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The tortoise and the air


GENTLE PACE The Chinese diet consists of mainly non-processed foods, and meals are unhurried and relaxed.


Paul O'Brien

Ever since reading ‘The China Study’ I have wanted to learn more about the health impact of different diets. The book looks at how the adoption of a Western-style diet caused health havoc in certain Chinese provinces. I recently had the opportunity to study this up close, on a four-week trip that took in many Chinese cities.

Chinese challenge
The Chinese have certain health challenges that are not a problem in Ireland. Beijing and many other Chinese cities have high levels of air pollution. At times, I have not even ventured outside, with the air-quality app on my phone informing me that air quality is ‘hazardous’.
A lack of pure air is certainly a factor in the absence of people exercising outdoors. In a city of over 20 million inhabitants, I saw two runners and maybe a half-dozen cyclists in my time there. Of course, the paltry nod that’s given to any right of way could also be a factor here. Still, it’s a marked contrast to what I see daily in the clean, crisp air of Westport. I’ll never take that air for granted again.

Gym rats
I assumed people must be exercising indoors. The obvious places to do this are gyms. However, they are not as plentiful as you might imagine in a city of this size. Only five-star hotels seem to have any type of reasonably equipped gym, and I haven’t stayed in too many of those. When I have, I’ve had exclusive use of the gym on many occasions. It seems the Chinese are not gym rats either.

Mystery solved
I was a bit confused. People didn’t seem to exercise daily as we do at home. Sure, people go to the countryside at weekends to hike and do other activities, but this doesn’t answer the question that was running around in my head. Why, when activity levels are seemingly so low, are the levels of obesity in China not much higher?
In my travels around the country, the answer was, literally, in my face. The food that is.
Yes, there is a proliferation of fast-food restaurants in the big cities and Western-style cafés are popping up on street corners selling toasties and muffins. However, most people still eat a mainly traditional Chinese diet.
A Chinese friend travelled with me around the country, which allowed me to experience many of the different styles of Chinese cuisine. And it was in these experiences that the answer to the weight conundrum lay.
The Chinese diet consists of mainly non-processed foods. I enjoyed hearty noodle broths, a kaleidoscope of coloured vegetables, traditional meat dishes, dumplings and fruits and other mouth-watering fare. All these foods were cooked using traditional methods.
What also struck me was the lack of breads and dairy served in the diet. There were only small amounts of cheese, and bread was only brought if you asked for it. Rice, noodles and potatoes formed the grain base of the diet.

The tortoise philosophy
Something else struck me as I dined with local people in different areas. Dining is an occasion in China. It’s a celebration of food, conversation and bonds between people.
The Chinese linger over their meals, eating slowly with chopsticks and savouring food. I sat at table for over two hours for many dinners. There was no rushing, and no need to get somewhere else. The mood was relaxed and stress-free, with laughter a feature of many a table.
In fact, the general absence of stress both at and away from the dining table is another key factor in the overall health of the people.
The whole experience convinced me of the vital role that a healthy, whole-foods based diet has in supporting good health. That and importance of the ability to relax and deal with stress. Two key health lessons I have taken home with me.

Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or rofstudio@gmail.com.

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