I grew up in Hong Kong, a predominantly Chinese society. At home, my mother followed the food tradition of a typical Chinese household, providing the family with three meals a day, made with mostly fresh ingredients shopped in the outdoor markets on the same day.
Dinner was a full-on family affair. We always ate at exactly the same time every day—7pm, and the whole family would sit down to eat a meal that consisted of a big bowl of broth, a small bowl of rice, a dish each of vegetables, fish/seafood and meat. In each dish, there was a variety of different ingredients, and the colors of the food made the dinner table a wonderful sight to behold.
So, already in childhood, I established the habit of eating a wide variety of food with a broad spectrum of tastes, including bitterness and spiciness—all of which contributes to balanced nutritional intake and proper detox. In fact, the Chinese style of cooking packs a lot of different nutrients in a single chopstick scoop! In every meat or fish dish, there will always be a number of vegetables, herbs and spices. The “foundation” of the meal is a bowl of rice. So we never tend to eat too much, as we would pick from the dishes laid in the center of the table, and stop when we have finished the bowl of rice. Of course, when we are really really hungry, we would pick more often from the dishes and maybe refill the bowl with a bit more rice.
The reason why I am telling you this, is that I recently read about how the French family eats and how it contributes to healthy figures—and I wanted to add my two cents ;-). To my surprise, there is a great deal of similarities between the French way of eating and the Chinese way of eating, with the exception of how the dishes are laid out. The Chinese style is more “communal” whereas the French style is more “individual.” But in both cultures, we tend to eat a great variety of foods in moderate quantities at each meal. Freshness of the ingredients plays a very important role, and so does “togetherness.” All of these qualities add an extra dimension to the concept of healthy eating. Yes, it matters a great deal what you eat. But how much, at what pace, and with whom we eat our meals also play an immeasurable role in how our body assimilates food and makes it beneficial for our overall health. I am sure the Chinese and French ways of eating are not the only ones that value these qualities. I believe this is the case in most traditional cultures. It is with the prevalence of the “modern” lifestyle that we’ve gradually lost the wholesome habits that were once a norm.
First, the sit-down dinner gave way to TV dinner. Then, came the computer. For the sake of convenience and to save time, the prepackaged meal—loaded with preservatives and additives of poor nutritional quality—was born. And when we eat in front of the TV or computer, without focusing on the food itself, our internal sensors of whether we are full or not are turned off. We eat mindlessly, shoving down bite after bite into our throat and losing track of how much we have eaten and whether we are already full or not. On top of that, social isolation (e.g. not having someone to share meals with) and other stress factors could lead us to soothe ourselves by filling our stomach with “comfort food” (which, in many cases, take the form of ultra-processed junk food.) This could eventually lead to binge eating.
I had my first experience of binge eating when I was in college. Having moved from Hong Kong to the United States, I was all alone in dealing with all the stress related to adulthood, loneliness and cultural shock. On those lonely nights of studying for exams, I would drink multiple cans of Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew, and gobble up a whole box of graham bear or Oreo cookies in one setting. I was desperately trying to soothe the anxiety inside me by mindlessly munching on sweet food and downing sugary beverages, which seemed to perk up my energy level for short bouts. None of those really helped me feel better after all, but I plowed on for four years, relying on junk foods to get me through my heavy workload, social isolation and rejections. This, along with the unhealthy food and ways of eating that I picked up, contributed to the ballooning of my weight. Already by the end of the first semester in college, I added 20 lbs to my petite frame of 5’3″, and my waistline measured 30.” My struggle with weight would persist throughout my college years.
In my “Westernization” process, I embraced all the foods that were unheard of or scarce when I grew up — milk, cheese, frozen yogurt, deep-dish pizza, bagels, muffins, thick American-style pancake towers, buffalo wings—you name it. Those were “novelty” items that soon became addictive to my palate. I was so bored of traditional Chinese food after having eaten it for my whole life! I ate loads of these American foods on a regular basis, and fell in love with the “all-you-can-eat” style restaurants at the same time. To me, being able to eat without restrictions and at incredibly low prices was “heaven.” And on busy days, I would eat in front of the computer while working on my papers. All these new habits didn’t do my health much good. But it would be a long time afterwards that I realized the consequences.
I am sharing my experience and my realizations because I want you to know that if you struggle with binge eating or have trouble controlling the amount of food you eat, you are not alone, and that there are habitual and emotional reasons behind it. Will power, portion control or counting calories can only go so far. But if you become aware of why you need to eat beyond the point of satiation, then the real solution of turning the habit around is just around the corner.
Mindful eating is a good start in building a healthy relationship with food. Here are some simple steps you can follow:
- Sit down properly for each meal.
- Lay your food in an attractive way on the dish or bowl.
- Look at your food, say a little “Thanks” to it before you start.
- Savor each and every bite.
- Eat slowly. Chew thoroughly.
- Before you take the next bite, check in with your stomach. Listen to it carefully. Is it hungry? If so, keep eating. If not, stop for a moment, then listen again.
- Stop when you are “almost” full. Eating till 75%-80% full is what those people in the Blue Zones—the longest-living human beings—habitually do.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you eating to support your health and well-being?
- Are you using food as a drug to numb your anguish, loneliness or suffering?
- Are you using food as a tool to punish yourself when you “screw up” in any way, such as feeling that you have “fallen off the wagon” if you are on diet?
In the second part of this series, I will be talking about the concept of food as medicine ingrained in the Chinese food culture. I will also be analyzing how some of the traditional ingredients used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines are excellent while others may not be all that healthy for some of us. To read the second part, click here.