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Top 5 reasons why Chinese people are thin

September 1, 2010

My boyfriend, Rick, enjoying his tiny bowl of fried rice, using his chopsticks. Note the very small plate as well.

I’ve been meaning to write this post forever. Here it goes. Disclaimer: A nation’s collective waistband is ruled by many factors, and I don’t begin to claim I have all the answers to why Chinese people are thin. But here is my perspective.

Even in China’s most affluent cities, the rate of obesity is very, very low. Everyone will tell you that the rate of obesity in China is increasing–and this is certainly true as Chinese spending power increases, the consumption of junk food and western-style food spikes, and sedentary lifestyles take hold. (I for the most part don’t really notice it. Sure, you’ll see some middle-aged people with rather large rear-ends or who are round in the middle from time to time, but it’s nothing like the real obesity in America that you might see on a trip to Disneyworld.)

Still, most Chinese people are thin. Some of this thinness is directly related to spending power, I will not deny that. But I also believe a lot of it is rooted in China’s eating culture and cuisine. Here’s my list of the Top 5 reasons outside of spending power:

1. Typical Chinese dishwear provides easy portion control. Notice in the picture above that Rick’s rice bowl is very small, perhaps holding a quarter of the volume of a typical American bowl. I’d say the typical rice or soup bowl in a Chinese restaurant–and likely a Chinese household–holds 4-6 ounces. Furthermore, the plate you get is usually teeny-tiny. More on that below, but the size of your plate definitely influences how much you eat.

2. Using chopsticks provides both portion control (one small bite at a time) and pacing. You just can’t eat as fast with chopsticks as you can with a fork unless you’re shoveling food into your mouth. And it’s common knowledge among those trying to control their diets that the slower you eat, the less you eat (your brain doesn’t trigger fullness until 10 minutes or so after you’re full).

3. Drinking tea, and lots of it, fills you up on zero calories. Although the popularity of soda and other sugar-laden drinks is increasing in China, the overwhelming beverage of choice is hot tea. Just about never will you add sugar to your tea in China, and you most defintely won’t add cream or milk. Also, it usually has a hint of caffeine which spikes the matabolism. At most restaurants, hot tea is free, so you may fill up on it a bit before your food arrives.

4. All Chinese restaurants serve dishes family style, which encourages many important habits: sharing your food, measuring your portion out before you eat it (again, notice how small Rick’s plate is above), increasing variety in your diet–there’s always at least one vegetable dish on the table–and only eating until your full. Think about how much having your own big plate of food influences the amount you eat! Especially at a restaurant, you’re bound to want to eat everything put in front of you.

5. Chinese dishes usually have vegetables, which provides fiber. Most dishes you order, even meat-based ones, have lots of veggies. Think of the typical dish you like to order at your neighborhood Chinese takeout place. Maybe it’s black pepper beef. Sure, there’s lots of beef, but there’s also probably green pepper and onion cut up and sautéed alongside the beef. This is key. The cheaper the restaurant, I’ve noticed, the higher the ratio of veggies to meat in the dish.

5. Rice and noodles are the staple foods of China. It may surprise you that this made my list, as the gospel in the US is that carbs are the devil. Sure, if you eat them on top of loads of other food. But in China, Rice and noodles are the base, the dish is on the side (or on top), and you don’t over-consume meat this way. When your portions are already in good control, as they are for most Chinese diners, these staples fill you up and prevent you from overeating whatever is in that delicious, sticky sauce.

So, that’s my take on it. I’m sure there are a billion other factors, who knows about genetics, and certainly most city-dwellers are very active people–walking, biking, all that. But I do think even as China’s collective waistline continues to swell, it will swell very slowly, and I don’t think it will ever reach the level of America’s obesity.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2010 11:03 am

    i think i probably need to use chopsticks. good idea! 😀

  2. CBuck permalink
    September 2, 2010 8:45 pm


  3. Michelle permalink
    September 5, 2010 6:33 am

    Haha I think you miscounted a bit there…

  4. angie permalink
    October 23, 2011 3:07 pm

    chinese people don not exactly eat very slow….. they swallow the food in few bites….

  5. Roy permalink
    April 22, 2012 12:29 pm

    I think it is the pain of the chopsticks that drives you to quit eating!!!


  1. Top 5 reasons why Chinese people are thin « Food « Best of China

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