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Unravelling China’s Food Wisdom: The Key to Health and Longevity?
Photography by Mae Mu on Unsplash.

December 2023 – Xueying Xiong and George Lee

Theme: Food

Unravelling China's Food Wisdom:
The Key to Health and Longevity?

As the old saying goes, ‘you are what you eat.’ How does the Chinese approach to food and health, with its intricate and well-balanced perspective, differ from Western approaches in understanding the link between food, wellness, and longevity? Join This Curious Life as we delve into this fascinating exploration, uncovering valuable lessons that may guide us toward innovating better approaches to our well-being.  

An older Chinese couple cooking together

Photography by Getty Images on Unsplash.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food isn’t just seen as something to eat; it’s seen as a powerful way to keep yourself healthy. Experts in TCM advise matching what you eat with what your body needs, how healthy you are, and even the season. This connection between human health and the natural world is a key concept in TCM. Following the seasons of planning your meals is seen as important for a well-rounded and healthy diet. Furthermore, in TCM, food is often perceived as ‘medicine’—referred to as ‘Yao Shan,’ or medicinal food—employed to aid long-term recovery from illnesses.” 

Western perspectives on health and nutrition are increasingly resonating with these ancient Chinese principles.

In Chinese tradition, how food is consumed also holds immense significance. A very ‘Chinese’ way of eating/drinking is that Chinese people drink warm water instead of cold ones, let alone iced ones. The emphasis placed on digestion and mindful eating isn’t just a cultural norm; it’s deemed essential for good health and has been deeply embedded in Chinese culture for centuries. 

A cup full of Chinese herbs

Photography by Petr Sidorov on Unsplash

Central to this tradition is the profound belief in the connection between gut health and overall well-being. Chinese cultural practices prioritise nurturing a healthy gut filled with beneficial bacteria, recognising its impact on physical and mental health. These customs include treasuring food, chewing slowly and consciously, and dedicating mealtimes away from screens—a stark contrast to the hurried eating habits often observed in the West.  

Intriguingly, Western perspectives on health and nutrition are increasingly resonating with these ancient Chinese principles. Platforms such as the Zoe app, which emphasise the significance of a healthy gut, are gaining substantial popularity in Western scientific and health communities. This shift signals a merging of modern science with age-old wisdom, highlighting the enduring importance of mindful eating habits for fostering a healthy body and mind. It’s a convergence where ancient knowledge intersects with contemporary health consciousness in the Western world. 

Simultaneously, in Chinese culture, a practice called Yang Sheng has been highly valued for over 2,500 years. This practice centres on actively nurturing well-being every day rather than adopting a reactive approach to sickness. An old Chinese saying encapsulates this notion perfectly: ‘Waiting to treat illnesses after they manifest is like waiting to dig a well after one is thirsty.’

The ageing demographic in China is increasingly drawn to health and dietary supplements.

Speaking of well-being, supplements have gained significant importance in Chinese health culture, especially among older adults navigating the effects of COVID-19. With the aftermath of the pandemic impacting physical and mental health, older Chinese consumers are showing heightened concerns about their well-being. The ageing demographic in China is increasingly drawn to health and dietary supplements. Vitamins, calcium, iron, and zinc remain popular choices. Additionally, nutrients like coenzyme Q10, known for its antioxidant role in the cardiovascular system, are sought after for their role in precise nutrition among the middle-aged and older population. 

However, there’s a noticeable shift in the younger generation’s approach to health in China. Unlike their predecessors, young people today seek quick health fixes that match their busy lifestyles. This trend has sparked the rise of fast-food-style health supplements, designed to be convenient and speedy, catering to the demands of modern life while still aiming to improve health. 

A Chinese young man giving a gift of ginseng to his parents

As the importance of food supplements continues to rise, a fascinating trend is emerging children are increasingly seeing food supplements as thoughtful gifts for their parents. Some opt for practical choices like protein powder, milk powder, or medications. Others choose more advanced gifts such as smartwatches, hoping to help monitor their parents’ health. Additionally, some take proactive steps by arranging their parents’ check-ups or obtaining medical insurance for them.  

China’s approach to food and supplements highlights a proactive stance on health, unveiling how they weave together food, health, and a longer life in their society. These valuable insights might spark fresh and innovative ideas worldwide, guiding us in our pursuit of healthier and longer lives. 

More Information

Further reading.

If you found this article intriguing, you might want to explore further by checking out the links below for more insights on health, food, and well-being: 

What is Yang Sheng? By Kevin W Chen 

What is Yang Sheng? Your guide to 2023’ gig health trend. 

Chinese winter tonics: food meets medicine 

Zoe, undersatnding how food affects yout body. 

Chinese herbal teas are considered good for clearing excessive heat. 

Chinese medicinal cuisine proves just the tonic 

How China’s young consumers buy their way into longevity and health 

The insights in this article were sourced from the UK China Programme at the National Innovation Centre. Specifically targeting China, known for hosting not just the world’s largest ageing population but also one of the fastest-growing, the UK China programme is dedicated to uncovering crucial insights to drive global innovation in longevity and well-being.

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