Knowledge for better food systems

The new Chinese dietary guidelines – what do they really say on meat consumption and sustainability?

Lucy Luo's picture

In this blog-post Lucy Luo, programme director at the organisation JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy), comments on the 2016 update of the Chinese dietary guidelines. The advice has received quite a lot of media attention and has been described as encouraging a reduction in meat consumption of 50%. In this post, Lucy explains the new dietary advice, what they actually recommend, comparing it to the previous advice of 2007, and gives her views on their potential for helping shift diets in China in a more healthy and sustainable direction. See also FCRN's summary of the new guidelines.

The focus of JUCCCE is on how China uses and manages energy.  It achieves the objectives of its programs by leveraging high profile corporate and government networks that share the vision of a green China. It was founded in 2007 with a mission to accelerate the greening of China through international collaboration. JUCCCE catalyses transformative change in the greening of China by convening coalitions of cross-border and cross-sector influencers around precise collaborative action with the goal of triggering tipping points in sustainable energy, urbanization and consumption. 


The 2016 version of China’s dietary guidelines revised by Chinese Nutrition Society (CNS) was launched in May this year and has generated a lot of buzz, for example in Washington Post and from the Guardian. This is due mainly to the Less Meat Less Heat campaign that the CNS jointly released with WildAid, where Chinese stars and Hollywood figures have appeared on billboards and in videos as a part of their behavior change campaign to reduce meat consumption in China.

In the campaign, a video states that the Chinese Nutrition Society recommends Chinese consumers to reduce meat consumption by 50% with the potential of cutting China’s emissions by 9% or global agriculture emissions by 22% from one simple action. However, this has also generated some confusion as the 2016 guidelines recommends between 40-75g/day of meat consumption compared to 2007 version, which recommends 50-75g of meat/day. This only accounts to a minimum amount reduction of 10g, far from the 50% reduction of meat consumption stated by Less Meat Less Heat campaign. This is because the Less Meat Less Heat video actually refers to 50% reduction in current meat consumption levels. Currently, China consumes 63kg per person per year and a daily recommendation of 40-75g a day would mean a maximum consumption of 27.5kg a year, roughly half of current level. One thing to note is that nowhere in the new guidelines does it state current meat consumption levels, which means it does not explicitly recommend consumers to reduce their intake. Rather, it just outlines the daily recommended amount. It is fair to say that most consumers would have no awareness of how much meat they are consuming or if it is over or under current recommended levels. If the previous guidelines (2007) were not followed, how will the current version be any different?

Although CNS does not look at how diets affect GHG emissions directly, the new guidelines do support environmental sustainability in a few other recommendations.

  1. It strongly advises the selection of fish, poultry and eggs as a source of protein over red meats. Smoked and cured meats are to be avoided altogether.
  2. It emphasizes seasonal vegetables and fruits, which are more likely to be grown locally.
  3. It discourages food waste as one of its core recommendations, because “frugality is a virtue in Chinese culture”. It recommends “individuals, families, schools and the whole society to reduce food waste and adapt healthy eating culture and behaviour”; and
  4. An emphasis has been placed on greater tuber consumption because (i) tubers are versatile staples to address food and nutrition security that produce more food per unit area of land, and which use significantly less water compared to rice; and (ii) they are cheap but nutritionally rich staple food, an important factor for a nation with 150 million children still undernourished.

In my opinion, what is of greater importance is how the new guidelines translate on to the plate. The key challenge for CNS is how to educate 1.4 billion people by translating these new guidelines into every mouthful. How do we use the new guidelines and communicate it in an effective manner in order to bring awareness and change behaviour. This is what my organisation JUCCCE is currently working on and hope to build upon with our work with CNS. CNS is doing a great job by engaging Hollywood personalities and Chinese stars to promote their messages as well as engaging corporates such as Pepsico and Nestle to provide healthy meals and promote nutrition education in children across China.

Below are some further details on the dietary guidelines and the campaign to promote them: 

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Chinese celebrities promoting Nutrition Week in conjunction with CNS

Dietary Guidelines for the Generation Population

There are two editions for the Dietary Guidelines (2016), one for educators (350 pages) and the other for general distribution (140 pages). Those who are in the teaching profession are encouraged to relate their experience and knowledge to aid consumers in integrating the guidelines into their lives. CNS welcomes the participation of nutrition professionals in helping consumers understand the new guidelines in order to pave the way towards promoting healthy eating and wellbeing in the Chinese population

Core recommendations:

  • Eat a variety of foods, cereal based
  • Be active to maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, dairy products and soybeans
  • Eat moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and lean meats
  • Limit salt, cooking oil, added sugar and alcohol
  • Develop healthy eating habits, avoid food waste

Figures of balanced dietary pattern: A total of 3 figures were developed to further illustrate and understand the core recommendations and balanced dietary pattern of the Dietary Guideline (2016).

