Whether you’re too busy to cook or simply planning an at home date-and-a-movie night, odds are that Asian takeout food is one of your go-to options. It’s quick, easy, affordable and craveable — what’s not to love?
The answer: High levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium which, when consumed on a regular basis, can contribute to life-threatening conditions like stroke, Type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to Alyssa Marrero, a dietitian at CoreLife Novant Health - Ardmore, in Winston-Salem.
“Because these foods taste so good, it can be hard to stop when we’re full,” she said. “So, we may end up eating more than we intended.”
What Marrero does not encourage is completely eliminating favorite foods. Instead, she offers strategies like those below, to helps her patients enjoy dining out — or ordering in — from start to finish.
Consider the egg roll…
Everyone loves egg rolls and, filled with vegetables and meat, they do offer some nutrients. But they’re also high in sodium and fat, according to Marrero.
For example, one national takeout chain’s chicken egg rolls contain about 200 calories apiece — not terrible. However, more than 50% of those calories come from fat. The egg rolls also contain 390 milligrams of sodium, more than 20% of the 2300 milligrams per day recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Too much sodium can increase your risk for high blood pressure, so I’d recommend avoiding them if you’re trying to eat a heart-healthy diet,” she said. “But if you really love them, you could get an order to share to keep your portion size in check.”
Steamed — not fried — dumplings are a healthier egg roll alternative, especially if they’re filled with vegetables instead of meat. Or, start your meal with won ton, egg drop or hot-and-sour soup.
“Broth-based soups like these are much lower in calories and fat than most appetizers,” Marerro said. “An added bonus is that the liquid helps fill you up, so you’ll eat less when the heavier entrées arrive.”
Registered dietitians help us figure out food.
On to the entrées
Traditional Asian food was based mostly on healthy ingredients like vegetables, rice and small portions of meat or seafood. But, when you open the menu at a modern, American Chinese restaurant, you’re sure to find fat-and-sodium-laden entrées like crab Rangoon, General Tso’s chicken. Sweet-and-sour pork, another favorite, can contain more than 20 teaspoons of sugar per order.
“Treating yourself to a favorite now and then is fine, but if you order takeout frequently, it’s helpful to know about more nutritious options,” Marrero said. “Looking for foods that aren’t breaded is a good start. And you can usually find lots of vegetables, like broccoli, carrots and sugar snap peas at Chinese takeout places, too.”
For fans of General Tso’s chicken — breaded, deep-fried and doused with a sweet sauce — kung pao chicken may be a good alternative. Made with stir-fried vegetables and peanuts, it contains less fat and sugar, while delivering healthy fiber, protein and antioxidants
Other dishes on the healthier side include:
- Moo goo gai pan, stir-fried lean chicken, mushrooms, water chestnuts, broccoli and carrots.
- Shrimp with lobster sauce, made with stir-fried shrimp, fermented black bean sauce (traditionally used in preparing lobster) and vegetables.
- Beef and broccoli, with slices of stir-fried steak and broccoli in savory brown sauce.
“If you’re adventurous or prefer a plant-based diet, you could order a tofu dish — or ask the restaurant to use it in place of meat in your entrée,” Marrero said. “Tofu is made from soybeans. It’s gluten-free, cholesterol free and is a great way to get lots of protein.”
Marrero also offered the following tips for boosting nutrition and limiting fat, sugar and sodium:
- Ask for a smaller amount of sauce or order it on the side, so you can control how much you eat.
- Use “light” soy sauce, which contains less sodium than the original.
- Boost vitamins, minerals and fiber by requesting extra vegetables.
- Scan the menu for grilled and stir-fried options, and avoid deep-fried foods.
- Look for the word “loin” — a less fatty cut — when ordering beef and pork.
- Replace fried rice with white or brown rice.
“The most important thing is to enjoy your meal, and be keep an eye on portion sizes. If you feel like you just ate Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the meal, you probably had too much,” she said. “But, if you eat more slowly and mindfully, you’re much less likely to overdo it.”
Other Asian cuisines
Interested in exploring other Asian cuisines? Sometimes, when trying an unfamiliar cuisine, knowing what to order can be a little challenging. So, for inspiration, Alyssa Marrero, a dietitian at CoreLife Novant Health - Ardmore, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shared some of her favorite, healthy options:Thai: I really like Thai food, which is influenced by other cultures including China and India. Vegetable-filled summer rolls are one of my favorite appetizers. They’re made with rice paper — perfect for anyone on a gluten-free diet — and aren’t deep-fried, so they’re lower in fat than egg rolls.
Japanese: When I go to Japanese restaurants, I like to order edamame — steamed, seasoned soybeans — as an appetizer. They offer lots of protein and fiber, without the fat of fried appetizers. I also like sushi — it’s really satisfying and doesn’t leave you overly full. Some people balk at ordering raw fish, but many rolls are vegetable-based or are made with cooked meat or seafood.
Indian food: I'm still learning about Indian food. I love curries, but they can be a little involved to make at home, so I always order them when I’m out. Indian cuisine is also great for people who choose vegan or vegetarian diets. Many of the dishes they serve include chickpeas or lentils, which are filling and offer lots of fiber and plant protein.
Korean: At Korean restaurants, the servers usually bring small plates of vegetables called banchan to your table, which you can eat as a complement to your meal or use to flavor your food. They also serve kimchi — spiced, pickled and fermented cabbage and other vegetables — which is rich in probiotics (“good bacteria” that help keep your gut healthy).Vietnamese: One of my favorite things to order at Vietnamese restaurants is bánh mì, a sandwich made with French bread, filled with pickled vegetables and sometimes grilled or barbecued beef or pork. It’s nutritious and very refreshing. And phở is a delicious, healthy soup with rice noodles, served with meat and fresh vegetables, including sprouts, mint and cilantro.