Fast Food Takeout: Does Healthy Chinese Food Exist?

Calling up your local Chinese restaurant for takeout might seem like a better alternative to stopping at your local Golden Arches for a Big Mac. Maybe you’re hoping to lose some weight, and decide that rice has to be a better option than French fries. While you might be right depending on the choices you make, stir frys and noodle dishes aren’t necessarily healthier for you. As with all things, moderation and the right type of food preparation will determine whether you can wield your chopsticks without guilt. Here’s how to make sure you know your choosing healthy Chinese food options.

Chinese food vs. McDonald’s

chinese sesame chicken

Orange chicken | iStock.com

You might not think of your neighborhood’s Chinese food restaurant as a fast food place, but some of the menu options are prepared with just as much fat, oil, and sugar as the burgers and fries at the McDonald’s next door. A Big Mac with a medium-sized fries and soda will equal about 1,080 calories. The burger alone has about 28 grams of fat and 970 milligrams of sodium.

Compare that to some popular Chinese dishes. A beef and broccoli bowl with fried rice from Panda Express will equal about 650 calories, but includes a whopping 1,480 milligrams of sodium. A single serving of General Tso’s chicken — without the rice, egg roll, or soup — contains 844 calories, 40 grams of fat, and an astronomical 2,157 milligrams of sodium (about 90% of your daily intake needs, if you follow typical dietary guidelines).

In other words, stay far away from General Tso’s anything if you’re looking to follow healthy guidelines. However, that doesn’t mean you should write off the rest of the cuisine. For the most part, the tricky part is figuring out how your food was made, registered dietician Angela Ginn told Health. “There are hidden fats and preparation details that can really keep you guessing,” she said.

The American Heart Association notes that many Chinese food dishes can be high in sodium, a concern for future heart health when your diet is consistently overloaded with salt. But when eaten in moderation, the cuisine can be part of an overall healthy diet. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Health notes that many Chinese platters are meant to be served family style, meaning you should be sharing your plates — or halving the portions and saving the second half of it for leftovers.
  • Chinese food in the United States is typically different from the cuisine that originates in Asia. Traditional Chinese dishes will only be about 20% protein, with a much larger emphasis on vegetables and steamed rice, AskMen reports.
  • It pays to master the chopsticks. Using them will mean you sop up less oil from the dish or takeout container than using a fork, Men’s Fitness suggests.
  • Preparation hints are in the names of the dishes. Jum (poached), Chu (broiled), Kow (roasted), Shu (barbecued), and braised are all better options than fried.

Still unsure of whether your favorite Chinese dish is healthy? Here are some meals to avoid, and also some healthier alternatives.

Chinese foods to avoid

scoop of fried rice

For healthy Chinese food options, it’s best to avoid fried rice | iStock.com

By now, you should realize that General Tso’s platters and your favorite beef and broccoli should only be ordered on rare occasions — if at all. If you’re looking to eat healthier, it’s probably a good idea to skip these dishes as well.

  • Lo mein: If you’re craving this noodle dish packed with vegetables and a protein, the shrimp version is probably your best bet. Even so, most lo mein dishes will have upwards of 900 calories alone — making it a brutal side dish when it comes to choosing waist-friendly options. Notice how most lo mein noodles are a brown color? That’s not natural — that’s happened after soaking up all the oil in the pan.
  • Tempura: As fried options go, tempura isn’t quite as bad as the heavily-battered options. However, it’s still being deep-fried before landing on your plate. If you’re looking for crunch on your dish (or in your sushi), Health suggests asking for chopped peanuts on top or other crunchy alternatives.
  • Fried rice: Using the same logic with the tempura, you have to know that “crispy” options aren’t great for you. Rice should be eaten in moderation anyway, but always opt for steamed if you’re looking to make a healthier choice. Brown rice will give you some added fiber as well, and it should be slightly less refined than its white rice counterpart.
  • Heavy sauces: In many cases, the downfall of unhealthy Chinese dishes is the heavy sauces that are used. They’re loaded with sugar, salt, and ultimately extra calories. Hot mustard and hoisin sauces are better alternatives to sweet and sour, and Men’s Fitness suggests asking for entrees with “half sauce” portions.
  • Egg rolls: They’re a favorite appetizer, but the meats are often fried before being stuffed with veggies into the wrapper that’s then deep-fried again. Add your favorite dipping sauce, and you’ve got all kinds of unnecessary calories before you even dig into the main part of your meal.

Healthy Chinese food options

healthy Chinese food options, vegetables

Dishes focused on vegetables are a good choice | iStock.com

Now that we’ve sadly nixed your go-to favorite Chinese food options, what’s left on the menu? In reality, there are a number of dishes that are full of flavor, without all the added calories and fat. Here are a few choices to keep in mind.

  • Wonton soup: Start your meal with this low-calorie soup instead of other fattening appetizers, Shape suggests. You can probably snag a dumpling or two from your partner, but the publication also reports that beginning your meal with a broth can also help you to keep your portions in check and avoid overeating.
  • Lean proteins: As Livestrong reports, it’s much easier to stay healthy when you start with lean proteins like chicken, shrimp, and tofu. Eating an entree with beef or fatty cuts of pork will already start you off on the wrong foot — and most of those dishes are fried, only adding to the calorie count.
  • Extra vegetables: To get the healthiest attributes from your meal, portion your meals following authentic Chinese portions. Limit the protein and rice, focusing on a much larger portion of vegetables. “For healthy entrees, I go for a fish or chicken with vegetables or moo goo gai pan — a tasty dish with chicken, mushrooms, and lots of other vegetables,” Registered Dietician Patricia Bannan told Eat This.
  • Choose steamed: Instead of “crispy,” look for items that are steamed. Steamed dumplings, steamed rice, and steamed vegetables will help to counteract the other not-so-healthy elements in your dishes, even if you do choose to load up on sauces or appetizers.
  • Spring rolls: If you’re still mourning the loss of egg rolls in your healthier takeout order, “splurge” on a spring roll. It’s still fried, but lighter than the egg roll. Plus, the focus is on the vegetables inside, so there’s still a benefit. One spring roll has just 80 calories, meaning it can fit easily into a healthy meal if you make other wise choices.
  • Dishes to try: Nutritionists and health-focused sites overwhelmingly suggest the chicken and broccoli entree, as well as Buddha’s Delight, a dish that focuses on vegetables and tofu and a light sauce instead of fatty ingredients. Garlic and lobster sauces are also preferable, and hot & sour soup is another decent option if you like that more than wonton soup.

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