Use your rice – the power of real Chinese food

By Yunzhi Qian, MPH

If you drive across the United States, it will be hard not to run into any Chinese restaurants. With their garishly lit picture menus, fat happy Buddha, and the red-and-white pagoda takeout box, Chinese restaurants are more commonplace than McDonald’s franchisees across the land. According to the magazine Chinese Restaurant News, there are nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States.

Modern-day Chinese food has earned a bad reputation through rice-heavy meals and fatty meats that are heavy and oily. However, this version is a far cry from the traditional, ancient eating habits of the Chinese. Before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 significantly curbed immigration to the US, Chinese settlers arrived in the US during California’s Gold Rush. As immigrant families began to open small businesses, restaurants became a popular choice. Chinese cooks adapted their recipes to suit non-Chinese customers’ tastes, and thus American Chinese dishes like General Tso’s chicken, crab rangoon, and fried wontons were born.

Unlike modern American Chinese food, the authentic Chinese way of eating is healthy and fulfilling, focusing on vegetables, fruits, and grains. Here are some general guidelines from the diet of Ancient China:

  • Vegetables are full dishes. Chinese treat vegetables as meals, not simply as side dishes; this will provide plenty of vitamins, folate, and dietary fibers.
  • Eat liquid food. Chinese avoid drier meals and opt to add a nourishing soup part to every meal. This way, sufficient nutrition can be obtained without overloading on calories.
  • Don’t overeat. Chinese will eat until they are full, and then stop. The traditional Chinese meal doesn’t contain a dessert after the meal. Instead, fruits are commonly used as snacks.

Interestingly, after Chinese immigrants settled down in the Western countries, their own diet has become Westernized as time passed. At the time of immigration to a Western country, Chinese individuals  tend to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to native-born people. Due to the high fat and sugar content in a western diet, the risk of cardiovascular diseases among Chinese Americans increased. As the influence of western diets spreads, so too do associated chronic health problems. An increase in portion size, dining out frequency, and consumption of convenience foods indicate some unfavorable changes in the Chinese immigrants’ diet. 

As some Chinese immigrants still have a language barrier and limited healthcare coverage, minimal attention is often paid to their own health and nutritional status. Some programs have already stepped in to help. The development of  a Chinese-language translation of the US Household Food Security Survey has been essential to understand Chinese immigrants’ needs better. Additionally, services exist to provide authentic Chinese food for elderly immigrants living in Chinatown communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although these initiatives are a start, more efforts and attention are still needed for this minority group in our country.

Peer-edited by Daniel Roybal PhD Candidate in Pharmacology

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