Chinese food appeals to many of us because it is tasty and relatively inexpensive. We are also under the impression that Chinese cuisine is healthy as it includes large portions of vegetables and low amounts of fat. That’s true when the dishes are prepared the traditional Chinese way in China. But American-Chinese restaurants have modified their food for American tastes and as a result, it is not as healthy as the traditional one. Western Chinese restaurants offer appetizers, fried rice, meat rolled in butter, and sweet sauces among their “goodies”. And to top it all, the portions are much larger than the ones served in mainland China. That’s why, having all this in mind, if you want to eat healthy at a Chinese restaurant, you have to choose wisely.
1. Start by choosing a good restaurant
When you are in the mood for Chinese food, avoid the typical Chinese restaurant where you can eat as much as you want for a fix price. Chances are you may not want to leave the restaurant until you feel you got your money’s worth. Unfortunately, if you do so, the restaurant will get your money but you will get the calories. Not a win-win situation. Instead, go to a restaurant where the waiter takes your order.
2. Start with a soup
A smart move when eating at a Chinese restaurant is to order a soup. Two advantages: first, less overall fat in your meal and second, the soup broth will fill you up. This translates into eating less when the waiter brings the main course.
By starting your meal with an appetizer you may ruin your goal of calories, carbohydrates, fat, etc. Pork ribs, egg rolls, fried wonton and any other fried foods are high in fat, sugar, and calories. If the waitress brings Chinese fried noodles to keep you busy until the food is served, put them aside or ask her to remove them from the table. Instead, you can kill time while you wait for the food by drinking Chinese tea. No calories there unless you add sugar.
3. Choosing the main course
When choosing the main course look for dishes that are abundant in vegetables and have small portions of meat. You can reduce calories by choosing seafood or chicken instead of choosing beef, pork, lamb or duck. You can also order two dishes: one that has meat as the base and one that is mainly vegetables such as green beans or spinach and mix them.
4. Avoid fatty dishes
Read the menu carefully and avoid for the fattiest dishes. Some words will give you a clue: beef rolled in butter or breadcrumbs, crunchy pork, etc. Find out if the meat was fried before being sauté with the vegetables. If that is the case, ask if they can sauté the meat you have chosen instead of frying it.
5. Watch out for hidden carbohydrates
Sweet and sour sauces as well as other typical sauces of the Chinese cuisine are full of carbohydrates and if you are diabetic, they can raise your blood sugar. Sugar and starches keep adding carbohydrates to many main dishes. You will also find carbohydrates in the corn flour used to thicken sauces and in the ingredients used to marinate the meat. Read the small print and ask a lot of questions to the waiter.
6. Be careful with the rice
You know that at a Chinese restaurant, you are going to be served a big bowl of rice and as you may be aware, rice contains many carbohydrates. Avoid fried rice and regular soy sauce to flavor it; you will end up with a lot of fat and sodium in your meal. If possible ask for brown rice which is rich in fiber. If they don’t have it available, hold the rice. Remember that a cup of rice has at least 45 grams of carbohydrate.
7. Reduce the salt
Order dishes with light sauces, not too thick. If you need soy sauce ask for the low sodium version and mix it with steamed brown rice, not with fried rice. To add flavor to your meal you can add some hot sauce; it has less sodium and less calories.
8. Share the dishes
If you have company, order one main dish, a soup or aperitif and some rice. Then, share it.
9. Eat with chopsticks
Eat your meal with chopsticks. If you are as skillful with them as I am, they may slow you down. But don’t worry because as everything in life, it has a positive side: you will probably eat less. Don’t fall into the temptation of asking for a fork and a knife; you may regret it.
10. And for dessert…
As for dessert, order fruit and never mind the ice-cream with sugared walnuts which I know by experience it is hard to resist. But if you have followed the above recommendations, you will feel pretty good about having eaten a healthy meal. So, why ruining it?