
The northerners once favouring oily and salty food are also turning to light food, according to Pang. "Now our customers already do not like the old Beijing cuisines prepared too oily. We have to cook with less oil and salt," he said.
Song Jun, chief cook of Western food with Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, also said that the cooking concept has changed a lot compared with the past. Now the dishes of low sugar, low salt, low fat and high protein are recognized internationally to be healthier for the body. In his restaurant, lard has been substituted with olive oil or vegetable oil.
There are only a small number of restaurants working on a healthier menu and a majority still simply cater to consumers' taste, according to Wang Yi, director of Nutrition Department with Guang'anmen Hospital affiliated to the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
"To cook tasty dishes to attract more customers, too much flavouring, oil, sugar and salt have been added," she said.
That is also the worry of some health-conscious consumers.
Cao Libo, a professor from Central University for Nationalities, has to dine out often for social activities. But he said that if he had enough time, he prefered cooking light food at home because he worried people lost control over those types of ingredients in restaurants.
"There are too much oil and monosodium glutamate in restaurant dishes," he said.
Wang noted that the chefs graduating from the present cooking training courses only emphasized on improving the taste while having little knowledge about nutrition. Most of them do not know a healthy diet should keep the original taste of the food and avoid too much flavouring.
"Many chefs do not even know the nutrient content in the raw materials and how to arrange them together to make a healthy dish," said Wang.
For example, putting bean curd and minced meat together could improve the absorption of proteins.
She said restaurant staff should receive short-term training in basic nutrition.
For the common diners, Wang suggested that they should eat at least 35 types of food everyday.
"The principle can help change their bad one-sided diet and balance the nutrients intake," she said.
(China Daily April 27, 2006)