The Forgotten Health Benefits of Chinese Food

The Lunar New Year celebrations may be over, but cooking and eating authentic Chinese food can help keep your healthy resolutions on track

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The dragons have retreated back into their basement storage, and the crowds in your local Chinese restaurant have finally died down — sure signs that the two-week-long Asian party known as the Lunar New Year has come to a close.

But don’t put those chopsticks away. In fact, why don’t you invest in a rice cooker and wok too? It’s time to make good on that flailing New Year’s resolution to eat healthy — and Chinese food, cooked and eaten authentically, can effortlessly get you back on track.

Japanese cuisine has dominated the health headlines for many years. And experts point out that Korean food is quite healthy too. But do you know how obscenely expensive sushi-grade fish is? Can you really count on your local Stop & Shop to carry Korean chili-pepper paste and dried anchovies? Chinese food, in contrast, isn’t precious. Its staples are available anywhere and make for a healthy, diet-conscious, portion-controlled meal. Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of many Chinese cookbooks, including Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, points out that as little as three-quarter pounds of chicken cut into strips, stir-fried with a few cups of broccoli and served with steamed rice will serve four to six people. Try divvying up that same amount of grilled chicken breast Western style and chances are your guests will scoff, even if you’ve fixed up a couple of side dishes.

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Chopsticks — which place far smaller bites in your mouth than a fork or spoon — may help keep portions down too. A 2008 Cornell University paper reported that healthy-weight guests at a Chinese buffet were three times likelier to eat with chopsticks than obese guests. Brian Wansink, the study’s lead author, has also observed that chopsticks users go back to the buffet table fewer times. “Chopsticks help people slow down,” he says. And when you slow down, your body’s satiety signals are given time to do their job.

Soup — a mainstay of any authentic Chinese family dinner — is also a satiety promoter. As Barbara Rolls, a Penn State psychologist and author, most recently of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet, points out, eating a broth-based soup before a meal can reduce food intake by about 20%. Last fall, a European Journal of Clinical Nutrition paper suggested that this is because soups — particularly the smooth sort — take longer to leave the stomach than solids.

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“But what about the white rice?” you might ask. True, the bowls are brimming. “But they’re also miniscule!” says Wansink, who, of course, is exaggerating, but only a little. The bowls I stole from my childhood home are utterly dwarfed by my Crate and Barrel purchases. No more than 100 or so calories of rice fit into them. And even if you go back for seconds, you probably won’t eat as much as if you started out with a larger bowl. “We tend to let exterior cues dictate how much we eat,” says Wansink, who later this year will be publishing Slim by Design, a follow-up to his successful first consumer book, Mindless Eating. (He also points out that plates in Chinese restaurants are about 9.5 in. to 10.25 in., as opposed to the standard 12-in. plate in most Western restaurants.)

If you can go with brown rice, more power to you. But it’s nice to know that with Chinese food, you’re eating loads of vegetables, ginger and possibly mushrooms with your carbs. More importantly, the meat will lower your glycemic load, and the fibers in your greens will keep your blood-sugar levels balanced. This means a more sustained feeling of fullness and energy, says Kantha Shelke, A food scientist at Corvus Blue, a nutritional-technology think tank in Chicago.

(MORE: Does Eating White Rice Raise Your Risk of Diabetes?)

If you cook and eat Chinese food authentically, you will also see why past reports about the mind-blowing salt and calorie content of Chinese takeout dishes misunderstand the cuisine. Yes, orange crispy beef has 1,500 calories — but it’s an atypical dish. The vast majority are steamed or lightly stir-fried, points out Farina Kingsley, the half-Chinese author of several Asian-themed Williams-Sonoma cookbooks who recently developed a Chinese-cooking app. Chinese recipes rarely call for more than two tablespoons of oil and soy sauce, and the oil is usually heart-healthy peanut oil.

According to Shelke’s calculations, if you cooked chicken breast authentic-Chinese style five days a week instead of American style, that would reduce your dinner each night by about 125 calories just through portion control alone. That’s 32,500 calories in a year — or almost 10 lb. by the time the Lunar New Year festivities roll around again. Now that’s something worth dragon dancing about.

