As a graduate student in gerontology, I am interested in researching factors that influence obesity among older adults. Before my Shanghai trip, someone suggested that I examine how Chinese are different than Americans in their health habits. Research inspiration is always helpful, so I kept my eyes open.
In some ways, comparing the weights of Chinese and American people is like comparing apples to oranges. Chinese people are built differently, making them overweight at lighter weights than Americans. Also, in many parts of China, being thin indicates a lack of nutrition rather than a surplus of motivation. Unfortunately, hardship is still a reality in many parts of China.
However, I couldn’t help feeling large even when I traveled to more affluent areas of the city. Although I am working to lose the remaining weight I want to lose, I am a healthy weight for my height. Nonetheless, It was startling to me how much thinner Shanghainese were than Americans.
When I first arrived to Shanghai, I could not understand how this was the case. I remember the first meal I sat down to at my mother-in-law’s house. The sheer quantity of food prepared on the table was surprising. Rice, fish, chicken, pork could be offered in the same meal. I had never eaten so much meat in one sitting in my life. Meal after meal seemed like an elaborate, delicious feast. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were multiple course affairs. Dinner was not considered complete unless there was at least one more dish on the table than there were guests. I absolutely am not complaining- I was just baffled. I came to find out that although most meals had many offerings, most normal meals included more vegetables and less meat. The meat offerings were reserved for guests, an offering of extraordinary hospitality.
However, I did notice many things that people in Shanghai did differently than Americans. Below are the reasons I think that China has less of a weight problem than America.
Smaller plates: putting a bowl from China next to a bowl from America could be considered comical. My bowls at home seem like fish bowls rather than serving plates. (To be fair: I bought the bowls to keep my oatmeal from splashing out of the bowl into the microwave). Bowls to serve rice could only fit about a baseball size serving’s worth of rice. Dinner plates are the size of desert plates in the U.S. I certainly feel fuller after eating out of the smaller serving ware.
More communal meals: Although many Americans aim for a family dinner, breakfast and lunch are often eaten on the run. My mom always served me three delicious meals as a child. However, when I became a teenager and then an adult, I chose to eat breakfast while doing something else like checking email. Breakfast and lunch are often eaten together in Shanghai. It is a little more embarrassing to take second helpings if others are watching you do so.
Natural movement: traffic in Shanghai scares me so much that I cannot look out the window of a car. Whenever possible, I took public transportation. This took some hoofing around from the bus stop to the train and back to the bus stop. Even more organized physical activity is a tad different in Shanghai. A lot of people in the United States do strenuous group exercise classes, run marathons, and lift weights. These types of exercises are not as common in Shanghai. Exercises seem gentler in China. People are seen dancing or doing Tai Chi in the park. In the pool, the guests do a slow breast stroke. Although these gentle exercises may lead to less overall fitness, they may be more sustainable over the long term during the aging process.
Less snacks and sweet treats: Ovens are uncommon in China, so caloric baked goods simply don’t come into the equation. Although some snack foods exist, noshing on snacks all day isn’t common. Fresh fruit is often eaten in between meals instead.
Body shaming: Unfortunately, my female Chinese friends have described the image pressures many Chinese women face. One very thin Chinese acquaintance described how she was skipping dinner every night and exercising every morning to lose weight. Another described how when she returned to China, everyone remarked on how large she had become without any reservation. Although it is one thing to have a family member express concern, it cannot be good for mental health to have a constant remark on your appearance.
Overall, I learned some interesting cultural differences between Americans and Shanghainese in regards to health habits. Although I will leave the body bashing behind, I would love to pass on some of the practices to my son.