Glorious Chinese cooking… it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t like it. I could easily live off Chinese food for lunch every day (provided that I could alternate with Indian food for dinner)!
Usually cheap and always cheerful, Chinese restaurants have spread to every street corner of the world. Of course it’s always a treat to eat but concerns for a healthy diet have certainly helped to make Chinese cuisine even more popular.
We often hear how healthy Chinese cooking is: low in meat and saturated fat and rich in fresh, crunchy vegetables and healthier types of oil such as sesame and peanut oil.
But does Chinese food really deserve its healthy reputation? In particular, does it contribute to lower blood pressure and a healthy heart?
Leaving aside the issue of enjoyment for the moment (as hard as that is to do) let’s look at the facts both for and against Chinese food as healthy eating. First, there are definitely some important elements in its favor; let’s look at some common Chinese ingredients:
Ginger: This fragrant tuber/herb is ubiquitous in Chinese food, one of the 3 or 4 cornerstones of this style of cooking. Ginger has long been prized as a general tonic and stimulant. It offers a long list of medicinal benefits that include acting as a digestive aid and an anti-inflammatory.
Even more importantly, recent research reveals that ginger contains powerful compounds called “gingerols” that act to relax the walls of blood vessels. This in turn allows blood vessels to dilate and the improved blood flow lowers blood pressure. In this way, ginger acts directly to influence our blood pressure in a healthy way.
Garlic: Another cornerstone ingredient of Chinese cooking with many effects that are similar to ginger. Volatile garlic compounds also act to relax and open blood vessels. In fact, garlic has such a positive effect on circulation that it has long been offered in supplement form to improve cardiovascular health.
Like most foods, however, garlic is most beneficial in its natural and whole state as used in cooking. And eating Chinese food can be an enjoyable way to consume garlic in abundance.
Chilli Peppers: Growing numbers of people are learning to enjoy eating peppers: the hotter the better! Now we know that spicy food is not just a sensual delight but also extremely good for the health.
Despite the sensation of tensing up that some people experience eating hot peppers, their internal effect is just the opposite. Capsicum, the active ingredient that makes peppers hot, is able to relax blood vessels and thus lower blood pressure. Other compounds in peppers are known to thin the blood and reduce its “stickiness”, further contributing to better circulation.
Chilli peppers pack a double-barreled punch in both taste sensation and health benefits; the hotter, the healthier! Regional Chinese dishes such as those from Szhechuan and Hunan are often rich in chilli peppers as well as garlic and ginger.
Chinese cooking often contains even more healthy ingredients that are sometimes missing from our diet including fresh vegetables and unusual spices. What’s more, the fast and furious style of Chinese cooking in woks can be healthier than Western styles as it tends to lock in natural flavors and nutrients.
So Chinese food really does score many top marks for healthy eating – but it also has an unhealthy side that its fans tend to minimize or outright ignore.
In fact, too much of certain types of Chinese food can be a recipe for high blood pressure or worse!
That’s because those healthy herbs, spices and vegetables are often accompanied by heaps of sugar, salt and, surprisingly, fat. Some people also react badly to the MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) used as a flavor enhancer in many Chinese restaurants, although its effects tend to be only temporary.
Many Westerners are not aware of the vast differences between a “common” Chinese diet and the dishes we are familiar with from Chinese restaurants. If you visit an establishment where local Chinese people eat you will typically see them eating large bowls of soup, often with noodles. These soups tend to be loaded with vegetables and are in most respects a very healthy way to eat. You will rarely see overweight people among the Chinese diners eating this type of dish.
High blood pressure “Hong Kong Style”
The popular Chinese dishes among Westerners, however, are a different kettle of fish. These tend to be what the Chinese consider “banquet” food, which is only served for special occasions. These are the sweet, sticky, sour and pungent dishes we tend to be familiar with… all our favorites!
These wonderfully sweet, tangy and crispy delicacies are made that way through loads of sugar, salt and fat: the three major fast-food demons. As if that’s not bad enough, many of them, especially those scrumptious starters, are deep-fried. No wonder the Chinese save them for special occasions; a daily regime could give you a heart attack!
But with rising prosperity in Asia this type of eating – along with its health consequences – is becoming more common. Obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, once rare in the Orient, are becoming much more frequent. In particular, Chinese health authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the amount of salt in the Chinese diet.
Of course you can’t separate eating from enjoyment. Chinese food would not be the treat it is without the sugar, salt and deep frying. But it should be a treat only. A regular diet of banquet-style Chinese cooking is a sure recipe for hypertension and heart disease. Most of the time we should take our cue from the traditional Chinese diet and stick to healthy soups, vegetables and noodles.