Food Guide Pagoda

This is the main figure for the core recommendations whilst the Chinese Food Guide Plate and Food Guide Abacus are supporting figures. This serves as a general visual representation of an ideal, balanced diet for an adult, illustrating both the amount and varieties of food that should be consumed in one day. It also emphasizes the importance of moderate exercise and daily hydration.

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Food Guide Plate

The Food Guide Plate is based on the principles of a balanced diet. It is a visual demonstration of food proportions represented for a person’s meal. Vegetables account for 34-36%, followed by cereals and tubers 26-28%, fruits 20-25% and proteins 13-17%. It also recommends drinking a glass of milk equivalent to 300g. Description: Macintosh HD:Users:georgewong:Downloads:IMG_7541.JPG

The Food Guide Abacus

Supporting figure for the pagoda specifically designed for children, recommended for kids ages 8–11 years old. Compared to the pagoda, fruit and vegetables are in separate categories where each row is a different food group and the abacus beads represent the portions recommended. The colorful visual is meant to attract the interest of children and aid in memorization.

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Dietary Guidelines for Specific Populations

  1. Women who are trying to get pregnant
  2. Pregnant women
  3. Lactating women
  4. Infants ages 0-6 months
  5. Infants aged 7-24 months
  6. Preschoolers 2-6 years old
  7. Children and adolescents 6-18 years old
  8. The elderly 65 years old and above
  9. Vegetarians

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Comments

acimini's picture
Submitted by acimini on

 

Hi Lucy,

Great article, thank you for sharing here. One problem that seems to be prevalent in all guidelines is the idea that red meat is the most unsustainable meat consumed while poultry, fish and pork are less problematic. I would argue that it could be quite the opposite in terms of land use dependence for intensified animal systems that rely on inputs- especially for pork, and poultry, and especially since pork is the most consumed meat in China.

I would also point out that in the US, Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate (from the School of Public Health) has a version that does not include dairy (milk) at all. It would be a step in the right direction for the US to allow sustainability measures in our guidelines, but that issue got wiped out this past year. 

Cheers,

Anna

Lucy Luo's picture
Submitted by Lucy Luo on

Hi Anna,

 

I'm glad you liked the article and thank you for your comment. Will try to respond as comprehensively as I can.

 

Emphasis on red meat

My comment as with most other articles is the linkage between meat and GHG emissions and through this lens; red meat is by far the most unsustainable. It may very well be the case that in terms of how much pork is consumed in China compared to beef, the environmental damage of pigs outweigh that of cows. However, beef consumption in China is on a sharp incline and if more and more people started consuming beef, environmental repercussions will significantly increase. Also bear in mind the CNS recommends eating white meat over red and eliminating all processed and preserved meat from the health standpoint and not environmental. It just so happens that white meat per kg of output is more environmentally sustainable compared to red meat.

 

Recommendation to increase in milk consumption in the new guideline

In the 2016 guidelines, CNS encourages Chinese consumers to drink at least 300g of liquid dairy a day. This is definitely problematic not only from a sustainability standpoint but also in terms of food safety. Dairy products have been notorious when it comes to food scandals in China because of issues with cold chain storage and contamination, yet CNS does encourage more dairy consumption. This is because China is such a diverse country with vast differences in consumption patterns from province to province. There are still 150 million undernourished children in rural areas while simultaneously China now boasts the most number of overweight and obese people in the world! You can imagine how difficult it is to come up with a unified recommendation. CNS seems to have placed greater emphasis on addressing malnourishment in the rural areas on China, which would account for their new recommendation.

 

Hope this answers some of your questions.

 

Lucy 

Lucy Luo 
Program Director 
JUCCCE, an NGO accelerating the greening of China for a healthier world
lucyluo@juccce.org |  Skype: lucy.luo680
 

MatthiasLeuenberger's picture

Hi Lucy,

Thanks for your very interesting article. Would be good to have this discussion also here in Central America where there the shift to more meat. But widely not under critics, while deforestacion is out of control.

But in one point I have strongly doubts ore more ringing alerts. When you say, you are "engaging corporates such as Pepsico and Nestle to provide healthy meals and promote nutrition education in children across China."

How can a Sugar-Water distributer and a Water Privatiser (or some say Water-stealer like in Cascade Locks http://storyofstuff.org/) be partner to the anounced objectives. They cant act against  their corporative interest. Engagements in your campaing will be always part of their Publicity-Strategy, to sell more of their stuff, witch mostly isnt healthy neither for the people, nor for the planet.
Sugered Waters like Pepsi-Coke are the most direct way to obesity and diabetics (as we can see here in Central America) and waste about 9 liter of Water for 1 Liter of Coke.
Nestle has a long history of scandals (beging with "Nestle kills babies") and is nowaday one of the forces to privatise water resources. The former CEO Peter Brabeck comented the right for free access to water "an extremist idea of some NGOs". Water is the baseline of a healthy an sustainable nutrition.

there is a slogan: "If there meets an idea with an interest, normaly the idea disgraces hisself". To deal with such giant interest, there is the chance to use their power for your idea, but a huge risk of greenwashing their unsustainable market behavior.

Thanks to think about.

Have a good time. Greetings from Central America