Too Much of a Good Thing? How China Is Rethinking Its Diet.
On August 1, 32-year-old Su Bingtian became the first runner representing an Asian nation to qualify for the Olympic finals in the men’s 100-meter sprint since 1932. It was a historic breakthrough, one that seemed to validate China’s decades-long effort to improve the physical constitutions of its people. Some called for a redoubling of these efforts, calling on Chinese to do their part by consuming “more meat, eggs, and milk” — supposedly the building blocks of a strong, successful athlete.
For decades, China’s success at international sporting events has been treated as a proxy for the overall health of its more than 1 billion citizens, a way to prove to the world that China is no longer sickly or weak, but a powerful, modern nation. Conversely, successful athletes become role models for the broader populace, encouraging them to take up sports and improve their health. But is the lesson of Su Bingtian’s surprise qualification really that the country needs more milk and eggs?
State attention to nutrition goes beyond sports. China has made great progress over the past several decades in improving the physical condition of its population. Two recent reports show that malnutrition and physical deficiencies are on the decline, and that the gap in fitness and wellbeing between urban and rural areas has also gradually begun to close.
This success is directly related to the widespread dietary changes that have taken place since the 1980s. As China has developed, the dietary habits of Chinese people have shifted towards high-fat, high-protein and high-energy foods. In particular, the consumption of animal products has increased significantly. A study published in 2020 found that, in 1981, animal-derived food products only accounted for about one-tenth of total food consumption among urban Chinese residents; by 2018, they accounted for one-third.
Animal-derived food products are an excellent source of protein, and their contribution to the improved fitness of the population should not be understated. Arguably the most noticeable manifestation of this shift has been the nationwide increase in average height since the early 1980s.
From this perspective, the success of China’s Olympic athletes at this year’s Games is indeed representative of an overall improvement in the nutritional level of the Chinese people.
Yet, there is also reason for concern. The two above-mentioned reports both identified the same worrying trend: As Chinese become increasingly health-conscious, labor losses caused by chronic disease have significantly decreased, but the increasing prevalence of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases poses a threat to this progress. In particular, the percentage of overweight and obese people in all age groups and in both urban and rural areas has risen in recent years, accounting for more than half of all Chinese adults.
The primary drivers of this trend are excessive consumption and unhealthy lifestyles. The increase in consumption of animal-derived foods has certainly played a positive role in improving national fitness, but these foods are often rich in fat. What’s more, the average citizen’s intake of edible oils and salt is now much higher than experts recommend; grain intake is too dependent on refined rice and noodles as opposed to coarse grains; and consumption of sweetened beverages is rising rapidly. The problem of malnutrition has been replaced by that of imbalance and excess: people are consuming too much high-energy, low-nutrient foods, and not enough vegetables, fruits, beans, or dairy products. Statistics show that the current per capita caloric intake of Chinese residents is 3,108 kilocalories per day — significantly higher than the world average of 2,884 kilocalories and Japan’s 2,726 kilocalorie average.
Even as their diets grow more imbalanced, Chinese people have become increasingly sedentary. In tandem with the country's economic transformation, the amount of physical activity that Chinese people do on the job has decreased significantly and has not been sufficiently supplemented in other spheres of life, such as housework, transportation, and leisure. In contrast, the time people spend sitting on the sofa and in front of screens has risen, in turn exacerbating the risk of obesity and chronic diseases.
Yet, the situation is hardly hopeless. This year, China declared victory in its nationwide battle against poverty. Now that fresh grains, vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy are in stable supply, policymakers are shifting their focus from improving nutrition quantity to improving its quality.
The country has already taken many tentative steps in this direction. In 2009, the Chinese government named August 8 — the day the 2008 Summer Olympics opened in Beijing — “National Fitness Day” in a bid to encourage exercise. The efforts have accelerated in recent years: In 2016, the Chinese government issued a “Healthy China 2030 Planning Outline,” which became the basis for a new national nutrition plan released the following year. This plan advocated in favor of balanced diet and exercise and called for more research and intervention on obesity and other nutrition-related chronic diseases.
This year brought the latest attempt to get China moving again: a new national fitness five-year-plan. According to the document, 38.5% of Chinese should regularly participate in physical exercise by 2025, up from 37.2% currently. That’s an increase of 18 million people, and the plan calls for new fitness facilities, organized sports programs, and school-sponsored and extracurricular activities to accommodate the expected rise in demand.
At the local level, officials have mobilized the resources at their disposal to achieve the central government’s health goals. Since last year, fellow professors at my university in Shanghai have even been stationed in local neighborhoods as “community health experts” tasked with advising locals, including seniors and people with disabilities, on topics ranging from nutrition to exercise.
For the foreseeable future, animal-derived food products that were once viewed as symbols of wealth and good living will remain in sufficient supply, and they will comprise an ever-greater portion of Chinese diets. But the government’s goal of “fitness for all” cannot be achieved through milk, beef, and eggs alone. We must revise our understanding of health — in particular, our “more is better” approach to nutrition. Not everyone can be Su Bingtian, but we can live healthier, happier, longer lives — as long as we make the right choices.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A woman chomps down on some meat in Beijing, 2018. Nikola Stojadinovic/E+/People Visual)