Sunday, January 30, 2011

Learning to master the mysterious Chinese food wheel. Field report from Shanghai...

One of the most interesting parts of my job is having the opportunity to attend lots of Weight Watchers where I don't even understand the language.  Given my lack of language skills (typical American, I'm afraid), one might find it strange that I am often asked by my local co-workers, "What did you think of the leader?"  Interestingly, you can tell a lot about a Weight Watchers meeting by just watching people's faces, listening to their laughter and observing a free wheeling discussion.  I am always amazed by how much Weight Watchers meetings are alike from country-to-country around the world.  Members are members and Leaders are Leaders.

There are huge cultural differences across countries, yet I would observe that people fundamentally are more alike than different in their needs, wants, hope and dreams as they relate to weight management.  They may eat different foods in a different way, but their fundamental approach to adopting a healthy lifestyle is remarkably similar.  We all eat for emotional reasons, we all graze, and we all struggle to make healthy choices in an increasingly unforgiving food and activity environment.

This was all on display during my trip last week to visit our new office in Shanghai.  It was the second time I had been in the past few months.  As always, jet lag in China can be brutal (I averaged about 4 hours of fitful sleep each night), but it is always an energizing experience to be there.

Jacki's meeting in SuperBrand Center in Pudong
I had a chance to get to a meeting my first night at one of our local centers.  Sitting in that meeting, I was observing what was unmistakably a bonafide Weight Watchers meeting.  The rhythms and emotions of the meeting were identical to what I have seen in so many meetings around the world.  The Leader (Jacki) was an absolute star, and her members were clearly energized by her.  It was also a thrill to see a member achieve Lifetime membership in the very meeting I attended.  Just like they do it in NY!

Yet, following the Weight Watchers program in China is a very different and somewhat more challenging (at least initially) experience.  First off, China's nutritional labeling requirements are pretty sparse, so it is not easy to find out what is in the food on grocery store shelves.  Second, Chinese in the big urban cities tend to eat out very frequently, often one of the most challenging places to make well-informed choices.  Just to keep things interesting, the Chinese often partake of family-style eating with a spinning wheel in which new dishes are periodically dropped into the mix.

In this context, try to imagine keeping track of your Points!  A spoonful of this and a spoonful of that.  These aren't foods that show up on the website of a fast food chain, perfectly portioned and precisely measured for calories, fat and fiber (let alone protein, carbs, fat and fiber).  Yet, despite all of this, we have scores of members who are in fact learning how to use Points to manage their lifestyle and as their tool of choice in learning healthier habits.

How could this be?  For starters, the local Weight Watchers team undertook the painstaking process to build a 20,000 food database, the majority of which are a wide variety of restaurant dishes.  They worked with local chefs to make many of them and then measure it's nutritional content.  China has eight distinct regional cuisines with multiple sub-cuisines including the big eight:  Shandong, Sichuan, Yue, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, and Zhejiang.  Our team has developed dishes covering all of them.

The wheel of mystery!  Chinese family style
So, if you are a member in China, the data is there.  What about portion sizes?  The Chinese tend to be quite a bit less precise in how they serve and portion their food.  It tends to be a spoon here and a spoon there.  This is particularly true in family style.  Therefore, our Chinese members learn to estimate by keeping track of spoonfuls and by grouping (e.g., four vegetable dishes, three meats, etc.) to make the process more intuitive and manageable.  This is much of what they learn in their Weight Watchers meetings, and these are the tips they share with each other.

I had my own family style experience last Wednesday night when I had dinner with the local team.  Sure enough, there was a parade of dishes, few of which I recognized, making their way through the table.  My Chinese colleagues talked me through how to keep score, and even my easily distracted brain was able to roughly keep track.  What could have been a very intimidating experience for someone on program was actually very manageable.

I came away from the trip with a couple of themes floating through my head:

  1. The greatest value of tracking PointsPlus values is in the mindfulness, not necessarily the precision.  For me, 75% of the battle in tracking is simply doing it.  The process alone is enough to make me aware of how much I'm eating and what I'm eating.  Whether the final tally is 11 vs. 13 PointsPlus values is frankly going to have less impact on my long term success on the plan.  The Chinese use estimation all the time, and our members there are having weight loss success very similar to what we see in other countries.  
  2. If you are in an environment where you are eating new and different foods all the time, you learn to loosen up.  It's been periodically very easy for me to fall into a rut of eating the same meals over and over because it is a safe and easy practice.  Yet, the work that is actually required to introduce new dishes onto my menu is not nearly as onerous as it seems at first blush.  I really should mix it up more.  If I can stay OP in family style meals 8,000 miles away, I can certainly try a new lunch order.  Variety keeps it all interesting.  

Should you find yourself wandering in Shanghai in need of a meetings fix, check out the website ( and stop by.  You're always welcome no matter what country you're in.




  1. What a great post! I lived in SE Asia and the Middle East for 8 years and greatly missed attending Weight Watchers meetings - it is a big challenge to stay on program due to inconsistent food labels, street food and not being a native speaker. Also, life as an expat often feels like a non-stop party with the behavior that accompanies it (festive food and drink). It is great news to hear that Weight Watchers meetings are expanding around the globe.