PHOTOS: Year of the Snake: Scenes of Chinese Lunar New Year

42 comments
drschotte
drschotte

The rates of diabetes and related metabolic conditions among aging Chinese are the same now as in NYC, and that is with traditional diet. Much of the food is fatty, the diets are high in sodium and cooking quickly at high temperatures is not particularly healthy.

Perhaps a modified form of Chinese (or any cuisine) has attractions. Many of the benefits of diet are seen with higher seafood diets in Mediteranean countries and Japanese islands, not with typical inland diets in China.

1neekehurley
1neekehurley

That's good information. I'd skip the soup because I don't eat enough and need the extra "load" Chinese food is so delicious! 

wokstar
wokstar

As a wok cooking teacher, it's frustrating that many associate 'Chinese' restaurant food as 'authentic' but has NOTHING to do with home cooking and give us a bad reputation! Those deep fried foods, greasy, salty chop suey dishes with goopy sauces and ridiculous names are so commercialized, it's painful. If you want GOOD food with Asian flavors, you can make it yourself easily at home with a few fresh ingredients and only 4 seasonings, a good wok and gas stove for high heat and control and some good technique.

igitty
igitty

.@TIME @TIMEIdeas with ingredients you wont find in china.

RonaldLeeSabatini
RonaldLeeSabatini

The paragraph about chopsticks is just plain silly. Anyone who has grown up using them knows that they neither slow you down, nor cause you to place smaller bites in your mouth. Only people who are not used to them would have those problems. I know from ample experience that the fastest eaters in the world are young Asian men using the "put your rice bowl up to your mouth and shovel" method. They can't be beat.



MariaXiaoxuanQu
MariaXiaoxuanQu

Never thought the using of chopsticks can be related to the portion one eats! @TIME @TIMEIdeas

giovannimostert
giovannimostert

@TIME @timeideas it's not delicious? Then what am I eating?

TigerTianBJ
TigerTianBJ

@TIME @TIMEIdeas make them the Chinese way, not the China Town way

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

My observational experience leads me to believe that the way chinese most foods are cooked / prepared have been found neutritionally rich enough for better health and longevity.

-  A.R.Shams's Reflection  -  Press & Online Publications  -  Moral Messages for Humanity Worldwide..

Nikki Akhtar
Nikki Akhtar

can we also not forget that chinese food is GENERALLY DELICIOUS

Demi Cardinale
Demi Cardinale

No can do. I don't eat rice or carby noodles. Miracle Noodles ftw!

Ryan Bliss
Ryan Bliss

I read somewhere that the "Chinese" food we know here in the US was invented by the men who came over from China to work on the railroads. They had never had to cook for themselves before (they didn't bring their wives) and pretty much invented a new style of cuisine.

Paul Chen
Paul Chen

A lot of dishes aren't even known in China. Like General Tso chicken. They went to the general's ancestral village, and no one's heard of it. You have got to watch this funny video about Chinese food in America. It's a TED talk. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6MhV5Rn63M

Vicky Feng
Vicky Feng

That's westernized Chinese food. Our Chinese food are normally oily.

Reina Chua
Reina Chua

Oh come on, it's the greasiest food in the world. That's crazy talk.

Ryan Bliss
Ryan Bliss

Which is the healthy rice again?

PH Koh
PH Koh

let me see... during my visit to the States there were also dishes called egg foo young, chop suey !???

Paul Chen
Paul Chen

Yeah, as long as you don't eat the deep-fried egg rolls, deep-fried orange chicken, and fried rice. Stick with healthy rice, lots of vegetables, as little meat as possible.

phoenixdove
phoenixdove

Denesius the author is pointing out that AUTHENTIC Chinese food is very different from that served in ubiquitous Chinese takeout restaurants. There is far less sodium and grease. "Chinese style chicken" refers to the way chicken is being sliced - specifically, the meat is sliced or shredded in very thin strips. Therefore you use less chicken (1/2 lb vs. 1 lb) in one dish (for example, a stir fry with lots of vegetables) than compared to "American style" which is generally cut into larger pieces. If you haven't tried so already, I highly encourage you to explore an authentic Chinese restaurant - ask and bring a Chinese friend to come along. Many of the authentic dishes only come in Chinese menus (if you are American they give you the American menu).

