Eating Vegetarian in China or Rather Not

eating squid in china food blog

I read The China Study in 2009 (thanks to my time machine aka RunEatRepeat’s old posts, I can check things like that).

“In The China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell details the connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The report also examines the source of nutritional confusion produced by powerful lobbies, government entities, and opportunistic scientists. The New York Times has recognized the study as the “Grand Prix of epidemiology” and the “most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.”

Yes, the book is as dry as the description, but it’s also very interesting!

To put it simply, the book compares the standard American diet to a standard rural Chinese diet. The rural Chinese diet in this case is high in plants, low in animal protein = vegan-ish.

It goes on to reference the China diet in relation to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. That part is crazy! It’s so interesting to see how a plant based diet lowers the incidences of certain diseases.

So, I kind of assumed that the food in China would lean to the vegetarian side or at least be vegetarian friendly.

It wasn’t.

eating in china on snack street intestines

Right now in my life I am not vegetarian, but I was for years and still appreciate a good veg meal. I’m not a big meat eater and really only like chicken and not mammal meat. <- I think some people call that red meat or pork, I don’t know I’m not a meatologist.

meat filled buns in china food blog

All the lunch and dinner meals on the trip were served ‘family style’, meaning about eight of us would sit at a table with a lazy Susan and the waiter would bring out several dishes for everyone to share. We didn’t order, so our tour guide would point out the vegetarians to the waiter and they would let them know if something did NOT have meat.

eating in china food blog

There were usually about 8 dishes at each meal plus rice.

what i ate in china food blog travel

what i ate in china food blog travel

Surprisingly there were only one or two dishes out of the eight that were vegetarian. Usually they were the plain Chinese kale or broccoli dishes, but they were pretty oily (the cooks most likely used oil to make up for the lack of protein to flavor). One of the vegetarians in our group said, “It is hard to be vegetarian and be healthy on this trip!”

what I ate in china travel blog

This was one of the only non-green vegetarian dishes, an eggplant dish. It was delicious! But, not common with our meals.


One of the few dinners we had without the group I ordered a vegetable side dish and surprise surprise it came with a little bit of meat on top (the menu did not say it had meat). I didn’t mind it, but I’m not vegetarian. Something I noticed was there wasn’t A LOT of meat in most dishes, it was for accent or flavor but it was there. SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I don’t like pork or red meat all too much and would usually order chicken or fish if I was at a restaurant (not for health reasons, just my taste). I think maybe there was one or two meals with chicken, but it was mostly duck and the fish was always fried except the one place that was “BBQ fish”.


I loved the eggs and tomatoes dish the best. It was served at 80% of our meals and I proceeded to eat 80% of it.

The cabbage dish below was just ‘stir-fry vegetables’ on the menu, but came with one random bite of chicken.

SAM_1074 (800x600)

I was happy that the second night we had a solo dinner there was an egg appetizer that I ordered for some protein action. (This was also the meal with the moving vegetables!!! So, it was a great night all around)

*Someone asked if I think gluten-free would be do-able in China. Hey, everything is do-able but it would be very difficult if you had a severe allergy because of the soy sauce (that has gluten in it). There are not a lot of wheat products at meals (never bread or baked goods) but I’m sure the sauces probably have wheat in them.

In other, less-than-healthy-food-news… at one point on the drive from Hangzhou to Shanghai we stopped at a rest stop with a McDonald’s and I had to check it out. I mean, c’mon – What does McDonald’s in China have?!?!

mcdonalds in chinamcdonalds in china

Really it’s just chicken sandwiches with fish-sticks and regular french fries, nothing super I-have-to-tell-everyone-about-the-Orange-ChickenMcNugget-Rice-Bowls! But, the did have Taro Pies instead of Apple Pie and I tried one of those. taro pie in china mcdonalds (641x481)

taro pie china mcdonalds (584x438)

Yeah, not good. Time and time again I tried the sweets in China and was disappointed. They are not nearly as sweet as in the US, very bland (to me). mcdonalds in china taro pie (584x438)

Overall: I LOVED the meals, just not the desserts. I’m not a big meat eater, but I wasn’t trying to avoid the meat so it was perfect for me. I miss China’s food.

Other China Food Posts:

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner in Beijing

Snack Street in Beijing

Suzhou Breakfast and Street Market Snack

Question: Would you peek in McDonald’s in another country to see what they sell?


  1. says

    That’s so interesting that they use meat more as an accent to a dish rather than the main part of it. I know that’s a good way to cook if you’re trying to save money since meat is usually more expensive than other ingredients! those moving vegetables are SO CRAZY!

  2. says

    We have gone to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut in other countries. It is cool to see what they have. I also love going to grocery stores in other counties.

  3. says

    The bigger concern in the vegetable dishes is the cultural understanding of ‘vegetarian’ if there is no meat present on the plate but it had been used to flavor the dish or in the sauce, that is considered a vegetarian dish to many people. I routinely find that my exclusion of dairy (my stomach can not handle it) had to be described in many cases to servers as an allergy in order to truly ensure it won’t appear in a dish I am ordering and even then there are still the occasional misses.

  4. says

    I noticed while working in China that they don’t have a ton of sweets. Let me re-state that. They have sweets, but they are not sugary sweet like we are used to in the states.

