The Chinese Secret

Many Veggies, Less Meat

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
6 min read

Nov. 13, 2000 -- Scan the menu at your local Chinese restaurant and you're apt to find dozens of meat-centered dishes -- General Tso's chicken, orange beef, twice-fried pork. But don't be fooled. Most Chinese living in China don't eat such a meat-centered diet.

For centuries, for reasons both economic and historic, the traditional Chinese diet has been primarily vegetarian -- featuring lots of vegetables, rice, and soybeans -- and containing only shavings of meat for flavoring, says Lan Tan, owner of Lan Tan's Chinese Cooking School in Durham, N.C. Many Chinese simply can't afford mega slabs of meat -- or the cooking oil with which to prepare it.

Just as Americans may ask, "Where's the beef?" when visiting a traditional Chinese restaurant in China, the traditional Chinese might wonder, "Where are the vegetables?" when visiting a Chinese restaurant in the U.S.

"Even I forget just how healthy Chinese food really is until my mother visits from Taiwan," says Tan, who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago. "My mother will use one-third pound of meat to feed six people."

Indeed, the traditional Chinese diet is far healthier than the traditional American diet, which often features meat as the focus of the meal, says T. Colin Campbell, PhD, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

But you don't have to travel to rural parts of China to eat healthy. Simply incorporate the Chinese way of eating into your diet, which can be done no matter where you are -- whether you're dining at a restaurant or preparing Chinese dishes at home.

Unlike the meat-heavy plates featured in many Chinese restaurants in the U.S., the traditional Chinese diet consists mainly of plant foods, small amounts of fish and poultry, and only occasionally red meat, says Campbell, the director of the Cornell-China-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health, and Environment, a long-term study comparing the diets of rural China with average American ones. He has been tracking the eating habits of people living in 100 Chinese rural villages since the early 1980s.

According to Campbell's research, the traditional Chinese diet is comprised of only 20% animal foods -- far less than the amount in the typical American diet. As a result, the Chinese diet contains a formidable team of disease-fighting antioxidants and plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals -- all of which contribute to a healthier way of eating.

In rural China, in fact, the rates of major chronic diseases including breast, colon, and rectal cancer are mere fractions of those reported in the U.S. "There are some regions in China in which breast cancer and heart disease are almost unknown," Campbell says. Moreover, type 2 diabetes also is much less prevalent, as is bone-weakening osteoporosis, even though the Chinese consume far fewer dairy products than we do in the U.S., he says.

Just what do the traditional Chinese actually eat? "For breakfast, it's often congee, a thin rice porridge," says Shiny Qin, a 31-year-old account executive at a New York City advertising agency who grew up in a rural village near Shanghai. "Lunch might be rice with vegetables flavored with bits of pork, even at school." And dinner? "My mother always served rice and four other kinds of dishes, which we call main dishes. At least one main dish would be all vegetables -- different kinds of greens, sweet potatoes, or tomatoes. The rest were vegetables or tofu with a little bit of beef or pork."

Crowding your plate with complex carbohydrates, such as rice and vegetables, and using meat as more of a flavoring for these healthier options, is the Chinese recipe for good health. And the best part is you can work this healthy diet into your everyday meals, no matter where you are. Just follow this traditional Chinese food for thought:

  • Out for Chinese food? Enjoy! But skip the deep-fried Chinese-American fare, such as sweet and sour pork. Instead, head for the vegetarian section of the menu and eat the way the Chinese really do. Look for entrees made with napa cabbage, bok choy, spinach, and broccoli, which are packed with vitamin A and C, as well as fiber and phytochemicals. Chinese vegetables are usually stir fried, which is a quick-cooking technique that tends to preserve water-soluble vitamins (such as A and C). If the menu indicates that the vegetables will be steamed, order them lightly steamed to minimize nutrient loss during cooking. If meat is a must, order your chicken or beef stir fried (not deep fried) with vegetables like snow peas, green and red peppers, string beans, or zucchini. Still hungry? Consider an extra serving of white or brown rice.

  • Dining elsewhere? Or at home? Give vegetables and grains (including rice or pasta) entree status. Consider meat a flavoring rather than the main attraction. To safeguard your intentions, buy meat in quarter to half-pound packages or ask the butcher to divvy up a larger package for you. As a general rule, that amount should feed two to three people, according to traditional Chinese dietary principles. Along with the meat, have a baked potato and spinach, for example, or a tossed salad and asparagus. Once a week, it's a good idea to go all out and have a totally vegetarian meal, such as vegetable lasagna or baked white or sweet potatoes with vegetarian toppings.

    According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans should make up two-thirds or more of the meal -- like they have in rural China for centuries. Animal foods should make up no more than one-third.

    But before you pat yourself on the back for eating your broccoli, take heed. Variety is key. "Each fruit, vegetable, or grain has its own profile of cancer-protective substances that tend to work as a team," says Melanie Polk, RD, an AICR spokeswoman. In short, when it comes to disease-proofing your diet, eat more plant foods like the Chinese do. For the best health insurance, expand your repertoire to include vitamin-packed Chinese favorites, such as bok choy, kale, Swiss chard, sweet potatoes, bean sprouts, spinach, and eggplant.

  • Sneak in fruits and veggies -- it's a good way to heighten the produce quotient of your diet without realizing it. The Chinese stir fry, for example, is a sneaky way to get a host of vegetables all in one sitting. Try these American ways to do the same thing: Top off your morning cereal or yogurt with bananas, berries, or peaches. Layer sandwiches with dark leafy greens such as spinach and watercress; order your chicken or fish sandwich with extra lettuce, tomato, and onion. Roll bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and slices of green or red pepper into tortillas or flat bread; heap salsa onto low-fat tortilla chips; toss petite peas, tomatoes, onion, celery, carrots, and peppers into a salad. Tuck mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, onions, and carrots into pasta sauce, meat loaf, soup, stew, and chili.

  • When you do eat meat American-style (as the star attraction), choose low-fat cuts. (Hint: The leanest cuts of meat have loin or round in their names, for example, round steak or pork loin.) Also, limit portions to 2 to 3 ounces -- about the size of a floppy disk -- and trim all visible fat from the meat before cooking: You'll save an average of 11 grams of fat (roughly 100 calories) per serving by pre-trimming, which prevents fat from migrating into the meat during cooking. Also skip the skin, and you'll save an additional 100 calories per 3-ounce serving.

  • Choose fruit for dessert. Cloying concoctions such as brownie chocolate cheesecake and pecan pie after a meal are a bit of a head scratcher to the Chinese; their culture doesn't participate in the post-meal ritual we call dessert. Fresh fruit, on the other hand, is the unofficial national treat of China. Of course, because it has no fat and fewer calories than most classic Western desserts, fruit is a much better nutritional deal: It offers up disease-fighting nutrients, such as fiber, folic acid, and vitamins A and C to boot.

As you can see, with a few diet modifications, "the Chinese way" is easily available for importing. All it takes is an adventurous palate, some inventiveness in the kitchen, and the desire to stay healthy for the long haul. "The closer you get to a plant-based diet," says Campbell, "the better off you'll be."

Sandra Gordon, a health/nutrition writer in Weston, Conn., is the co-author of The 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines.