These Popular Chinese Restaurant Foods Are Way More Unhealthy Than You Think

Chinese takeout food in boxes

Chinese takeout food in boxes | iStock.com/rez-art

On busy nights, it’s easy to call for takeout — especially delicious Chinese food. Your local Chinese restaurant probably has a big menu. If you aren’t careful, you’ll order a meal that’s a lot less healthy than you think it is. Sure, we all know General Tso’s chicken has tons of calories and fat. But did you know one popular Chinese dish has more calories than three McDonald’s chicken sandwiches? And that another would require three hours of walking to burn off the calories?

Whether you indulge or not, you should know which Chinese foods might hide dangerous amounts of fat, sodium, and calories. Here are some insider tips on the unhealthy meals you should never order from a Chinese restaurant.

1. Lettuce wraps

lettuce wraps

Lettuce wraps | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 21 grams of fat, 1,479 milligrams of sodium

A menu item called a “lettuce wrap” sounds healthy, right? Not so fast. Sure, lettuce wraps contain a small amount of carbs. But the dish usually contains more chicken than lettuce. While many Chinese restaurants offer lettuce wraps as an appetizer, they stand alone as a meal with as many as 762 calories. Plus, that same order has up to 21 grams of fat. Add a salty sauce — responsible for 1,479 milligrams of sodium — and you have a deceptively unhealthy meal.

Another scary thought? Lettuce is particularly susceptible to contamination by E. coli — which always makes us think twice about ordering lettuce wraps at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. (Or even at a major chain. We all know what happened at Chipotle, after all!)

Try this instead: Treat it like a true appetizer and portion the chicken in smaller amounts.

Next: This main dish may as well be dessert.

2. Orange beef or chicken

Fried beef with vegetables

Fried beef with vegetables | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 60+ grams of sugar

Orange beef includes pieces of beef (or chicken) that are battered, deep-fried, and coated in a sugary chili sauce. Although the sauce offers some delicious citrus notes, it won’t win any health contests. Prevention says one serving of orange beef or chicken can contain more than 1,000 calories. Plus, it includes over 60 grams of sugar from that sweet sauce. You’re looking at more than half of your daily calorie needs. And that’s before you add rice.

The sweet sauce may taste great. However, all that sugar can really do a number on your health. Consuming too much sugar can not only make you fat, it can also make you sick.

Try this instead: Order a healthier item with less sauce, like beef and broccoli.

Next: This spicy seafood dish seems healthy.

3. Szechuan shrimp

Szechuan shrimp

Szechuan shrimp | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 700 calories

An order of Szechuan shrimp sounds nutritious. Isn’t seafood a good alternative to red meat? Not if your local Chinese restaurant drenches the dish in an oily sauce. Shape reports that an order of Szechuan shrimp can come in at around 700 calories. That’s probably more than you expected. The magazine explains shellfish can be a healthy choice. It’s both lean and high in protein. But not with the sauce in Szechuan shrimp.

Plus, if you’re really thinking about it, you can find plenty of reasons to avoid eating shrimp at all. Most shrimp is contaminated with hormones and antibiotics, and your food is likely contaminated with shrimp poop. Plus, a 100-gram serving of shrimp — just four or five shrimp — gives you a whopping 152 milligrams of cholesterol. Appetizing, right?

Try this instead: Opt for a dish with a broth or wine-based sauce.

Next: A popular noodle dish that’s anything but nutritious. 

4. Lo mein

chicken Lo Mein stir fry

Chicken lo mein | iStock.com/EzumeImages

Why it’s bad: 32 grams of fat

How bad can a delicious plate of noodles really be? In the case of lo mein — made with loads of oil — pretty bad. P.F. Chang’s lightest option is the veggie version. But even that dish contains 630 calories per serving. Things only get worse when you add meat. The pork version contains 920 calories and 32 grams of fat.

Even if you order vegetarian lo mein, your meal will have very little in the way of beneficial nutrients. (It just has refined carbs and excessive oil.) That means that your plate of lo mein is largely empty calories, or exactly what you want to avoid if you want to fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods.

Try this instead: Cook a lighter version at home or ask the restaurant to use less oil.

Next: With “fried” in the name, it’s probably not super healthy. 

5. Fried rice

chicken fried rice

Chicken fried rice | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 12–15 grams of fat per cup

Fried rice is a popular side at Chinese restaurants. Livestrong found the typical 1-cup fried rice serving gets 56% of its calories from carbohydrates, 33% from fat, and 11% from protein. The fat and protein levels increase even more if the fried rice includes meat. A single cup of fried rice might range from 228 to 363 calories and contain 12 to 15 grams of fat. That’s not counting the entree that it accompanies (or realizing you’ll likely eat more than a cup of fried rice).

We also can’t quite forget the time that multiple people developed food poisoning thanks to fried rice with high levels of Bacillus cereus. Rice contains bacteria that can survive the cooking process. So in this case, spores that survived boiling were able to multiply when the rice was left overnight at room temperature before getting fried.