    I’ve worked in multiple countries and yes, I have checked out the McDonald’s a time or two. Nothing to write home about though. :)

  5. says

    I so get you on the McDonalds….in India I went to one to break up a long wait at a train station. You can get amazing platters of thali there, which definitely is not on the menu anywhere else, and all the burgers (mainly chicken and fish as well) were very very spicy! Even the tomato ketchup was curried! A crazy experience!

    • Alex says

      I went to McDonalds in India as well! We had the usual tomato sauce, but I thought it was amazing how there were no red meat burgers, only chicken or vegetarian, and everything was spicy! Yum! I also loved how the chicken in the chicken burgers were just a whole boneles chicken thigh, coated and cooked – seemed more ‘real’ than the patties in NZ! We only went the once as a special treat because McDonalds is so fancy and expensive there (compared to other food options), I couldn’t believe they even had a doorman!

  6. Tricia says

    Kinda of shocked that there are not a lot of vegetarian options on the menus there.
    My boyfriend insisted that we go to McDonalds when we were in Paris. It is so different than what we have here in the states. They had actual cafes/bakeries in them and served espresso and Macaroons! I also thought the quality of the regular options was much better than what we are used to.

    • Alex says

      McDonalds in New Zealand has ‘McCafe’, which is like a seperate area of cafe style food and espresso coffee :) I’m surprised that it’s not around much overseas, but cafe culture is pretty big here and McDonalds must have wanted in on that 😉

  7. FS says

    Have you ever read Denise Minger’s takedown of the China Study? She pretty much proves, through closer data analysis, that T. Colin Campbell was wrong. Read more here:

    The data that Campbell was looking at also dated from the 1970s and 1980s. China is much different country today than it was in those decades. With prosperity, comes more luxurious foods (meat). Plus, you were in major, expensive cities. Go to the countryside: they are not eating meat in such quantities.

  8. says

    All the food looks delicious. Looks like I would gain 10 lbs on that trip. I think America adds sugar to everything. My mom was recently in Switzerland and she said the same thing about their sweets.

  9. Laura P says

    I went the McDonald’s in Moscow. We went just to have ice in our drinks. I can’t remember if I noticed the menu because I was so excited about the ice!
    I couldn’t even watch the video of moving veggies, I would have been out of there.
    I read that Thomas Jefferson was a fan of using the meat as the seasoning for the veggies.
    As a country America has a huge sweet tooth. We buy French jelly and the sugar is really low. It takes some getting used to but it’s yummy.

  10. says

    Thanks for this post. I was wondering about eating GF in China, which seemed difficult from your pictures and stories!

    The China Study was featured in Forks Over Knives and has had a lot of controversy around it due to some bad statistical work. Some items they were claiming to be statistically significant were more like correlations.

    While I like the overall idea (we should all reduce red meat consumption in favor of lean meats), I don’t think it’s as cut and dry as they try to argue. They were definitely leaning more towards pushing a vegan diet, though they never called it that!

  11. Shannon B. says

    Silly question? What was making your veggies move?
    We were staying at a five star resort in Aruba for our honeymoon and guess where my husband had to go one day…yes McDonalds. I said really…we are paying a crazy amount of money to have anything we want brought to us and we have to go to McDonalds. He was lucky I was blinded by love. Today (16 years later) he would be going to McD’s by himself!! :)

  12. says

    My husband and I watched a documentary a while back about the different types of foods in McDonalds throughout the world. I found it really interesting and I would for sure stop in to see what they have! I have a feeling I should live in china so that I could kick my sweets habit I have going on :)

  13. Stephanie says

    I went to Tokyo a few years ago, and as a vegetarian I was worried whether I’d be able to survive. I went in giving myself permission to eat meat if the language barrier and options meant that otherwise I’d go hungry. Surprisingly I was able to do just fine, and I’m not sure that I (knowingly) ate meat or fish at any point on the trip. But I had a coworker who went to Beijing a few years ago, and she was surprised by how meaty and oily the food was, so I kind of knew China might be a bit different. China is also ridiculously huge, so I am sure there are plenty of regional diet variations.

    That quote from the vegetarian about how it’s hard to be vegetarian and healthy is so true, even OUTSIDE of China. So often the meatless choice on a menu is something like a quesadilla, macaroni and cheese, or some other cheesy fatty gut bomb. If I want to not only avoid meat but stay low cal, I’m kind of up shit’s creek without a paddle sometimes.

  14. says

    I went on a mission trips to Paraguay and St. Croix when I was in High school and we stopped at a McD’s both times… Paraguay had more beefy type foods and was about the same price as the US and St. Croix was more expensive and had basically the same stuff but the fish seemed bigger to me 😉 lol
    It’s always fun to check out “american” stuff in other countries! :)

  15. says

    I just watched Forks Over Knives (I see it was mentioned above too), and they talk a lot about the China Study. It’s really interesting! Although I guess there’s often controversy regarding these types of things, so you always have to take it with a grain of salt. Nothing wrong with promoting a plant-based diet though, even if there’s still meat involved, in my opinion.

  16. floey says

    damn. i had high hopes for taro pies :/ they have those in hawaii too, right? they should make a green tea pie or something.

  17. says

    I like going to and checking out supermarts on my travels – just to see what the locals have. Most times, I’ll pick up something to bring back to try.

  18. Rachel S. says

    When I was in Germany we went to a McDonald’s there and it was funny to see beer on a fast food menu. It tasted like watered down beer but it’s not often that you can say you ordered a McBeer.

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