Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nutritional Transition in China

The concept of the nutritional transition, roughly defined as the shift away from traditional diets to one of modern, "Western" foods high in sugar and fat, occurring in the world today is an extremely relevant and urgent issue. Having traveled in China during this past summer, I can personally attest to the changes in the country’s eating habits and culture, especially to the change in the diets of the younger generation versus the older generations.

One important factor to bring up is the Chinese cultural mentality and history with food, which creates a food environment that can be dangerous in conjunction with the modern “Western” diet. Historically, Chinese people have always been worried about getting enough to eat. Rice crops were dependent on weather conditions and the river levels. Specifically in the past century, China has experienced much political and economic turmoil that has also caused famines and malnourishment. Therefore, the older generations prize food and place great emphasis on eating well and being well-nourished, especially for their children.

People that verged near starvation in their past will not be willing to deny any type of food to their children and grandchildren, and may even be food-pushers. They also emphasize the importance of not wasting any food.

In the past, this cultural mentality worked well because the traditional Chinese diet was extremely nutritious and consisted mostly of rice and vegetables. People spent a lot of time either farming their own crops or going to open markets. Meat was expensive and an occasional treat. People drank mostly tea and water. However, with the opening of the Chinese economy, the “Western diet” has become increasingly accessible. In every city, there are multiple fast food places and convenience stores. There is more availability of cheap meat and snack foods. In every supermarket, there are American brands such as Dove chocolates, Pringles chips, and Coca-cola.

Many children prefer these novel American goodies to the traditional diet. The current generation of parents usually does not have as much time to cook and prepare food as their parents did, so they also utilize the convenience of supermarkets and fast food places. The older generations, the grandparents, are the majority in traditional open markets where one can pick out the freshest vegetables and fruits. These open markets are disappearing as the concrete jungles of the cities spread, and farms become located increasingly more distant from the population centers.

Below is a photo of a plot of land that my grandparents use to grow vegetables. They are the only ones in my family that still grow their own food. However, because of the increase in land used for industrial/residential purposes (as seen in the background), their plot of land is confined to one of those tiny squares.

The obesity rate is increasing rapidly. Because the centuries old cultural dietary mentality, not to mention biological propensity, was developed through times of food scarcity, I believe it is very difficult now for Chinese people to adapt to the current environment with its abundance of unhealthy and nontraditional foods. However, if the government does take action, it should not ignore the other portion of the Chinese population, especially in certain rural areas, that still does experience food shortages and malnutrition.

If you want to learn more about the role food plays in Chinese culture, read this post!


  1. I think there's a clear need for China, like the US, to better manage the food that is legally sold. Economically, an overweight population has many health problems and is less productive, so it's in the country's, and in the long-run the individual's, interest to set higher health standards.

    Hey, this might help me better understand guanxi! Okay, so I'm assuming that the US government would address this problem by giving concessions to (Big Food?) in order for them to remain profitable while adjusting to fit new policy. How do you think the Chinese government would manage this? (And feel free to critique my view of the US government; I'm just looking for a relative understanding of the US to China.)

  2. Well, I think overall the Chinese government has a lot more control over the food supply and food companies. As it isn't a democracy, it's not subject to the food lobbies that are active in the U.S. Therefore, if the government really wanted to change the diet of its people and the availability of certain products, it would be an easier goal to accomplish than in the U.S. for sure. Of course, this is just a surface view - there are all sorts of problems with food quality and safety control in China, as seen with the milk supply scandal.

  3. Sorry to take so long to respond. Are lobbies not as significant in China as they are in the US? I'm guessing that there are always people who try to bribe and sweet-talk politicians in any way they think they can get away with, but the US has explicit lobbying groups. Is this not the case in China?

    Also, there's a professor at Yale, I'm not sure if he's still teaching, but he wrote a large chunk the books that we're reading in my modern chinese history class. His name is Jonathan D. Spence. If he's still in town, he might be someone of interest to get ahold of. He has a page on wikipedia, too.

  4. Urgh, the processed food epidemic is spreading worldwide. I think pizzas are actually very nutritious, but when it comes to overeating unrecognizable junk like Cheetos or soda, then there's a problem.

    By the way, I heard that because of the bad pollution, even the rice in China is tainted. I read it in the news yesterday...did you hear of it?

  5. Interesting points, but do you think the food-pushers tend to be older and prefer traditional Chinese food, like our parents; and those who are younger, more open to western food are less likely to adopt the food-wasting mentality of their parents? My guess is the two characteristics are almost inversely related.

  6. Hey Liya! Thanks for visiting. Yes, I believe there definitely is a divide between the generations and their attitudes, not only towards food, but almost everything else! It probably has to do with the increasing abundance of food in China, which decreases its perceived value.