Try this instead: Choose steamed rice if you have the option.

Next: Even tofu can be bad for you. 

6. Mapo tofu

cooking tofu

Mapo tofu | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 36 grams of fat, 166 milligrams of sodium

You might crave mapo tofu — a popular dish originating in China’s Sichuan province — thanks to the heat you get from its spicy, oily sauce. Mapo tofu often includes minced pork or beef, which adds tons of calories. Just a 1-cup serving that includes ground pork has about 461 calories. Plus, you’ll consume 36 grams of fat and 166 milligrams of sodium. There are numerous ways to prepare mapo tofu. Many taste delicious. But none make it healthy.

Many people eat tofu thinking it’s healthy, but the science isn’t exactly conclusive. As Bon Appétit explains, “Soy may lower cholesterol, prevent breast cancer, and reduce many, many other medical risks. Genetically modified soy may cause allergies or pose other risks. Or eating soy — genetically modified or not — may have no effect at all.”

Try this instead: Enjoy a less oily non-meat dish.

Next: This dish has a creamy, delicious filling.

7. Crab rangoons

Crab rangoons

Crab rangoons | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 764 milligrams of sodium, 28 grams of fat

You might think it won’t hurt to indulge in these small appetizers. But don’t give in. Nothing about crab rangoons is healthy. Traditional crab rangoons are composed of dough filled with crab and cream cheese and then deep-fried. Cream cheese is packed with fat. The crab is probably imitation. And any dough that’s fried won’t help your health. My Fitness Pal estimates a container of six crab rangoons contains 402 calories and 764 milligrams of sodium. Plus, you’ll consume 28 grams of fat and 25 grams of carbohydrates.

Patrons of chain Chinese restaurants often mention crab rangoons when they end up with food poisoning. (Though that anecdotal evidence doesn’t really implicate crab rangoons any more than any other food, it still makes us want to steer clear!) Not to mention, fried foods can even increase your risk of dying early.

Try this instead: Start your meal with egg drop soup.

Next: Even appetizers can be major health pitfalls. 

8. Barbecue spare ribs

glazed pork ribs

Pork ribs | iStock.com/Tatiana Volgutova

Why it’s bad: 300 calories per 3-ounce serving

You might order a healthy main course and think you won’t compromise your nutrition by ordering a few spare ribs as an appetizer. But this dish can add hundreds of calories to your meal. SF Gate explains that a small, 3-ounce serving of barbecue spare ribs can set you back 300 calories and 26 grams of fat. You’ll also get half a day’s worth of sodium. Even the promise of protein isn’t enough to offset the damage.

Plus, you can easily contract food poisoning by eating pork, particularly if your food wasn’t properly handled or cooked. Sometimes, the meat gets infected with parasitic organisms or contaminated with bacteria during slaughtering, processing, or preparation.

Try this instead: Make your own ribs at home if you experience a craving.

Next: This noodle dish is not so fun.

9. Chow fun

chow mein noodles with vegetables

A plate of chow mein noodles | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 38 grams of carbohydrates

Rice noodles may seem healthier than wheat noodles. But chow fun still delivers a serious blow. PopSugar says the wider, thicker rice noodles found in this dish are no better than any other noodles at your local Chinese restaurant. Similar to lo mein, the calories and sodium are still off the charts. No amount of fresh veggies or lean protein can save this dish from being a dieting disaster. So steer clear the next time you order takeout.

In addition to all the carbs and sodium, you’ll also be consuming sprouts if you order chow fun. They sound (and look) pretty harmless. But one food poisoning expert says that he never takes a risk and eats sprouts. That’s because there have been more than 30 bacterial outbreaks, mostly salmonella and E. coli, linked to sprouts in the last 20 years.

Try this instead: Ask the restaurant to cook the dish with less oils.

Next: Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

10. Sweet and sour chicken

Sweet and sour chicken

Sweet and sour chicken | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 689 calories

You might be tempted to order sweet and sour chicken. But combine that sugary sauce with deep-fried chicken, and you choose one of the most unhealthy meals at your Chinese restaurant of choice. CalorieKing reports that a serving of P.F. Chang’s sweet and sour chicken (with white rice on the side) contains 689 calories.

To burn off those calories, it would take approximately 180 minutes of walking, 93 minutes of cycling, 79 minutes of jogging, or 57 minutes of swimming. The dish also has 16 grams of fat, which equates to 25% of the recommended daily value. Plus, it packs 19% of your daily value of sodium and 37% of your daily value of carbohydrates.

Additionally, most people know someone who’s gotten sick after eating a plate of sweet and sour chicken. That could be because of Staphylococcus auerus food poisoning, which is routinely linked to poultry.

Try this instead: Many Chinese restaurants have a non-fried chicken dish with mixed veggies.

Next: A seemingly healthy dish is worse than several McDonald’s sandwiches. 