  2. Wow...makes me INCREDIBLY grateful for our own nutritional labeling here on the U.S.! And also encourages me that all is not lost if restaurant eating forces me into a gray area with points: I just have to be super-mindful about food choices and super-vigilant about portion size (not to mention super-honest with myself about what's going in my mouth!). Thanks for the fascinating new perspective!

  3. Hey Dave,

    There is a lot to learn from a nutrition label, and I'd be lost without them. If you told me when I was in my 20's that I'd one day pay super close attention to a label, I would have laughed. Now, I read them every day.....just like the Peanuts Comic Strip. My kids even read them. A cereal without the "magic" number in the sugar category doesnt get a second glance....they just put it back on the shelf, because "they know". Kids are never too young to learn about good nutrition.

    I am so glad that WW decided to include Carbs in the PP calculation. Truth be told, I am a Carb Addict (Atkins, South Beach, BTDT). That's why you "can't eat just one" Lays potato chip.....carbs are like a drug....have some, want more and I need to be mindful of their power.

    When shopping, a quick glance at the nutrition label stating carbs over 20g will need me to further investigate if "I really need this", "is it really worth it". My iPod Touch goes everywhere with me so I can check the PPs before I buy. There have been too many times when you say at first glace of the nutrition label "yea, that's about 3PP per serving" only to find out it's really 5. And we can't go wasting food (thanks Mom, and your blog entry last week) so we eat it anyway. HA !!

    Glad you were able to stay OP with the support of your colleagues.

    I am already looking forward to next week's blog. Will you be visiting any WW Centers in LI NY soon? We have a great meeting on Thursday morning at 10:15 and would love to see you !!


  4. I love the loosening up you mention at the end. I also think this re-iterates that meeting - no matter where you are is important. And rounding up is probably the rule of thumb for me when I'm out. Just in case. Oh and celebrating even the small stuff is good.

  5. Most us get to WW because we have been unconscious about our eating and activity. That is why it feels like the weight piles on so fast - we aren't paying attention. As soon as we become mindful of how we treat our bodies and what we eat it slows down and becomes easier to manage than we expected. Most of our choices are based on habit not need. Big difference.

  6. I would like to see ww in turkiye

  7. Thank you for this post, My husband and I moved to Shanghai and wanted to join WW as we have been subscribers in the USA and lost a child between us (-70lbs) so we have a hard time knowing what we are eating and how many calories they are in China. I have subscribed so I will check in. Thank you!

  8. Wow! I wish I would have known there were meetings in Shanghai last week when I was there! I would have joined you Wed evening...I can relate to that family style of eating and wondered too how I would ever know the points I was eating. They seem to cook with a lot of oil. Thanks for the post!

  9. Hi Dave
    nice post.
    I liked your comments about estimating portion sizes and nutritional values. That's the point where most people make excuses, saying they have no accurate references.
    I was in Shanghai last year, visited the WW center in a mall on Nanjing Road and took some pictures.
    There was no meeting going on, but I was impressed by their efficiency and organization.
    Wish we have WW again in Italy, it's a pity we can't have the new Pro-Point plan in my country.
    All the best.
    lifetime member from Italy)

  10. Could this Chinese way of keeping points track be absorbed into the WW here in the US? I am Asian-American and eat at get-togethers with family friends frequently. There's a lot that I could use from your experience in China.

  11. This comment is not related to this post so much, but you have said in prior blogs that you do read all the comments. Here is my question for you or your staff:

    My partner & I are getting our 2010 tax refunds soon, and we would really like to pre-pay 12 months for our WW monthly pass so that is a monthly expense we won't have to worry about for another year. How can we prepay our monthly pass so that it is not an automatic monthly charge?

    Thank you!

  12. Great post! I spent 6 weeks in rural China last year and travel frequently for work. I used to be really hard on myself about not tracking perfectly while I travel but on top of everything you mentioned...I also found myself trying food I had never seen before (chicken feet, century eggs, pig neck, etc.) I realized that portion size control was more important than obsessing about figuring out the points plus values of everything I ate.

  13. I will be moving back to China in March so I'm glad I saw this. I wish the China WW site had an English version (I know it's a lot to ask, but trying to find dishes is going to be a job in itself!)

    I was wondering how I'd get by in China since I'm a newbie on WW, but this post gives me hope.

    Thanks for the info ^_^

  14. I am traveling to Hong Kong in March and was wondering where to find the points values for chinese foods. Is there and english version for the site you linked to?

  15. Very interesting post! Thank you! But it got me thinking about my biggest complaint since joining WWOnline Dec. 31st, which is the lack of listings for point plus values of our local foods, namely, common brands in the Northwest, like Franz breads, Darigold and Tillamook brand dairy products, and all kinds of things with the Kirkland label. Also, local restaurant chains like Burgerville and Shari's are not included. So I have to bring the item in to use the point calculator on the website, or look on the company's (or another) website for the nutritional info. It doesn't seem like a lot of extra work, unless you consider that these account for nearly half of my points plus consumption!
    If I were to quit, this would be the most likely reason.