Health Guide 2014: Mind Over Platter – Following a restricted diet in Beijing

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In China, eating healthily can sometimes seem like a formidable undertaking for the best of us; the unending slew of food scandals leave many overwhelmed. Then, there are those who have an added layer of complication to their diets, for whom certain foods or food groups are restricted. Dallas Tokash, Ewan MacDougall, and Laura Fanelli tell us what’s on their plates.

Gluten for Punishment – Dallas Tokash defies flour power
Dallas Tokash (US), Student of Chinese Medicine at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine (BUCM)

Dallas Tokash moved to Beijing in 2010 to study Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Why did you go gluten-free?
I had the symptoms of celiac disease for a long time, but they built up gradually and so I tolerated them. Eventually I found out I had celiac disease because I ate a lot of gluten steaks at vegetarian places, which increased the symptoms that I had gotten used to.

What foods are restricted by your diet?
I avoid all gluten-based flours, which means most breads and many kinds of noodles and pastas are off the menu. In China, I’m lucky in that it’s relatively easy to find oat and rice noodles.

Is it difficult to be gluten-free in China?
I don’t find it difficult at all. Obviously I don’t have the breadth of gluten-free dining choices I would have in the States; I don’t expect to find gluten-free pancakes or flatbreads on the menu. Having lived here for a few years, I know what I can and cannot eat in China. It’s not always possible to find a main dish I like because I am also
vegetarian, which complicates things further.  In that case I usually choose a few sides.

What’s your favorite restaurant to eat out in Beijing and what do you typically order?
My top three picks would be Hatsune, Bellagio, and Frost. I think the most innovative and exciting dish for gluten-free diners in Beijing is Jeff Powell’s gluten-free, vegetarian lasagna at Frost. Instead of pasta, he uses tofu skin between the sauce layers.

Is your diet healthy?
Overall I eat a balanced diet, but without gluten in my diet my body is absorbing nutrients properly, which means it’s easy or me to gain weight now. I’m trying to lose a few kilos and reduce my blood sugar. I aim to eat what nurtures me and not just give into my cravings for mozzarella, jelly beans, and kettle chips. I still indulge in treats occasionally, but only splurge on the best-quality carbs on special occasions – think crème brûlée at Mosto rather than an ice cream sundae at McDonalds.

Do you use supplements?
I use TCM herbs prescribed by a doctor at Beijing Guoyitang clinic, which is attached to BUCM. I’m on a student budget, so they take that into account when designing my treatment. What they prescribe costs about RMB 120 per week.

Do you miss wheat flour? Are there any gluten-free approximations that you recommend?
Overall I don’t really miss bread, except at Assagi when they bring fresh focaccia to the table. I haven’t found gluten-free bread in Beijing, but April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s both stock Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flours, so you can bake cakes and breads at home. They also stock corn tortillas and chips.

However, gluten-free products from western supermarkets are quite expensive so I suggest shopping at Chinese supermarkets and trying local buckwheat flours, rice flours, and potato starches. You can also mill your own flours in your food processor. Otherwise, I recommend stocking up when you’re overseas; for instance, I bring back gluten-free pasta back from Italy.

Do you cheat and eat restricted foods occasionally?
Having lived in Italy for ten years, it’s inevitable that once every two to three months I crack and go to La Pizza for a margherita. After I eat gluten, I take the herbal formula baohe wan (保和丸). It’s a treatment for gluten intolerance rather than for celiac disease per se, but it helps. I still develop some minor symptoms afterwards, but it’s worth it. I’m on a mission to develop good gluten-free pizza dough, but I think studying medicine is probably an easier pursuit.

Typical Daily Menu:
Three or four egg cheese omelet
Cup of coffee
Protein shake

Lunch: Sushi

Cheese Salad

The Caveman Diet – Ewan MacDougall is pleased to meat you
Ewan MacDougall (US), CrossFit Trainer at Middle Kingdom Fitness
American (despite his Scottish name and UK passport), Ewan MacDougall has lived in Beijing for just under two years. He came here to witness the rise of China from the inside and works as a public servant.

Why did you adopt the Paleo diet?
A sedentary grad student lifestyle combined with a diet high in carbohydrates resulted in a raised cholesterol count and some weight gain.

