East Meets West: A Healthier Diet for Students at Boston College

by Yinuo Shi

According to Boston College’s International Handbook, culture  shock begins with an initial stage of euphoria. Indeed, coming from mainland China, my first reaction to the new American cuisine was positive. I was thrilled by the seemingly endless variety of unfamiliar foods: quinoa, nachos, an abundance of blueberries, and countless indulgent desserts. I also felt relieved that there were healthy options such as salads and sandwiches available, because my preconceived notion of American cafeteria food was that it was largely unhealthy. This idea seemed to be proven false. However, when the initial novelty wore off, the combination of stress, peer influence, high availability of unhealthy foods and low variety of healthy options, made it harder for me to make eating choices that catered to my palate and to my health. Since I mostly dined on campus with my Chinese freshmen peers, many of them would have likely experienced the same problems. Is it just our dining hall, or is it especially hard to navigate through the American dietary terrain in terms of familiarity and health as a Chinese diner? To gain more insight into this issue, I researched the dietary differences between the United States and China, how Chinese immigrants typically change their diets after residing in the US, and how this could shed light on a healthier diet for Chinese students in American colleges, particularly at Boston College.

What are some general differences between Chinese and American dietary habits? Although industrialism and commercialism has introduced fast food chains and processed snacks into the Chinese diet, it is still deeply grounded  in traditional elements, some of which are positive. Traditionally, the three meals of a day are served at regular times, and snacks are discouraged by school regulations and elder generations. Staple foods include white rice, flour-based food such as noodles and dumplings, and soybean products such as tofu. Vegetables make up an important part of the diet, and stir-frying is the main cooking method, complemented by other methods such as boiling and steaming. These are all relatively healthy compared with popular American methods such as deep-frying. Soup often accompanies a main meal and since  dairy and meat products are relatively higher priced, although affordable to most of the population, they do not make up nearly as much of the diet as in the United States. Chinese desserts are less indulgently sweet than their American counterparts, and are often not included in meals. However, there are also some aspects of the traditional cuisine that are less healthy, such as the overdependence on refined carbohydrates like white rice, and the consumption of cured meats and heavily flavored dishes which are habits that result in a high sodium intake.

 Healthy aspects of Chinese cuisine are influenced by factors including price, availability, and cultural norms. In China, fresh vegetables and fruits can be purchased at a relatively low price, and are easily accessible at local markets. Western-style fast foods, although readily available, are relatively expensive and not consumed by most people on a daily basis. Processed snacks are prevalent, but there are usually no vending machines in public schools, making them less accessible to school-aged children. Cultural norms play a large role as well. Traditional Chinese culture emphasises culinary art and eating at home with family. Although this tradition has been largely undermined among younger generations in urban areas, it still influences people to cook at home when possible. Older generations with more free time  frequently cook for their children and grandkids, and pass on their traditional views of cooking and eating. 

WIth these differences in mind, do Chinese people’s dietary habits change when they move to America? Do they pick up new eating habits and give up old ones? According to a study conducted on Asian students residing in the United States, there were common trends in dietary changes such as skipping breakfast, increased frequency of consumption of salty and sweet snack items, and decreased frequency of consumption of vegetables (Pan). I can easily observe this in the college setting around me. Because of hectic class schedules, peer influence, and flexible dining hall hours, students of all ethnicities often skip breakfast or sometimes only have one meal a day. Late night options of oily fries and chicken tenders are popular and commonly consumed before bedtime. Vending machines filled with processed sweets entice students to swipe their cards or insert cash when pulling an all-nighter in the library. A large slice of pizza is around the same price as a tiny 6 oz cup of salad at Carney’s, making it an easy decision to select  the former.

These choices might be the easiest short-term options, but their long-term effects show that putting in the extra effort to eat healthier is worthwhile. The lack of vegetables in the diet may lead to lack of dietary fiber and vitamins. The increased consumption of fried foods, processed snacks, and desserts can lead to excessive calorie, sodium, and sugar intake. How is this harmful? First, the physical feeling of fullness and the psychological guilt caused by overconsumption of such foods may cause people to cut down on other foods, leading to an imbalanced diet and insufficient intake of other nutrients. There is also an established relationship between higher sodium intake and high blood pressure (Hiza 297). Consuming too much added sugar over long periods of time also can affect the natural balance of hormones that drives critical functions in the body, causing the brain to become less sensitive to the body’s message to stop eating, thus promoting weight gain and obesity (Shapiro). 

