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Exporting the Chinese diet... to China
March 7th, 2012
03:49 PM ET

Exporting the Chinese diet... to China

T. Colin Campbell co-authored a bestselling book touting the health benefits of eating like the rural Chinese. Now he’s trying to reacquaint the Chinese with the benefits of the plant-based diet he learned from them.

Campbell, who co-authored "The China Study" with his son, Thomas M. Campbell, said the Chinese are abandoning their vegetable-rich meals for fast food and other western fare.

“It’s ironic that some of the things we learned from the Chinese now we’re sort of taking back to China,” said Campbell, an American who is professor emeritus in nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

Campbell and a group of Chinese celebrities have launched a 21-day Healthy Challenge. The diet is low fat and vegan, meaning no meat, dairy or eggs.

Day 1 calls for cinnamon raisin oatmeal for breakfast, a lettuce wrap for lunch, a snack of edamame, and a vegan stuffed bun with pumpkin and tomato soup for dinner.

The non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine developed 21-day diets for China and the United States.  The Chinese challenge launched Monday. The American challenge begins April 2.

Anyone following either the Chinese or American diets for three weeks can expect to lose weight and to lower blood pressure and LDL, or bad, cholesterol, Campbell told CNN in a telephone interview.

Campbell and fellow researchers documented the link between diet and heart disease, diabetes and cancer by conducting health and nutrition surveys in more than 2,500 counties across China and Taiwan in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Rural areas followed what turned out to be the healthiest diet not by choice, but “because that’s what they had,” Campbell said.

Rapid economic expansion in China has been accompanied by a transformation of the diet and a proliferation of fast food, especially in cities.

“Like other societies that have gone through this transition they tend to want to spend it on richer foods,” Campbell said.

Sales in China’s food service industry have more than doubled since 2005 and hit $99 billion last year, up 14% from the year before, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Like their diets, China’s rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease rates also are starting to more closely mirror western countries:

* Some 10% of Chinese are diabetic and 16% are pre-diabetic, with rates higher in the urban population, according to a study published in the New England Journal in 2010.

* The obesity rate remained below 5% for China as a whole, but was approaching 20%  in some cities, the World Health Organization reported.

* And trends in blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes will result in a 23% increase in heart disease in China between 2010 and 2030, even after factoring in a decline in the smoking rate, one study predicted.

The Chinese healthy challenge has the backing of celebrity "coaches" including actresses Gao Yuanyuan and Barbie Hsu and singer-songwriter Khalil Fong .

Celebrity coaches in the United States include actress Alicia Silverstone, Ironman Brendan Brazier and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.