After living here in China for some months, it has been impressed even more on my mind about how poorly most Americans eat. It is ironic that although America is a wealthy nation, the diet isn't that healthy. With the money that we have, we should have one of the best diets in the world.
Part of the reason for the unhealthy American diet is the trend to eat fast food. These foods are high in fat, high in sodium, and high in sugar. But wow do they taste good! Some groups believe that these foods have addictive qualities which keep people coming back to eat them. Not only do they taste good, but fast food really is fast! You don't have to stand in front of a stove, you just drive up to the drive-through in the luxury of your car, and within minutes you can be eating whatever you want. This habit has not only caused people to want to eat out more, but has actually been the cause of many people not learning how to cook!
One of the things that I have noticed in China is that most of their snacks are actually fairly healthy. They do have candy, chips, and other processed foods. But the chinese also have many healthy snacks such as dried fruit, seeds, and nuts. At chinese new year time, the stores had displays featuring popular chinese snacks that people could buy to serve to guests during the new year celebration. Most of what I saw was dried fruit, seeds, nuts, and fruit. Candy is also served, but that is just one small portion.
Another big difference in the chinese culture is that their sweet treats don't contain as much sugar as American treats. I like to think of it in the following way. Imagine that you are going to make a batch of cookies. How much salt would you expect to use in the recipe? I bake quite a bit, and I can tell you that most recipes never use more than a teaspoon of salt. How much sugar would you expect to use? From my experience, most cookies and cakes use 1 to 2 cups of sugar. The Chinese look at sugar more like the way we look at salt. Their cookies and cakes have far less sugar in them. To the American palette, their baked goods have barely any flavor. But to the chinese palette, American treats are sickeningly sweet. Just as we would never use a full cup of salt in a recipe, they would never use a full cup of sugar. Because they all eat this way, they are used to the flavor.
Another thing I notice is that when Chinese people get hungry in between meals, they usually go for a food item, not a snack item. They have many noodle shops along the street that sell a variety of wheat based products. They also sell fruit and meat treats. You can buy a muslim style meat on a stick, or you can buy a wedge of pineapple on a stick. You can buy a bowl of noodles, or a bowl of dumplings. You can buy a meat bun, or an egg crepe. These are the kinds of snacks that Chinese eat. Americans on the other hand might choose fried foods such as french fries, onion rings, or chips. American will reach for cookies and ice cream instead of fruit. Overall, the Chinese snacks are much healthier.
When I lived in Beijing 20 years ago, I had some chinese friends who taught me a lot about the chinese diet. One day we were watching "Oprah" on television together. As the camera panned the audience, my two chinese friends were shocked at how many fat women were shown. They asked me if all women in America are that fat. I told them that many Americans are fat. I told them that part of that is because we don't get much exercise. They said, "Don't they ride their bikes?" I told them that in America most of us drive cars. I told them that our diet isn't very good. We eat a lot of sweets. They then said something that I have never forgotten. They said, "Why would you waste your money on sugar when you can buy good healthy food?"
Now I do have to confess that I love American treats, and yes I'm over weight. But I'm trying to change the way I look at food, and the way I look at snacks. I think if we could think more carefully about what we eat, we would be collectively healthier as a nation.