I ran into an old friend who convinced me that humans were evolutionarily designed to eat meat, and that calorie-dense foods were more satiating and therefore less likely to induce overeating than less calorie-dense foods, particularly carbohydrates.

So I switched to the Paleo diet over a period of three months. Each month, I took a notch off my belt without working out. Even without exercise I can maintain body fat below 10 percent on this diet, whereas with other diets I cannot.

What foods are restricted by your diet?
I eat veggies, meat, nuts, and fruit – in that order.  I try to avoid anything that comes out of a box or can. I don’t eat pasta, bread, rice, cereal, grain, wheat, pizza, white potatoes, processed sugars, beans, legumes, or dairy.

Basically, I eat the foods our earliest ancestors ate when we emerged as a species. These foods are what we are evolutionarily designed to eat for optimal genetic expression – they’ve enabled us to survive and thrive as a species.

Is it difficult to be Paleo in China?
I find it very difficult to stick to the diet here. Trying to explain these dietary restrictions in restaurants usually results in utter confusion. The notion of not eating rice or soy sauce (which contains soy and wheat, both proscribed by the diet) results in waiters who seem genuinely concerned that something is seriously wrong with my eating process.

Paleo people also pay close attention to how their foods were raised and prepared. Many cooking oils and techniques are proscribed. Buying and cooking my own food resolves some of these issues, but not all.

But it’s a fool’s errand to try to eat organic in China because of all the pollutants that seep into the soil and water. There’s often no telling how animals were raised, and these factors can have a huge impact on the nutrition profile of the food that winds up on your plate. Beyond ingredients, there’s no telling what’s in the cooking oils. It’s tough not to be a bit cynical after all the gutter oil scandals.

Is it expensive to follow a strict Paleo diet in Beijing?
In the States I’d buy grass-fed beef – known to have much higher Omega-3 fatty acid content than grain, soy, or corn-fed beef, which is very high in inflammation-inducing omega-6s – for roughly USD 4-6 per pound, including roasts, Delmonico steaks, sirloin, and filet mignon. In Beijing, I have to spend roughly USD 20 per pound; it’s not sustainable.

What’s your favorite restaurant to eat out in Beijing and what do you typically order?
If I’m trying to be strict about diet and eat out – which often don’t go hand-in-hand – I’ve found Frost to be a big winner. Modo has some good salads and Element Fresh is a good, safe bet too.

I’ll order meat and veg and substitute the starchy sides out, though food substitutions are not always possible.

One more reason I like Frost is because they’re almost always accommodating. I cook most of my own food, but when I eat out I enjoy it. I don’t order heaps of jiaozi and baozi, but I’m not a stickler either.

Is your diet healthy?
This diet is nutrient-rich. You’re only eating whole foods and never eating empty calories like French fries or chocolate cake. This is a relatively low-carb, high-fat diet.

Carbs, while they may be recommended on the food pyramid, aren’t necessary for healthy living. I can get sufficient calories from other sources in a safe and healthy way more conducive to low blood sugar and lean body mass – in a way that prevents obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and heart disease.

Do you use supplements?
I use fish oil to maintain the right Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids are found widely in vegetable cooking oils and in grain-fed animals. They are far more abundant today than they were in the days of our earliest ancestors, so supplementing with Omega-3s in fish oil helps keep the ratios in balance. It helps reduce inflammation, which has a host of health benefits for heart, brain, and skin.

Do you miss carbs? Are there any Paleo-friendly approximations that you recommend?
Pasta, pizza, hamburger buns, chocolate cake – those things are delicious. I usually substitute a natural sugar like honey or maple syrup for refined sugar, and almond or coconut flour for wheat flour.

Do you cheat and eat restricted foods occasionally?
I find that it’s easier to just stay on the diet rather than allow myself to cheat here and there. Cheating has a tendency to creep. If you cut out sweet, salty, carby foods, your body and your palate adjust and the cravings go away.

When they return, you’re able to satisfy them with something healthier such as berries and coconut milk with cinnamon, instead of double chocolate devil’s food cake with deep-fried ice cream.

Many of the ingredients in processed foods are designed to overstimulate our palates and keep us craving more. If you cut them out, you’ll be surprised how your body finds a new equilibrium. Return to them, and you’ll be surprised how unhealthy they make you feel.