11. Lemon chicken

Lemon chicken in a bowl

Chinese lemon chicken | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 1,400 calories in a typical dish

Lemon chicken is typically breaded and fried. According to FatSecret, this dish usually has around 670 calories in a single, 1-cup serving. That serving also packs in 57% of your daily intake of fat, 56% of your daily cholesterol, and 75% of your daily sodium. Plus, Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells Newsweek that the typical plate of lemon chicken can contain 1,400 calories. “It’s like eating three McDonald’s McChicken sandwiches and a 32-ounce Coke,” she warns.

Splurging on a highly-caloric meal every once in a while doesn’t sound so terrible. But it can take a toll on your health. Eating too many calories in a day or at a specific meal stresses your digestive system. It also causes gas and bloating. You can even start to damage your organs if your triglycerides increase too much. Plus, eating too many calories in a sitting often causes your body to store the excess calories as fat.

Try this instead: Try a baked or braised chicken dish with veggies on the side.

Next: The filling in these popular appetizers is what makes them unhealthy. 

12. Pan-fried pork dumplings

Fried pork dumplings

Fried pork dumplings | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 100 calories each

Once you rule out the other appetizers at a Chinese restaurant, dumplings may not seem like a terrible choice. But Prevention notes that “the problem with dumplings isn’t the dumpling part — it’s the filling. Choosing pork means each dumpling has around 100 calories a pop.” Of course, steamed pork dumplings make a better choice than fried pork dumplings.

In addition to all those calories, dumplings typically add a lot of salt to your plate. That tastes delicious in the short term. But it can have some pretty terrible health consequences if you make a habit of it. Consuming too much sodium leads to high blood pressure. It can also increase your risk for heart failure and stroke. Plus, too much salt can damage your stomach lining and increase your chances of developing stomach cancer.

Try this instead: Go with steamed vegetable dumplings (about 35 calories each).

Next: Lean protein can be calorie bombs, depending on the sauce. 

13. General Tso’s chicken or tofu

General Tso's Chicken

General Tso’s Chicken | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 1,300 calories, 3,200 milligrams of sodium

Chicken and tofu are generally lean proteins. But they’re not good for you when they get this treatment. According to NBC News, General Tso’s chicken or tofu is battered and fried, then drowned in a sauce packed with sugar. In fact, it is one of the least healthy options you can order from your favorite Chinese restaurant. NBC reports this meal contains about 1,300 calories, 3,200 milligrams of sodium, and 11 grams of saturated fat. And this doesn’t even include rice, an appetizer, or a fortune cookie.

The calories and sodium sound like the biggest problem here. But that saturated fat can have a major impact on your health, too. Your saturated fat limit each day is just 16 grams. If you consume more than that — which seems likely if you order General Tso’s chicken — you’ll increase your total blood cholesterol and your chances of cardiovascular disease.

Try this instead: If you must order a General Tso’s dish, split it with a friend.

Next: A sweet dessert that’s worse for you than a McDonald’s entree. 

14. Yu Tiao

Male baker prepares dough

Preparing yu tiao | iStock.com/PointImages

Why it’s bad: 480 calories per stick

Yu Tiao, also known as Chinese crullers, doughnuts, or bread sticks, are deep-fried. So you know it’s not healthy. But you might not realize the extent of the damage. A single, looped dough strip can pack a whopping 480 calories. (That’s the same number of calories you’d get with a five-piece order of McDonald’s Mighty Wings.) A single bread stick also has almost as much fat as that order of McDonald’s wings. And it has more than twice the amount of saturated fat.

So, yes, those bread sticks look appetizing. But you should probably skip them. In addition to loading you up with calories and fat, fried foods can set you up for constipation. That’s because greasy, fried, and breaded foods can slow movement through your digestive tract.

Try this instead: Sip on hot tea to conclude your meal.

Next: Likely the most popular Chinese food appetizer

15. Fried egg rolls

Fried egg rolls

Fried egg rolls | iStock.com

Why it’s bad: 222 calories and 11 grams of fat per roll

Fried egg rolls are tempting. If you only eat one or two, it’s not that bad, right? Unfortunately, even one egg roll adds way too many calories to a meal. According to SF Gate, the average egg roll contains about 222 calories. Add 24 grams of carbohydrates and 11 grams of fat, and it’s obvious these aren’t a great way to start your meal. In fact, a single egg roll will give you 17% of your daily intake for total fat. And you’ll get 10% of the daily value for saturated fat. If you follow up with a highly caloric entree, you’ll eat more calories than you should in a single meal.

Though you’ll probably be fine eating egg rolls occasionally, we always think twice about ordering them. That’s because Costco recently had to recall egg rolls contaminated with Listeria. (Our favorite snack has never looked the same since!)

Try this instead: Go for rice paper spring rolls filled with veggies to start your meal.

Read More: 10 Chinese Food Recipes You Can Make in a Crockpot