Plenitude might have replaced poverty in China. But that in turn has brought in its trail a host of health problems, forcing the government to embark on a campaign for nutritious diet.
The concept of hyperlipidemia -- high blood cholesterol -- would have been an alien and inconceivable concept to lean-waisted Wang Yan in her youth.
AdvertisementLike millions of other Chinese who suffered through decades of food shortages, Wang, currently weighing below 50 kilograms, is struggling to accept that life in modern China, with its plentiful food and well-stocked supermarkets, could be bad for her health.
But the threat is approaching. 'I used to have one egg everyday, but I've cut back to three eggs a week to prevent high cholesterol,' says Wang, whose father was diagnosed as having diabetes in 2000, followed by her older brother in 2007.
Born in southeast China's Fujian Province in 1964, Wang sees the last 40 years through memories of food, or more often the lack of it. She remembers the Chinese staple made up a large portion of the family's diet when she was a child. 'When mum went to the rice shop, she always dragged back a 15-kilogram gunny sack.'
Compared to her fellow countrymen, Wang was lucky because her father, who worked in a foreign-export company, sometimes brought back luncheon beef. He then requested the canteen to make a tray of streamed buns with minced meat. 'All of my family members, especially my elder and younger brothers, seemed to have gigantic stomachs, we could eat so many buns,' she says.
When Wang's parents worked as farmers in southern Fujian in the late 1960s as part of a campaign initiated by Chairman Mao to dispatch intellectuals to the countryside, Wang and her brothers were so hungry that they used to sneak slivers of meat off slaughtered pigs and cook them. 'The meat was so delicious that I forgot the temporary hunger.'
In the 1970s, all the staple and non-staple foods were rationed with coupons. 'One of my happiest memories was a spring festival when each household in the courtyard was given a duck. Father stewed the duck, without any vegetables, and he was ecstatic.'
The shortage of food lasted till the mid-1980s. Wang, who then was a journalist with International Business Daily, received a batch of yellow croaker fish from the newspaper office as New Year gifts. 'They were so large that I made them into dry minced fish for an occasional good meal throughout the spring'
By the end of the 1980s, Wang's family had an ample supply of non-staple goods and the markets were booming. 'Father made a variety of meat dishes, such as stewed spareribs, steamed pork and meat balls. His Chinese birth sign was the tiger, and he always said it was unimaginable for a tiger to live without meat. Actually, he lived with a shortage of meat for more than half a century.'
The consumption of meat in Wang's family increased, while the eating of rice declined sharply. For dinner, Wang and her two daughters eat two steamed buns between them. One year, a five-kilogram bag of Thai fragrant rice lasted five months.
Although the nutritional structure of Chinese has improved tremendously, the understanding of a proper diet is still a problem for many people, says Yang Xiaoguang, professor at the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and vice president of Chinese Nutrition Society (CNS).
Economic development has brought about the changing diet, represented by the increase in protein intake as well as a decrease in malnutrition, he says.
A national survey in 2004 showed the daily consumption of cereals, the important component of Chinese food, had dropped from 510g in 1982 to 402g in 2002. In big cities, cereals accounted foronly 41 percent of food intake, far below the standard of 55 to 60percent prescribed by World Health Organization (WHO).
On the other hand, the intake of fat has increased to 38.4 percent in big cities, exceeding the WHO standard of 30 percent. Economically-developed villages have reached 29.2 percent. 'If we don't curb the momentum, the countryside will repeat the challenge cities are facing,' warns Yang.
Over consumption of fat and animal protein have given rise to chronic diseases. For example, the incidence of high blood pressure has skyrocketed to 18.8 percent of the population, while 22.8 percent are overweight. In 1959, the occurrence of high blood pressure was just 5.9 percent.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) estimates that three million Chinese die of cardiovascular diseases annually, with the medical costs reaching 130 billion yuan (18 billion US dollars).
'The lack of exercise is another leading factor behind chronic diseases,' warns Prof. Yang. Only 14 percent of Chinese get regular exercise, according to the 2004 report.
In January this year, the CNS released the 2007 Dietary Guidelines for Chinese, a follow-up to its 1997 edition. According to the 240,000-word book, a recommended diet for Chinese should be based on cereals, supplemented by proper consumption of vegetables and fruit, milk and bean products, animal food, and limited oil and salt. Meanwhile, it advises that people walk at least 6,000 steps everyday and drink sufficient water.
'By observing the guidelines and doing proper exercise, a healthy life can be ensured,' says Kong Lingzhi, an MOH official in charge of disease control.
Prof. Yang hopes that the top legislature could pass a regulation on nutrition improvement. He mentions a package of national laws on nutrition adopted by Japan from the 1940s. The rules contributed greatly to the overall physique of Japanese after World War II, according to him. For instance, a nutritionist is required at any large canteen, and the students are guaranteed to eat at least 30 kinds of foods everyday.
For the Chinese, adapting to a scientific diet needs time, or a fundamental change of lifestyle. 'I wish to enjoy a homemade breakfast comfortably, but it's impossible in a busy city like Beijing, at least for the moment,' Zhu Hong sighs.