With approximately 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States—more than all the McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Taco Bells combined—it’s safe to say this Asian cuisine is a popular choice when it comes to dining out or ordering in.
Alas, an absence of hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes does not automatically make a meal healthful. Sauces are the main Chinese food pitfall, as they can rapidly bump up a dish's sodium content—often well past an entire day’s worth. Some sauces can also be high in sugar, which can turn a seemingly innocuous stir-fry into an entrée-sized candy bar.
Fortunately, Chinese food is highly customizable, so a few simple requests can lighten up any dish. As an added bonus, Chinese restaurants are among the few where you can guarantee the kitchen is stocked with tofu, a healthful soy-based protein.
While you browse the menu, skip the complimentary fried wontons and sugary dipping sauce—the Chinese equivalent of bread and butter on the table.
Five worst Chinese dishes:
1. General Tso's chicken/tofu: Deep fried and smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce, this dish offers lots of calories, sodium, and sugar—and no vegetables.
2. Fried rice: Rice, even when not fried, is best eaten as a side dish, as opposed to an entrée. Here, fiber-void white rice takes center stage, accompanied by hefty amounts of oil. Ask for steamed brown rice as a healthier alternative.
3. Orange beef: A growing body of research links diets high in red meat with a variety of adverse health consequences, including increased risk of cancer and diabetes. That's one good reason to steer clear of this dish, and here's another: it's fried.
4. Egg rolls: This popular appetizer is essentially fried dough with a paltry amount of vegetables inside.
5. Lo mein: This dish offers plenty of sodium, oil, and refined carbohydrates (noodles), but very little in the way of fiber and protein.
Five best Chinese dishes:
1. Buddha's Delight: This medley of colorful vegetables and tofu cooked in soy sauce, ginger, and garlic offers plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein.
2. Steamed vegetable dumplings: Though the wrapper is quite starchy, vegetable dumplings are often filled with leafy green vegetables. A good appetizer to share with a meal companion.
3. MaPo tofu: This spicy dish offers a bean-based sauce with chilis, which help add flavor without a large hit of sodium. Some restaurants also include ground pork in this dish, but you can ask for a tofu-only version.
4. Chop suey: Another vegetable-centric meal that consists of bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, and water chestnuts stir-fried alongside your protein of choice.
5. Any dish with light sauce or sauce on the side: Overly generous coatings of sauces are what turn many Chinese food dishes into sugar or sodium bombs. One way to healthify your meal is to ask for the sauce to be brought on the side. Use just enough to give the dish flavor. Or ask for the dish to be made with half the amount of sauce that is normally used.
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Try this recipe: Shitake, Tofu, and Bok Choy Stir Fry.