A few decades ago children all over this country were expected to polish off platefuls of brussel sprouts and broccoli when reminded of the starving children in China. My own mother didn't employ this guilt trip very often, but even I remember being told how lucky I was to have a pile of droopy string beans when kids in Beijing were at that very moment scrounging the streets for scraps of food.
Boy, how times have changed. A recent National Public Radio report highlighted a new problem faced by the billion or so occupants of the People's Republic of China: obesity. Apparently, the United States has been exporting more than just capitalism and David Hasselhoff; the years of austerity under Chairman Mao have been replaced by a culture of abundance, from automobiles to iPods to greasy hamburgers and fried chicken (there are currently more than 3,000 KFC franchises in the Middle Kingdom).
Fast food isn't the only problem, according to Paul French, the author of "Fat China":
"More, more, more of everything — larger portions, with more ingredients, more salt, more sugar, more oil, more fats. Breakfast and lunch and dinner and supper and grazing with snacks during the day. And drinking fizzy drinks rather than tea."
According to the NPR story, twenty-five percent of Chinese adults are now overweight and the current economic success of the world's largest nation virtually guarantees that this trend will continue. Part of the explanation is that the country is populated by a generation of adults who grew up in a state of perpetual shortage but who now don't know quite how to transition to a lifestyle where they no longer struggle for food. Consider the case of a Mr. Lu cited in the story:
He says that the food rations of his youth shaped the way he ate decades later. "Before, our living standard was not good, so when there was a chance to eat meat, we usually ate a lot," he says. When his income rose in the 1990s, he could, for the first time, eat as much meat as he wanted. And for a while, he did.
On one hand I'm pleased that the image of the half-starved Chinese child is disappearing from reality and that American parents now have to find another trope to con their kids into finishing off stale leftovers ("You'd better finish that. Don't you know that there are starving runway models in Manhattan?"). Ironically enough, the rise in global obesity may eventually prove to be the ticket for world peace. Currently the U.S. military has to turn away 1 in 4 potential recruits because they are simply too fat. Imagine a world filled with disgruntled, "axis-of-evil" generals who'd love to wage war but who can't fill their ranks with enough thin foot soldiers to invade anything more than their own refrigerators.
At the same time I'm somewhat saddened that the Orient—until now the last bastion of lean people more interested in eating fish than Big Macs—has succumbed to the epidemic of obesity. It won't be much longer before we see a commensurate rise in the sequelae of burgeoning waistlines: diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertriglyceridemia, arthritis, and heart disease. China already leads the world in incidence of stroke (three times the rate seen in North America) with this tragic illness serving as the most common cause of death. I can't imagine what things will be like after 20 or 30 more years of dim sum overabundance. The NPR story notes that the traditional healthy breakfast has recently become replaced with a dish called yotiao, "a double deep-fried dough stick ," which, to me, sounds more like something you wish you hadn't eaten at the Nebraska state fair.
While the NPR story is nominally about the new generation of obese Chinese, I was more interested in a comment made by one of the older housewives interviewed for the piece.
Today, the Lus had what they call a "heavy lunch" with meat. So for dinner, Mrs. Lu is preparing congee, the traditional boiled rice soup. She says that by keeping some of the old ways of eating, their diet stays balanced and they don't eat too much.
Junting Lu, the daughter, is a translator for a Dutch newspaper. She's slender with long dark hair. She grew up eating mostly fast food. But now, like many people of her generation, she's eager to learn more about the food of the past.
"More and more people — I think they now realize that maybe going back to the traditional way of eating is better," she says.
I kind of like the idea of "going back to the traditional way" of the past. This is a lesson we Americans should learn. Within the last hundred years of our country's history we've managed to improve the nutritional quality of our food to the point that our life spans have improved measurably (as I summarized in a recent post), but somewhere along the way we crested out and began to descend into a diet of fat, sugar, and excessive calories. At what point were we at our best? In what year did we achieve our best gains in adequate nutrition without yet becoming daily consumers of the artery-clogging diet we're now accustomed to?
For me it was 1984, the year I left home. Up until that point I ate "the traditional way" with homemade foods low in fat and sugar. Thanks to my health-conscious mother my meals always incorporated a healthy dose of vegetables and lean meats in moderation. We drank low-fat milk with every meal and were allowed no more than 2 cookies for dessert.
My hectic lifestyle now favors quick, heavy calories—of the type found at Burger King and Taco Bell—over the lean, fiber-rich fare of the past. When I think of "the traditional way" of eating I imagine just the opposite of virtually everything I'm now tempted to eat. It was only a few decades ago that we regarded fast food, creamy lattes, super-sized sodas, and rich desserts as rare treats rather than daily sustenance, but I think it's now time to begin to reverse the tide on our culinary progression.
Perhaps, if we're successful, we'll find American mothers carping at their children with a new line: "You'd better finish off your peas and broiled chicken. Don't you know there are obese children in China?"