How Unhealthy is Chinese Food?

How Unhealthy is Chinese Food?

Everyone knows Chinese food is loaded with fat and calories, but just how unhealthy is it for you?

Chinese food in the US is illustrated best through a single dish: Crab Rangoon. Deep-fried, made with artificial seafood, and filled with distinctly non-Chinese condiments (um, cream cheese?), Crab Rangoon epitomizes the downfall of Chinese cuisine in the West. Unfortunately, despite the threat fake Chinese food poses to our health and our taste buds, this stuff runs rampant across the country, and admittedly, is sometimes just what we’re craving on a lazy Sunday. But, as always, it doesn’t have to be all that bad! Let’s take a look at how to improve some of the Chinese food classics:

Egg Rolls: As an appetizer, this is the absolute worst. Not a single real "egg" insight. Even the veggie version has about 250 cals and 65% of calories from fat, which we know is going to be mostly saturated and trans-fat (the bad kind!) On the bright side, there are tons of other starters that make much healthier choices, including: wonton, egg drop, or hot and sour soups, steamed veggie dumplings, and spring rolls or lettuce wraps. Just steer clear of those thick dipping sauces – they tend to be surprisingly high in calories and/or sugars.

Lo Mein: Wanna know what gives it that glowing brown hue? All of the oil it has absorbed from the pan! According to an independent lab analysis done by Center for Science in the Public Interest, one plate of these noodles has 1,100 calories, 40 grams of fat, and 3,500mg of sodium... that’s almost two days worth of salt! And, if you can believe it, the Chow Mein and Chow Fun noodles are even worse. If you care deeply about the health of your heart, arteries, brain, etc. stick to noodle dishes that are not “crispy” or “fried” and choose steamed white or brown rice instead. Just keep in mind that a typical mall food court will serve about 2-3 cups (aka too much) rice with your meal.

Sweet and Sour Pork: CSPI’s analysis came up with 1,300 calories, 13g of fat, and 800mg of sodium for this failure of an entree. Clearly, the huge culprits here are the deep-frying, the breading, and the sauce, which is made with corn syrup and usually adds flour or cornstarch as a processed thickener. These factors also account for the high fat, calorie, and sodium content of some of our other favorite dishes, including Orange Beef, Lemon Chicken, and General Tso’s. As a good rule of thumb, make sure that the protein you choose isn’t battered and fried before making its way to your plate. And when it comes to sauces, the thinner, the better. Dishes made with garlic sauce, lobster sauce, hoisin, or oyster sauce are much lower in fat and calories. And you can always ask for your food to be “lightly” stir-fried, or order a dish with half the amount of sauce. Another option is to take food from the plate using chopsticks or a fork, in order to avoid eating all of the extra sauce that tends to congeal at the bottom of the plate…(if it looks like that on the table, just imagine what is looks like stuck to the sides of your arteries!)

Beef with Broccoli: This actually isn’t the worst of the worst, though it is still crazy high in sodium at about 3,200mg per restaurant serving. Thanks to the huge proportion of veggies making up this dish, Beef with Broccoli is slightly lower in fat and calories. It would be even better if the red meat were substituted with chicken, tofu, or shrimp. In general, many of the best choices at a Chinese restaurant are high on veggies and low on sauce. Some good options include: Moo Goo Gai Pan (stir-fried veg and chicken), Buddha’s Delight (stir-fried veg), Ma Po Tofu, Shrimp with Lobster, Garlic, or Szechuan Sauce, and Chicken with Black Bean Sauce. Just be careful not to add extra salt, as pretty much all Chinese is ridiculously high in sodium.

Lastly, for those of you still wondering, many American Chinese restaurants do cook with MSG. This is actually the most authentically Chinese part about it… though in China it’s normally put on the table as a condiment. Regardless, MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, which is a flavor enhancer that has been FDA approved in the US. Though no research has proven a causal relationship between MSG and negative health effects, some people report symptoms including headaches, numbness, nausea, heart palpitations and weakness when consuming the ingredient. So if you have any of these problems after downing a plate of Mu Shu Pork, you might want to avoid the stuff. Look, there are a number of Mcdonalds-worthy unhealthy Chinese food options. Choose wisely, avoid the dishes cited above, and enjoy!

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About the Author

Alyssa grew up in New Hampshire and is a lover of any activity that involves mountains (especially the Greens and the Whites!). She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Japanese and lived in both countries as an undergrad (which partially explains her love for Beijing eggplant, lychee, and anything green tea flavored). Currently, she lives in New York City and is working on her master’s degree in public health nutrition at NYU. For the past year, she has been working at NYU School of Medicine’s Center for Immigrant Health, and last fall was awarded the Gstalder Memorial Scholarship for her research and service in minority health. Active in the Greater New York Dietetic Association, Alyssa is working with student members to create a low-literacy cookbook and nutrition guide for cancer patients, which she hopes to have translated into Chinese and Spanish. Before getting into nutrition, she spent time working for several environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy in Yunnan, China, the Missouri Botanical Gardens in Madagascar, and the Green Mountain Club on The Long Trail in Vermont. Alyssa was recently accepted to a dietetic internship program at the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, where she will begin work in the fall.