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Too much of a good thing
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A variety of fruits including imported ones are common at markets. Sha Lang


Hyperlipidemia - or high blood cholesterol - would have been an inconceivable concept to Wang Yan in her youth.


Like millions of other Chinese who experienced decades of food shortages, the 43-old Wang, 160 cm in height, below 50 kg in weight, has found herself struggling to accept that life in modern China, with its plentiful food and well-stocked supermarkets, can be bad for her health.


"I used to have an egg every day, but I've cut back to three a week to prevent high cholesterol," says Wang whose father was diagnosed with diabetes in 2000, followed by her older brother in 2007.


Born in Fujian province in 1964, Wang remembers rice made up a large portion of her family's diet when she was little. "Mum always dragged back a 15 kg gunny sack of rice from the shop."


Compared to many of her peers, Wang was lucky as her father worked in a foreign-trade company, and could sometimes bring back beef. He would ask the canteen to make a tray of streamed buns filled with the ground meat.


"All of my family members, especially my elder and younger brothers, seemed to have gigantic stomachs. We could eat so many buns," she says.


When her parents worked as farmers in southern Fujian in the late 1960s as part of a campaign initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong to dispatch intellectuals to the countryside, Wang Yan and her brothers were so hungry that they used to sneak slivers of meat off slaughtered pigs and cook them. "The meat was so delicious that I temporarily forgot about my hunger."


In the 1970s, staple and non-staple foods were rationed in China. "One of my happiest memories was a spring festival when each household was given a duck. Father stewed the duck, without any vegetables, and he was ecstatic."


The shortage of food lasted till the mid-1980s. Wang Yan, then a journalist with International Business Daily, received a batch of yellow croaker fish from the newspaper as its New Year gift. "They were so big that I made them into dried minced fish for an occasional good meal throughout the spring."


Since the 1990s when the market began to boom, the Wang's consumption of meat has increased, but they have eaten less rice.


"My father often makes a variety of meat dishes for dinner. His Chinese birth sign was the tiger. So he always said it was unimaginable for a tiger to live without meat," Wang says.


Normally, Wang and her two daughters eat just two steamed buns for dinner.


The family has also started to eat more fruit. In the past, fruits, such as tangerines, were only made available for Spring Festival. Nowadays, Wang's family has at least four kinds of fruit at any time, including new types from Taiwan. "Food is far more diverse," she says.


While improving nutrition, the new abundance has also skewed Chinese diets according to 28-year-old Shi Wei, a teacher at Beijing Foreign Studies University.


When the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in Beijing in the late 1980s, Shi ate four portions of chicken. "My hunger for meat had been suppressed for so long, and for a long time I was addicted to KFC," she says.


In 2001, like other women her age, she tried to lose weight, abandoning cereals for vegetables and fish. She lost 2 kg but "felt something was wrong" with her body.


"The internal balance was destroyed, so I went back on cereal foods."


Like meals, lifestyles also change. Shi, who had been a champion rope skipper at school, found little time for sports after she graduated and later bought a car.


"Driving keeps me away from noise and unpleasant smells in buses or taxies, but I walk less and less," she says. "Once in a while, I force myself to walk through the underground passage linking the east and west campuses to get some exercise."


Thanks to public health campaigns, Shi adjusted her diet. Her father was fond of salty and greasy food. "Soy sauce was an indispensable part of any dish he prepared, as was too much oil." After she married, Shi ate less salt and oil, and no MSG. Last year, she started to cook with olive oil.


Wang Yan began making changes to her diet after her mother was diagnosed with heart disease. Wang even stopped eating her favorite dish, pig liver. She also turned to How to Use the Body, a best seller on traditional Chinese medicine and healthcare.


"In the past, the primary aim was to find enough to eat. A balanced diet is what I am pursuing now," she says.


Although the nutritional structure of Chinese diets have improved tremendously, the understanding of a proper diet is still a problem for people at large, says Professor Yang Xiaoguang with the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety.


Economic development has brought about a change in diets, represented by an increase in protein intake as well as a decrease in malnutrition, says Yang, who is also vice-president of the Chinese Nutrition Society.


A national survey in 2004 showed the daily consumption of cereals, an important component of Chinese food, had dropped from 510 g in 1982 to 402 g in 2002. In big cities, cereals accounted for only 41 percent of food intake, far below the standard of 55 to 60 percent prescribed by the World Health Organization.


On the other hand, fat makes up for 38.4 percent of food intake in big cities, exceeding the WHO standard of 30 percent, while in economically-developed villages it is 29.2 percent.


Over consumption of fat and animal proteins has resulted in the rise of non-communicative chronic diseases, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.


A national survey on nutrition in 2002 revealed that 22.8 percent of the population, or 200 million people were overweight, while 7.1 percent of the population, or over 60 million people, were obese. The percentage of overweight people increased by 40 percent, and the percentage of obese people doubled, compared to that of 1992.


The Ministry of Health estimates that 3 million Chinese die of cardiovascular diseases every year, with medical costs reaching 130 billion yuan ($18 billion).


"The lack of exercise is another leading factor behind chronic diseases," Yang says. Only 14 percent of Chinese get regular exercise.


In January, the Chinese Nutrition Society released the 2007 Dietary Guidelines for Chinese, a follow-up to its 1997 edition. The guidelines promote a diet that's high in cereals, vegetables, fruit, milk and bean products, and animal foods, while low in oil and salt. Meanwhile, it advises that people walk at least 6,000 steps every day and drink sufficient water.


"By observing the guidelines and doing proper physical activity, a healthy life can be ensured," says Kong Lingzhi, an official from the Ministry of Health.


A huge hot pot at a Fuzhou restaurant can serve more than 100 people at a time. Yang Enuo


(China Daily January 30, 2008)


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