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UPDATED: January 29, 2010 NO. 5 FEBRUARY 4, 2010
The Fat and the Skinny on Eating
A survey reveals China's eating habits

HAPPY DINNER: A group of Beijingers enjoy a dinner with all dishes made out of tofu on January 2, 2009 (LI XIAOGUO)

What is the Chinese people's favorite cuisine? What was the newest Chinese fad in food in 2009? What is a problem with food that the Chinese people were most concerned about in 2009?

Xiaokang magazine, which means comfortable life, has issued an index on China's diet over the last six years that is based on a survey of more than 1,000 people and looks at consumer spending habits, the food supply, food safety, nutrition and the government's supervision system.

The survey shows that flavor topped nutrition for 16 percent as the prime consideration when choosing food. Almost 41 percent of respondents said they liked spicy food the best out of all flavors. About 28.4 percent chose sweet and 17.3 percent chose salty. Sichuan cuisine, famous for its spicy dishes, was chosen as the most popular cuisine among 51 percent of people.

The five most popular cuisines are those of northeast China and those of Hunan, Shandong and Guangdong provinces. South Korean and Japanese food were the most popular foreign foods.

Unfortunately, putting flavor ahead of nutrition sometimes produces negative effects on the health of diners. According to the annual China International Academic Congress on Obesity, there are now more people dying from obesity than hunger in China and throughout the world. The Chinese Preventive Medicine Association also announced that chronic diseases triggered by poor eating habits including high blood pressure and diabetes became the main killer of the Chinese people in the past decade.

Choosing street food is also a common bad habit, though most survey respondents said they know eating from street-side vendors is neither nutritious nor healthy. One out of 10 who answered the survey said they often go for street food and 59 percent said they sometimes go, while only 3 percent said they never go.

Rare and expensive foods such as shark's fin and bird's nest also sparked the interest of many respondents, though they know these foods are not very nutritious. Almost 31 percent said they eat rare foods. Many said they try the foods out of curiosity. Others said they liked the "expensive feeling" and "spiritual enjoyment" of eating such delicacies.

More than 80 percent of urban residents manage to eat three meals a day and half spend around 20 minutes on each meal. More than 86 percent of people said they always go to restaurants for their meals. That number represents a big increase since 1978, when there were less than 120,000 restaurants in China. The number has soared to more than 4 million.

The story is the same for the Lunar New Year's Eve dinner, which is regarded by the Chinese as the most important family meal that should be eaten at home. Almost 23 percent of respondents said they plan to celebrate at a restaurant. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, restaurants typically fill out their reservations two to three months ahead of the holiday.

Even with an explosion in the enjoyment of restaurants, more than half of people answering the survey said dishes cooked at home are still their favorites.

Respondents also showed a growing appreciation for vegetarian food. The survey found that almost 24 percent of people make vegetarian foods their main or only daily diet. McDonald's and KFC, once very popular in China, are now regarded by more than 80 percent as junk food.

Colin Campbell, author of the book The China Study—Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health, said that vegetarian food is effective in preventing and controlling chronic diseases. Eighty percent of people said they agreed with this idea.

A report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization found that 20 percent of emissions that are causing global warming come from the livestock industry, a proportion higher than that produced by all the world's vehicles and a statistic that adds weight to making the decision to go vegetarian.

But there were not many respondents who said that environmental considerations informed their decisions around the dinner table. Almost 79 percent of survey takers said they use disposable chopsticks and tableware. Nearly 67 percent, however, said they buy organic food from time to time, though 40 percent expressed distrust of food labeled "organic" in the market.

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