Yangsheng, the ancient Chinese practice, is getting a millennial makeover
The illustration shows the pot and ingredients required to boil Chinese herbal medicine. /VCG

The illustration shows the pot and ingredients required to boil Chinese herbal medicine. /VCG

Twenty-eight-year-old Ouyang Yinglong cannot stop talking about health. He brews his own tea, tries acupuncture to deal with his seasonal back pain and even does intermittent fasting. He is a firm believer in the philosophy to live in accordance with nature and grow with natural life cycles. At this young age, he is already a master in managing his health.

"I had this craving for managing my health when I was tired, especially after spending three days straight going out to socialize with clients, sometimes as late as 1 a.m.," Ouyang said. To deal with stress brought by sleep deprivation, he carefully refrains from anything spicy and stimulating to the tastebuds, in order to put his body at ease.

Yangsheng, or health management, has become the latest fad among millennials in China. Though usually associated with elderly people, it has swept across the millennial cohort in recent years. According to a 2021 polling result released by CCTV, 33.27 percent of people aged 18 to 25 plan to increase their spending on health management, making it the second most important area of spending for the age cohort besides traveling. 

Though the interest in health management is widely seen, the commitment to it less so. The erratic time schedule and intense work pressure of millennials prompted many to seek an easy way out, through "punk health"— a term used to describe the desire to both pursue a healthy lifestyle and instant pleasure.

A cartoon that shows the "punk heath" lifestyle of millennials. /VCG

A cartoon that shows the "punk heath" lifestyle of millennials. /VCG

Thus came the strange combination of eating spicy hotpot and drink chrysanthemum tea. Or have a glass of beer with red dates and Goji. Millennials who indulged in this want to have the best of both worlds, the instant gratification that youth entails, and long-term health that hopefully, dietary and nutritional supplements can bring.

Genki Forest, a sugar-free and low-calorie drink from a Chinese startup, is the latest one experiencing a meteoric rise, tapping into that consumer psychology of wanting a healthy lifestyle without compromising satisfaction of their taste buds. With its peach-flavored water beverage promising to be "sugar-free, carb-free and fat-free," the beverage company has amassed a loyal following among millennials and Gen Zers.

Key to the beverage's success is the use of erythritol – an artificial sweetener that tastes almost exactly like sugar but doesn't come with the calories. With just 6 percent of the calories of sugar, it still contains 70 percent of the sweetness. The chemical is one of many artificial sweeteners that are becoming increasingly popular in zero-calorie foods and beverages in the Chinese food market.

Zhang Shijia, a regular consumer of Genki Forest, said drinking sugar-free water gave her the impression that she was leading a disciplined lifestyle. A zealous workout fan, she was deeply attached to the brand's health consciousness. "Erythritol would not lead to weight gain and does not raise blood sugar levels, and thus I am hooked to the beverage."

Chinese herbal teas are considered good for clearing excessive heat. /VCG

Chinese herbal teas are considered good for clearing excessive heat. /VCG

However, the latest studies suggest that one should think twice before buying into the fairy tales of the guilt-free sweetness propagated by beverage companies. A study, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences last month, discovered for the first time the pathogenic effects of saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame – the three most widely used artificial sweeteners found in most candies and soft drinks.

Led by academics from Anglia Ruskin University, the study found that just two cans of diet soft containing the listed chemicals can significantly increase adhesion and invasion of bacteria such as E. coli and E. faecalis to human gut cells, which could lead to infections, sepsis and multiple-organ failure.

"We know that overconsumption of sugar is a major factor in the development of conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Therefore, it is important that we increase our knowledge of sweeteners versus sugars in the diet to better understand the impact of our health," said senior author of the paper, Dr. Havovi Chichger, in a release by the university. 

Though the purported health benefits of the consumer goods remain unclear, the boom in the market underlies the anxieties that millennials have over their health conditions. According to a research report from CBNData, a data analysis and research platform, more than half of young people born after 1990 had issues with hair loss and reduced vision, 40 percent experienced overweight and a decline in physical performance, with 30 percent reporting problems with their immunization system.

A shoulder and neck message is considered helpful to ease stress in Traditional Chinese Medicine. /VCG

A shoulder and neck message is considered helpful to ease stress in Traditional Chinese Medicine. /VCG

"Because it is very hard to stick to exercise, changing their diet or eating supplements thus becomes the trend among youths," said Zhang Yi, CEO and chief analyst at Guangzhou-based iiMedia Research. He called the millennials' pursuit of health a reflection of the country's higher level of economic development.

A 2020 research report published by China Youth Study Magazine, authored by Yang Lichao, associate professor at Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy, cautioned that consumer goods are nonetheless preying on the anxieties of young people.

Their anxiety is triggered by the prevalence of consumer goods that sell hard on the health concept and magnified by media reports that hyped on their health crisis, wrote the research report.

Selley Liu, who has been leading a style of Yangsheng for more than a decade, said she came to realize that what is most important is to find the way that works best for her. She has stopped buying consumer goods in bulk, and now mostly focuses on adjusting her lifestyle to avoid suboptimal health conditions.

"Now instead of buying more, it is about maintaining a more minimal lifestyle, and staying healthy," she noted.

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