Healthy Chinese Food. Oxymoron? Not at all.

by Courtney Gould Miller
February 08, 2012

{Source: via Courtney on Pinterest}

A friend of mine left last week on her first business trip to China, nervous but excited for the experience.  One thing concerned her in particular:

“How can I avoid gaining weight in China?  Does healthy Chinese food even exist?” 

Chinaful’s answer: Absolutely!  Chinese cuisine is one of the most health-conscious, though in a more holistic sense of “health” rather than for weight loss.  Garlic is in most Chinese dishes, and the benefits for skin and immunity are well known.  Many fish and vegetable dishes can simply be steamed if desired, and the preference in China is for fresh ingredients (with the big exception of MSG, still a popular additive).   

Your approach to less healthy Chinese food options should be similar to the ideas proposed by Mireille Guiliano in French Women Don’t Get Fat; it’s tough to moderate yourself on foods that are so tasty as dumplings, dim sum, and Beijing duck, but if you do, you won’t gain weight.  (And like the women who walk in France, biking around China can be the exercise you need to stave off a few extra pounds.) 

A good Chinese girlfriend gave me this advice: never eat more 菜 “cai” (dishes) than you have 饭 “fan” (rice or noodles).  It can be hard when eating communally to know how much food you have consumed until you start to feel very, very full.  The idea is that Chinese food is so flavorful, you often want to counteract the strong, spicy or sweet flavor with plain starch, so as you eat from the protein and vegetable dishes, your rice will disappear in proportion.  To be extra careful about your weight, serve yourself less than a full bowl of rice and adjust your food intake accordingly. 

A few more tips I’ve learned to stay slim and try all the dishes I can, both healthy Chinese food and not-so-healthy:

  • Do as the Chinese do – drink warm water.  Chinese rarely drink ice-cold water like Westerners do.  Instead, if you want water instead of tea, the water is served slightly less than hot.  It’s an adjustment at first, but Chinese swear by warm water as a key to good health.  I fought it at first, but I’ve come to love it.  I find it has the same calming affect as dessert at the end of a meal, and it also makes me feel full without overeating.
  • Take a small amount of each dish – it’s not only healthy, it’s polite.  When a dish is placed on the table at a Chinese meal, it’s expected that you won’t take a full portion right away but instead will take a spoonful portion and offer it to your neighbor (if you want to be extra polite, you should offer to your neighbor first).  Use this etiquette to limit your portions and to limit your waste.  You’ll want to save room to try everything, so don’t fill up early. 
  • End your meal with fruit, not dessert.  Sugary sweets are not at all popular in China – even cookies and cakes are light on sugar and have little if any butter.  Most meals at traditional Chinese restaurants end with large, ornate plates of fruit.  There are also some desserts that are red-bean or gelatin based, but fruit is the healthiest choice and an easy way to avoid adding calories.


Nice topic!! I learned a lot!! Thank you!!

In order to help people enjoy delicious Chinese food and at the same time not too worry about your weight gaining, apart from the opinions in the blog, I also would like to offer some personal tips for your reference which I have been practicing almost from the time when I realized I wanted to be in a good shape and keep weight under control and during the time, enjoy the food, every kind of delicious food. However, it is not easy to keep and I can not always do like that.

Tip #1 Eat as much as possible for your breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal for our daily life. Not just the first meal you have will be responsible for the most parts of energy you need during a day, especially the morning which will influence your working or study efficiency, also, exactly because of the former part of the statement, you is able to eat whatever you want to eat no matter how much fat or carbohydrate contained in this meal without needing to worry about you will gain any weigh. Why? Because of the energy consuming!!! You will have a whole day time to consume the food ingested from this meal and no matter how much you eat, probably still not enough for the energy your body needs. I usually put the food containing rich fat or carbohydrate but really yummy in the morning, for example, dessert, cake, chocolate... Or, you may also choose to have them in the morning after breakfast. Enjoy it..

Tip # 2 Never make yourself feel full for dinner, i.e. try to eat as little as possible, and try to absolutely avoid food containing too much carbohydrate , such as rice, noodle, bread, dessert... In stead, eat some fruit and vegetable dishes. I usually choose to eat some sea food rather than meat and almost eat no food containing carbohydrate, such as rice, or noodle. or delicious dumpling.

To be honest, for the sake of health, it is better never to let yourself too full for every meal. It is an old Chinese healthy saying that suggests people to eat every meal only to seventy percent full. But, it is difficult to resist delicious food though, so, you can just try to do this for dinner.

Tip #3 Drink warm water or soup before you start eating not after. In reality, this is a good way for keep our shape. For doing this will reduce the sense of hungry, so that we will not eat that much as we expected or our body/ stomach really needs. Especially while dinner, you could make light soup and vegetable for yourself or your family, and even you drink bowls of soup which make yourself feel really full, you actually not full at all. Especially when you are really hungry for dinner, it is a good way to reduce over ingestion.

Tip #4 Exercise regularly. Exercise Regularly is really cool for keeping you in a good shape. And if you have irresistible food, you need it even more in the days after that. But if you happen to have more food after dinner, remember not to do strenuous exercise immediately (suggested at least half an hour), because in that case, your stomach will get sick and it is not good for your body. Never risk your health for shape!! Just do a little and slow walk, actually it is good doing this even you do not overeat. Here is another ancient Chinese saying about walking after meal: “walk one hundred steps after meal, live till ninety nine years old ”.

Tip #5 Perseverance till you make it as your life habit :)

The above stated tips are only my own experiences. Hope they will work for you too. Enjoy Chinese food!!

February 08, 2012 | Diana Cui (崔雪梅)

Thanks Diana! I completely agree - drink warm water before and after the meal. Hot water all the time! In fact, most people in Beijing carry thermoses filled with hot water with them everywhere, to drink plain or with tea. I also like your point about soup. Broth soups are a mainstay in all Chinese cuisines because of the perceived health benefits.

February 08, 2012 | Courtney Gould Miller
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