August 25, 2016

China’s Changing Diet: How to Turn the Tide

Becky Ramsing

Becky Ramsing

Senior Program Officer, Food Communities & Public Health Program

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Part 1 and Part 2 of the China’s Changing Diet blog series portrayed how individual and systematic dietary changes impact health and the global environment. Reversing trends takes time, but throughout history, the collective actions of committed individuals have had far-reaching impacts. In this section, we will discuss some changes already happening in China.

Chinese-language Meatless Monday poster

Chinese-language Meatless Monday poster

Moving the dial, motivation and Meatless Monday

Whether Dietary Guidelines can effectively spur diet changes is a difficult thing to assess. In China as in most countries, the rapid shift toward sugars, oils, meat and processed foods is counter to their past and present Dietary Guidelines. However, Dietary Guidelines can support the conversation and guide promotions toward diet changes. Much of the impact of the DG relies upon publicity, tools and education that follow their release.

What will motivate people to add meat to the conversation?

While public health concerns in China rightly focus on obesity and prevention of chronic diseases, adding meat to the conversation will have benefits for both public health and the environment. Having the guidelines provides “authoritative backing from the government that we have been eating too much meat, and it is time that we cut down on it,” according to a Chinese environmental filmmaker.

People need a personal or social reason and practical way to make changes. And this may be different for different groups. In a recent WeChat conversation about meat consumption in China, participants highlighted the importance of a compelling, personalized message.

For the increasingly urban population, cost, taste and convenience matter. Vegetarian food is perceived as tasteless. Furthermore, vegan food is also associated with Buddhism, so it has specific religious connotations. As people get their meals away from home more often, introducing plant-based items into mainstream restaurants has a huge potential to showcase and mainstream tasty vegetarian options. This can even be done in the setting of popular western fast food restaurants that have spurred the popularity of cheeseburgers and fried chicken.

Many Chinese elders are concerned about their health. Yet, the perception has grown that a healthy diet must include meat. Official guidelines, government health agencies and higher education institutes may be influential in shifting the idea of what a complete, healthy diet is—especially for reducing the burden of chronic diseases among this generation.

For home cooking, good vegetables are perceived as expensive. Helping people access locally-grown produce, and providing ideas on how to prepare these foods can move the dial on what is considered delicious and healthy. Chinese food traditionally included small portions of meat, making it easier to return to past family recipes and cooking methods.

China’s younger generation is more aware and willing to make changes, according to recent focus groups and a global study by Chatham house. Overall, 83 percent of respondents were willing to eat vegetarian at least one day each week for their health and the planet, with 62 percent willing to eat vegetarian two or more days each week.[i] People in China are also keenly aware of environmental problems. They live more closely with air pollution, poisoned waters and environmental impacts.

The renewed call to decrease meat consumption is being supported and promoted by a broad array of influential people and institutions. In China, as in many other countries, actors and celebrities can have a strong influence. Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron are taking the message of reduced meat consumption to the public. Wild Aid, a non-profit advocacy organization, is working with the Chinese Nutrition Society to launch a media campaign urging people to eat less meat. This September, billboards and famous spokespeople will show up to talk about food and climate all over China. Brighter Green has also supported the production of films and materials addressing the problem of meat consumption and dietary changes and impact on climate and health.

Make it a Meatless Monday

Accomplishing a massive reduction in meat consumption is an enormous step for any country and whether this can be accomplished in the necessary time frame remains doubtful. However, a simple step that individuals can take toward reversing the trend is going without meat one day a week—as with Meatless Monday—which would mean a 15% reduction in meat consumption. Producing and consuming 15% less meat could result in a 95 million metric ton reduction in CO2e (if dairy was to remain constant). This would be equivalent to 20,067,189 passenger vehicles being driven in one year.[ii] Not enough to change the world, but an achievable step in the right direction.

Meatless Monday is more than a starter. Meatless Monday is an effective strategy for helping people take a step toward reducing their meat. Meatless Monday encourages individual and institutions to take one day a week to go without meat. This prompt provides opportunities for chefs and culinary professionals to develop tasty plant-based options to promote and encourage customers to taste and see.

Meatless Monday is not just an alliteration or play on words. Research shows that health-oriented contemplations have a clock or a rhythm. More than any other day, Monday is the day that many people start diets, quit smoking, etc. More Google searches reflect health contemplations—how to quit smoking, diets, recipes, etc. on Monday. Mondays are viewed as new starts—as mini New Year’s Days. Mondays are the day to re-engage with the workweek planning and come after weekends when many plans have “failed.”

In China, many opportunities exist to turn the tide. The message about reducing meat needs to be about the many benefits of plant-based foods, how to prepare them, how to highlight them on menus and how delicious they can be. A more effective conversation reflects a shift rather than a flip. Meatless Monday and other initiatives that can help get the dial moving toward healthier, climate friendly diets in China are a step forward for China and the world.

 

Understanding China’s Current Intake and 2016 Dietary Guidelines
China 2016 DG US equivalent China current U.S. 2016 DG[1] U.S. current consumption[2]
Meat, pork, poultry 40-75 g 1.5-2.5 ounces 173 g/d 3.7 ounce (including eggs) 4·4–5·9 oz (126–166 g)
Eggs 40-50g 1 egg .72
Dairy 300 g 1 ¼ cup milk 2.8 ounces

(2007)[3]

3 cups 1.77 cups
Seafood 40 – 75 1.5 -2.5 ounces 9 ounces/week 3.5 ounces/week
Beans and soy 25 – 35 g 1 ounce (1/4 cup cooked) ¼ cup/day (soy included with nuts)
Sodium < 6g <6000 mg 10.5 g 3370.28 mg

Table data sources

[1] https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-3/

[2] http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-consumption-and-nutrient-intakes.aspx

[3] Current Worldwide Total Milk Consumption per capita, ChartsBin; viewed 22nd July, 2016 http://chartsbin.com/view/1491

 

Other Chinese Dietary Guidelines Highlights

  • Grains & yams 250-400g/day, including whole grains and legumes 50-150g, and yams 50-100g. Total CHO intakes at least 50% of total energy intake.
  • Vegetables 300-500g/day, half of it be dark color.
  • Fresh fruits 200-350g/day. Can’t be replaced by juice.
  • Soy and products at least 25g/day.
  • Nuts in moderation

 

[i] Wellsely L, et al.; Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption Analysing Public Understanding in Brazil, China, the UK and the US; Chatham House; Nov 2015/nalys 22nd July, 2016 < step forganization,nr an be accomplished remains doubtful. imate friendly diets in China are a step f

[ii] EPA calculator (CO2 equivalent): https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

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