Typical Daily Menu:

Three sweet potato and almond butter-based pancakes.
Fruit and veggie shake made from frozen berries, frozen leafy greens, nuts or nut butter, seasoning and spices, coconut milk, and protein powder.
Sausage and veggie flourless quiche.

A few chicken breasts with roasted veggies

Early afternoon:
Usually something from the slow cooker

Late afternoon:
Norwegian salmon plus green veggies

After work:
Protein shake

Protein shake
Sweet potato

Evening Meal:

A hunk of leg of lamb plus some veggies

Vegan Make It Work – Laura Fanelli ruminates on a plant-based diet
Laura Fanelli (US), Chef and Former Restaurateur
Laura Fanelli first came to Beijing six years ago to do an advanced Mandarin course at Tsinghua University. She has lived here on and off since then. A chef and former restaurateur, she is an active promoter of the organic food movement in China.

Why did you adopt a vegan diet?
I was vegetarian first for about 15 years, for all of the usual reasons – slaughterhouse cruelty, environmental concerns, and health. I realized that by the same logic I should avoid dairy and eggs, so six years ago I did a one-month trial with veganism. I predicted I would feel bored and deprived, but conversely I felt amazing; it just worked for me.

What foods are restricted by your diet?
I avoid all animal parts and by-products – no meat, seafood, dairy products, or eggs. Like most vegans, I also don’t eat honey.

Is it difficult to be vegan in China?
It’s a piece of cake if you speak Chinese, harder if you don’t. It’s almost impossible for vegans who are strict about contamination. I warn servers that if I find meat, I will have to send it back without paying, which generally does the trick.

Qingzhen (清真) or Chinese halal restaurants are especially understanding since staff are familiar with Muslim dietary restrictions. Eating vegan is relatively expensive in western restaurants here. You’re generally charged comparable prices for vegan food as for imported meat.

I will pick the vegetables out of meat dishes if I have to. You don’t get very far being self-righteous in China or anywhere else. Once people discover your preferences, they will generally try to accommodate. Certain people feel that simply by avoiding animal products you are judging their food preferences, so it can be a touchy subject.

What’s your favorite restaurant to eat out in Beijing and what do you typically order?
I like eating at any of the Gulou-area Yunnan restaurants. I order the fried kidney beans, mint salad, spicy mashed potatoes, doumiao (pea shoots), rice noodles, tofu wrapped in lotus leaves, and a mushroom dish or two.

Is your diet healthy?
I eat a wide variety of whole foods and my protein needs are met. Vegetarians and vegans are sometimes grilled about nutrition, but really anyone can end up with vitamin or mineral deficiencies. It’s about eating healthy, no matter what kind of diet you follow. If you eat instant noodles or baozi all day every day, you can’t expect to be healthy whether you’re vegan or an omnivore.

Do you use supplements?
I take vitamin B12 – it is recommended for vegans.

Do you miss animal products? Are there any vegan-friendly approximations that you recommend?
I sometimes miss cheese and eat vegan cheese, but only occasionally because it’s so processed. I love fake jerky for the spices. I cook, so of course egg and dairy-free baked sweets are never an issue. People often tell me that my vegan chocolate cake is better than non-vegan chocolate cake. Lots of vegans miss meat, and there are a few stores that sell mock meat, such as Zheng Long Zhai Vegetarian Goods on Baochao Hutong.

Do you cheat and eat restricted foods occasionally?
I allow myself to have something verboten whenever I want it, which isn’t very often.  Eight years into my vegetarianism, I craved steak so I ate a rib eye.

In 23 years, I have purposefully eaten meat on two occasions. I have no regrets. Some kinds of meat taste OK, but being vegan is not about the taste. I have no taboos with food, and so I don’t feel deprived.

The big picture is what counts; it’s OK to be a plant-eater who sometimes eats cheese on a pizza or has a piece of cake made with eggs if that helps you sustain your diet. I think we need to be forgiving of ourselves.

Typical Daily Menu:

Black tea with soymilk
Tofu scramble with homemade whole-grain bread

Organic vegetable curry with mixed grains
Fresh-squeezed juice

Vegetable fajitas
Red or white wine

Liangpi (cold noodles with chili, sesame paste and garlic)
Vegan oatmeal cookies
Foccacia and hummus
Mixed nuts


This article originally appeared on page 44-49 of the beijingkids Health Guide 2014. To get your free copy, email or view it online at Issuu.

Photos: Ken & file

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