Having developed an appetite for high-carb Chinese cuisine, some foreigners find it hard to maintain their weight in China. Photo: IC
Meredith Sides” last few years in China have been really rough. After arriving in China in 2011, Sides, a 27-year-old American, gained about 15 to 20 pounds from trying all the new and delicious Chinese food she was exposed to, and people around her started to pass comments about her weight. “After years of my Chinese friends and colleagues calling me “fat,” I started to lose weight in 2014,” said Sides. “I know it”s not meant to be mean, but in the US, we consider it very hurtful and rude. I felt a lot of pressure to be as thin as my Chinese acquaintances.” Sides went on a strict diet and lost some weight. Her Chinese friends noticed and told her that she looked great, but she was not completely satisfied. Sides persisted and lost a total of about 40 pounds, dropping to 100 pounds – her lowest weight ever. But then she was constantly tired and sick, so she decided to stop dieting. “Since then, I have stopped caring about their comments and have begun to accept what I am,” said Sides.Like Sides, some foreigners find managing their weight in China challenging because of the high sugar and fat content in Chinese food, or the social pressure to be thin.Through trial and error, foreigners interviewed by Metropolitan have found their own way to adapt to the Chinese approach to healthy living.Balancing a high-carb dietIn the US, Sides maintained her health by eating normal portions of food and exercising regularly. When she moved to China, she ate more Chinese food, hence her weight gain. “One particularly difficult thing about Chinese cuisine is that it can be very sweet or salty, which makes it pretty addictive,” explained Sides. “Having just a small portion of fried eggs and tomatoes is nearly impossible.” According to Sides, in Chinese cuisine, dishes are prepared with a lot of oil, sugar, salt or other sauces, fried or deep fried, which will definitely cause one to put on weight. A big temptation for her was hot pot, her favorite Chinese food. Sides also likes mapo tofu (stir-fried tofu in hot sauce), which is also very oily. She said while the portion sizes in America are “astronomically large,” the family style of eating here in China means you”re eating many different dishes at one sitting instead of just one. It is another difference that can cause the weight to pile on for foreigners.Lewis Harding, a 35-year-old Briton and business owner, said he always gains weight when in China. When he came to Beijing in 2008, he was athletically fit. But he started putting on weight and went from 85 to 110 kilograms over a three to four year period.Back then, he craved sugar and carbohydrates, so when he first tried some high-carb Chinese food, such as noodles and dumplings, he immediately fell in love. Sometimes he would have two to three bowls of rice or half a kilogram of dumplings for two of his three meals a day.”It”s hard to keep thin in China. One of the main challenges is that a lot of the meals are very high in carbs. Since I cut them out of my diet, I lost a lot of weight, say about 15 kilograms in six to eight weeks,” he said. As an American certified personal trainer in Beijing, Chris Cordner has seen many foreigners in China who gained extra weight after coming here. “Some of them adopt the carbohydrate-rich diet, such as many of the street foods here in China,” said Cordner. “Ask any foreigner if they like jianbing (a thin Chinese pancake made of flour) or chuan”r, and most of the answers will be that they enjoy eating these street foods often, especially after a late night.”
Some foreigners in China suggest trying creative ways of preparing Chinese food to satisfy their cravings but keep off the extra pounds. Photo: IC
Pressured to be thin?Regardless of whether they gained weight after coming to China, some foreigners embark on a journey to lose weight under pressure to meet the Chinese body image aesthetic.Although Amanda (pseudonym), a 26-year-old American, did not gain much weight after she moved to Beijing in February, she recently started dieting. She said she feels overweight after finding that the women in China are so skinny. “In the US, a lot of people are overweight,” she said. “But when I came to China, it seems like almost everyone, not only women but also men, are all skinny. So it makes you feel like you are even more overweight here than in the US.”Constantly surrounded by “skinny and petite women,” Amanda said she feels “self-conscious.” Compared with the naturally small frames of Chinese women, she has larger body frame with more rounded and thicker features. Sometimes, it can be difficult to get clothes that fit her figure in China.”While I need to be careful about how much I eat, it seems like everyone here can eat a lot, but they do not gain weight,” said Amanda. Before going on a diet, Sides also felt a lot of pressure to be thin like her Chinese acquaintances. Back in the US, her weight was considered even a bit skinny, but when she moved to China, the opposite was the accepted truth. After dieting to the point where she was hurting her health, Sides quit dieting. Though she regained some of the weight she lost, Sides said her current weight is considered normal in the US, and is perhaps a bit below average. “Going through the feeling of having pressure to be thin and then dieting has allowed me to develop a stronger confidence and realize that I don”t actually care what others think. I just care about how I feel and about being healthy,” she said. Cordner has had clients who said they felt pressured into “competing” with the stick-thin figure that the Asian society holds up as desirable. “I feel that this is mainly due to a lack of knowledge for what proper nutrition and healthy living entails,” said Cordner. “The Chinese tend to be very forward regarding weight issues. Don”t take offense. Try not to let the society”s ideal image of a desirable figure be your “why” for living a healthier life; it always changes!”Finding a healthy in-betweenAlthough eating high-carb Chinese food can cause expats to put on extra weight, they can still maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating Chinese food the healthy way.One way Amanda finds very effective is replacing foods with a healthier version. Once, she went to a local produce stand and saw a vegetable that reminded her of celery root. She made a stew with it and found that it was very delicious. She later realized that it was lotus root and a good replacement for potatoes when dieting. “It”s the same with millet, which is more common here than quinoa,” said Amanda, who also makes mac and cheese with cauliflower instead of pasta. “I”m still learning what foods to use in China. I have to guess what things are sometimes at the stand and test it out. I think Chinese food can be very healthy,” she said. “Compared to Western food, they don”t use as much cheese but use more vegetables. I”d like to find more ways to cook it.” For Sides, tofu is a very good Chinese ingredient when dieting. Instead of frying it, she suggested trying baked or stewed tofu. Chinese food that is originally considered high-carb can also be healthy through creative preparation, said Harding. His mother-in-law learned to make dumplings with coconut flour, which is healthier. “Expats who want to lose weight and live a healthy life should learn about and try to adopt the local methods of healthy living,” said Cordner. He said Amanda”s idea of replacing foods with a healthier version is right. “Lotus root is rich in minerals and vitamins, so having it, as well as other varieties of natural foods, such as choy sum, red dates and soybean, will benefit you.” Cordner said it is also fun to discover new and creative ways of preparing Chinese food. “Just be wary of how it is prepared. Although it may begin as healthy, preparing it using lots of sugar, oil and/or processed ingredients may be counter-productive,” he warned.Amanda set a new goal to lose 25 to 30 pounds before going back to the US for Chinese New Year holidays. “You have to make a conscious effort to be healthy in China. There are so many good places to eat food for relatively cheap, and it is easier than cooking. But this does not help when you are trying to watch what you eat and lose weight,” she said.