Book Review: “Why the Chinese Don’t Count Calories: 15 Secrets from a 3,000-Year-Old Food Culture” by Lorraine Clissold (2008)

“The fundamental difference between the way people eat in China and in the West is one of attitude…The Chinese focus on making food taste good and meeting the body’s needs…The Chinese eat more calories but not ’empty calories’ full of fat and sugar and devoid of all nutrients.” (13)

Having gained a fair number of pounds since leaving the Army for seminary, I have been highly interested in learning how to eat properly (note that I did not say, “I have been highly interested in eating properly,” for that would be a lie). When I saw this book available, it intrigued me, for I had always wondered—while sitting in Chinese restaurants overseas—how the jovial customers could purchase so much food, eat every last bit of it, and still maintain their general thinness. Lorraine Clissold, a British woman with the same curiosity, spent ten years in China learning to both eat and cook just like the Chinese in order to learn their secrets, and she discovered that Chinese health has less to do with genetics and exercise than it does with ingredients and cooking methods. Thus Clissold was able to enumerate fifteen particular “secrets” to Chinese cooking, most of which could potentially leave a marked change in your (or my) “love handles.”

Many of the secrets Clissold shares would, if followed jointly, certainly help an eater lose weight (i.e. “Think of Vegetables as Dishes” and “Avoid extremes in All Areas of Your Life”). As I read through the more practical secrets, I admittedly recognized that I am failing in several of them. But the sad part of the book is that not all of the secrets are practical.

Specifically regarding the few secrets flush with Chinese mysticism (i.e. “Bring Yin and Yang into Your Kitchen” introducing the concept of the Five Elements which, although old and highly interesting, rarely enter the average Chinese person’s mind), I contend that Clissold has simply bought into an ancient Chinese philosophy and lifestyle so deeply that she would like to paint the Western “non-believers” as crazy for not believing the same. Of course her tone is far more gentle, but the sentiment remains. Because Chinese people have been balancing their meals, because they have eaten “cold” and “hot” items, and because they have let their earth element quench their fire elements for over 3,000 years and are still alive to tell the tale, then they must be onto something. Well, my Chinese wife cooks with eleven of these secrets (minus the we’re-all-cosmic-elements-of-the-universe ones), and she’s 105 after having two children. The practical food secrets that Clissold brings out in this book are gold, but be wary of the mysticism. It seems that she’s trying to sell a religion as much as she is a healthy diet.

I enjoyed the book, the writing, and the personal touches Clissold shares of her life and times in China. I would recommend it to anyone fed up with all the failed diets out there today. Perhaps the Chinese way of doing things is the next step. This book will teach you how.

©2013 E.T.

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