Denesius
Denesius

Fatty from the use of skin & associated tissues, lots of fried compliments, unbelievable levels of sodium, loads of flavor enhancers such as MSG.  How anyone can refer to Chinese food as healthy is beyond me. I love the vague sentence 'Chinese style chicken compared to American'.  What are you comparing to, KFC?

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

@drschotte 

Actually, I think a major cause of increasing diabetes and other non-communicable diseases in Chinese is due to the over-consumption of refined starches, such as white, polished rice and refined meat in the form of buns and noodles. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the trick with starch consumption is that one must consume it with some source of fiber so that the absorption of the broken-down simple sugars are slowed down. With rising prosperity in China, people gravitate toward eating more meat as a sign of status and eat less veggies. Chinese also traditionally view consuming refined starches as a another sign of prestige, because in the past, it was the rich officials and merchants who could afford to eat refined starches, while peasants had to make do with coarse grains which are now found to be much healthier. This is not just confined to China - a similar trend is seen in other rice consuming nations, as well as wheat consuming ones.

Another issue is that BMI of Asians (or as far as I know, East Indians and East Asians) with its traditional cutoffs for "overweight" or "obese" does not accurately reflect the true body composition. This is because for a given BMI, an Asian tends to have a higher percentage of body fat compared to Caucasians. Thus, even a young Asian with a BMI of 21 (which, according to the CDC, is in the normal range) would most likely have a much higher percentage of body weight vis-a-vis Caucasians. This is a fundamental biological difference that has been affirmed in numerous studies. 

1neekehurley
1neekehurley

@wokstar Cook enough at home. Restaurant Chinese-food excellent quality. And not fat-laden.

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

@Demetria Cardinale 

Chinese don't just eat rice and wheat (though those are the most common). They also eat other grains such millet (foxtail and proso), corn, sorghum, barley, and buckwheat, as well as non-cereal starchy plants such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes (though these are not that prominent and use only in a few dishes), and lotus root (which is very fibrous). The trick with starch consumption is not about avoiding it at all. It is consuming it with plenty of fiber (either built-in like lotus root or in accompanying veggie dishes) so that the break down of the starch into simple sugars and their absorption into the blood is slowed down.   

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

@phoenixdove 

Very true - one thing that I am always annoyed by is how readily Chinese chefs are in adapting Chinese food to "suit" the tastes of non-Chinese. In the process, you get horrible stuff like glowing orange chicken. Most people in UK, for example, believed that Chinese food is just orange chicken, white rice, and miscellaneous greens stir-friend in soy sauce and loaded with sodium. Thankfully, in the past couple of years, there have been a whole range of much more authentically oriented Chinese restaurants being opened there, featuring cuisines from many different regions of China. This has served to change opinions dramatically.

Here in the States, the places that one can most easily find very authentic Chinese food are LA and NYC (don't know about San Francisco). Since I live in Boston, I always try to eat at the Chinatown in Flushings, Queens, which feature places serving very authentic northern Chinese cuisine. 

LuwianMemories
LuwianMemories

@Denesius 

It depends on what food you eat - there are unhealthy Chinese dishes, and there are healthy ones. Just because you go to American-Chinese (different from the authentic Chinese mentioned here) restaurants and order their most unhealthy foods doesn't mean that Chinese food is, overall, unhealthy. For example, Cantonese cuisine is generally healthy, using minimal oil in stir-fries and steaming most foods (you should try whole steamed fish if you ever have the chance of going to an authentically oriented Chinese restaurant). Most American expats in China hate Shanghainese cuisine because it uses too much sugar and oil (my family is of Chinese origin and my dad hates Shanghainese food as well). 

You should research the different schools of Chinese cuisine. Chinese cuisine is not just orange beef and glowing General Tso's chicken (both of which I hate).