However, there is another maladaptive approach to eating prevalent on both American and Chinese college campuses that we need to be wary of: restrictive dieting in pursuit of thinness. The tendency to view food in terms of calories rather than nutritional content is widespread, which, as mentioned previously, can lead to an imbalanced diet and malnutrition. Even if you are taking in the appropriate amount of calories, a diet based solely on Mac and Cheese and french fries is not what your body would appreciate. Restricting intake of food is not only ineffective for managing body weight in the long term, but also poses serious health risks: dieting is a well-established risk factor for unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, bulimic pathology, and eating disorders (Schaefer and Magnuson).

A helpful approach to healthy eating is to listen to our internal body cues, also known as intuitive eating (Schaefer and Magnuson). This means eating when we are actually hungry, and stopping when we feel full, not eating just because we want something to munch on or using food to cope with emotional stress. We should also avoid setting hard-and-fast food rules for ourselves, such as “I have to stay away from cookies for a week”, since once our willpower is depleted, the longing for that specific kind of food will likely lead to overeating. Instead of complete abstinence, enjoy food in moderation. Being mindful to the sensory pleasures of eating and how satiated each kind of food makes us feel will also make overindulgence less likely. 

There are also practical ideas for a healthier  diet for Chinese students and the larger student body at Boston College. Cooking at home is a tradition that we could try to incorporate back into our lives. For those who have the chance to cook, shopping at ethnic supermarkets for larger varieties of vegetables is a good idea. A nearby option is the Hong Kong supermarket (also known as Super 88 Market) in Allston. The prices at ethnic supermarkets are often lower because they buy produce of a reasonable quality but with  more visual defects because these stores spend less money on marketing and interior aesthetics. For example, on November 21th, 2018, the price for cauliflower crowns at Super 88 was one dollar cheaper per pound compared to the nearest Star Market. It also featured more varieties of leafy green vegetables than Star Market, mostly of Chinese origin: tonghao, Shanghai bok choy, gailan tips, and Chinese celery. There is also a wide selection of whole fruit for those who do not have the time to prepare vegetables: sweet mandarin oranges, persimmons, starfruit, and Brazilian mango. Red Delicious apples are only $1.49 per pound, which is less than the price of a single apple at Carney’s, a Boston College dining hall.

When dining on campus, smart food choices can also be incorporated into our daily routine. Try to eat a variety of foods and choose healthier options when you can. The “Plain and Simple” station at Carney’s dining hall offers baked white potatoes and sweet potatoes that are nutrient-rich, easily affordable, and familiar to a Chinese palate. Lyons Hall also features soups  that contain vegetables and are warm and filling. Cutting down on added sugars and substituting soft drinks with plain water, unsweetened tea, or coffee while advance a healthy lifestyle. Sugary breakfast granola and cereals should be consumed in moderation; oatmeal, plain yogurt, berries, or bagels are more wholesome substitutes . When choosing sides for dinner, choose boiled vegetables instead of onion rings, and baked potatoes instead of fries. Even though salads might seem unpalatable to some Chinese students who are used to hot meals and cooked vegetables, they still deserve a chance due to  their nutritional value, and experiments with different combinations may yield surprising results. The grain bar also offers a variety of whole grains that can complement white rice to make for a healthier diet. 

Though it is never an easy task to balance our hectic college life and a healthy diet, eating well is critical to our physical and mental functioning. Perhaps we can all progress toward that goal by incorporating healthy aspects of the traditional Chinese diet into our food choices, and listening to what our bodies need in order to nourish them in the right way.

Works Cited

Hiza, Hazel A. B., et al. Diet Quality of Americans Differs by Age, Sex, Race/Ethnicity, Income, and Education Level. 113 Vol. , 2013. Web.

Pan, Yi-Ling, et al. “Asian Students Change their Eating Patterns After Living in the United States.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99 (1999): 54+. Health Reference Center Academic; Gale. Web.

Shapiro, A., Mu, W., Roncal, C., Cheng, K.-Y., Johnson, R.J., & Scarpace, P.J. (2008). Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology , 295(5), R1370–1375. doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00195.2008

Schaefer, Julie T., and Amy B. Magnuson. A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues. 114 Vol. , 2014. Web.