Story of our lives: We have a hankering for sesame chicken from our favorite Chinese takeout spot, then we can’t stop eating and wake up puffy and bloated from the sodium, sugar and deep-fried goodness. We swear off our craving for good, then repeat the vicious circle a few weeks later.
While we’ll probably never give up our takeout habit for good, we’re all for making some swaps in the name of our health. So we spoke with nutritionist Katie Boyd about the healthy Chinese food you can still enjoy without being bored to tears by steamed broccoli and plain snow peas. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that our options aren’t as limited as we expected.
“There’s a vast discrepancy between real Chinese food and what we as Americans think Chinese food is,” Boyd says. “Most of the things we tend to order during our takeout sessions are actually festival food that the people of China only eat a few times a year during celebrations. That being said, Chinese food, when ordered consciously and intentionally, can actually be filled with muscle-building protein and filling, fiber-rich vegetables.” What’s more, she says, it can actually be a healthier alternative to a lot of other fast food (like burgers and fries).
Ready to eat? These are the five healthiest Chinese food choices, according to Boyd.
An Americanized version of a traditional Cantonese dish, moo goo gai pan consists of button mushrooms (moo goo), stir-fried chicken slices (gai pan) and other veggies like bok choy, snow peas, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots cooked in a light sauce made from soy sauce, sesame oil and chicken broth. “Many Americanized Chinese dishes are filled with syrupy, sugary sauces that can cause blood sugar to go through the roof,” Boyd explains. “This option is a sure bet you will get your protein and fiber-rich vegetables without that dreaded insulin spike.”
Shrimp is already low-cal to begin with, so it’s a good starting point for this takeout classic. The beef version often contains flank steak, which is very lean. “These dishes usually come with garlic sauce,” Boyd says, “which is a healthier alternative than sweet and sour, sesame or General Tso’s. If you’re not watching carbs, you can pair it with a side of steamed brown rice to wrap it all up into one delicious and satisfying meal.” If you’re a General Tso’s diehard (like us), this will satisfy your palate in *almost* the same way.
As far as authenticity goes, Buddha’s delight (Luóhàn zhai) is the real deal. It was originally eaten by Buddhist monks, who are vegetarian, but has gained popularity all over the world. And for vegetarians, who might feel limited by the menu at an American Chinese restaurant, it’s a meat-free option that’s still light and healthy. “This dish is typically made with veggies, tofu and a little bit of light sauce,” Boyd says. “Everything is steamed, which cuts down the caloric punch that most other takeout Chinese dishes pack.” It’s not always vegan, but traditional recipes don’t allow egg or dairy, so check with the restaurant.
Traditionally made with pork, this Northern Chinese dish also has variations with chicken, vegetables, beef, shrimp or tofu. Authentic Chinese versions contain scallions, mushrooms and scrambled eggs seasoned with ginger, garlic and rice wine (that you eat wrapped in thin pancakes), but western recipes can also have cabbage, water chestnuts and other veggies. Boyd advises skipping the accompanying pancakes and hoisin sauce to lose some of the extra carbs, instead enjoying it as is. “It’s actually a super satisfying, low-carb and lower fat meal on its on,” she tells us. “Just ask for light sauce and no extras.”
Boyd suggests ordering skewered proteins, like the beef or chicken found on a pupu platter, if you want a protein-rich meal. “While they may marinate the chicken, pork and beef in a sugary concoction at some places,” she says, “the protein content you’ll get from ordering teriyaki skewers far outweighs the other choices you may have.” If you want to be really savvy, she recommends ordering a side of stir-fried mixed vegetables (with sauce on the side, of course) so you don’t miss the deep-fried snacks that often accompany a pupu platter, like egg rolls and fried wontons.
A few other healthy Chinese food ideas Boyd suggests? Shrimp spring rolls (just skip the soy sauce to cut back on sodium), egg drop soup, chop suey (usually just a mélange of veggies and protein), chicken or shrimp lettuce wraps and Peking duck with veggies. A general rule: As long as you choose vegetables over rice and carb-laden sides (and stick to stir-fries instead of deep-fried dishes), you should be in the clear.
Chinese takeout dishes you should skip:
It probably goes without saying, but there are a few popular Chinese takeout items that we’re reserving for special occasions. That includes:
1. Egg rolls: They’re wrapped in dough, deep-fried and served with sweet sauce. Swap for steamed vegetable dumplings instead.
2. General Tso’s chicken: Sadly, one of our go-to orders is breaded, fried and coated in a sugary sauce, and it probably has more sodium than you should eat in a day. Kung pao chicken is a lighter, more veggie-forward option that’s spicy and satisfying.
3. Sweet-and-sour pork: The name gives it away, but this dish is sugary and greasy. Mapo tofu, on the other hand, is another dish with pork that’s more authentic and less likely to fill you with regret.
4. Lo mein: It’s basically pasta, so this well-loved dish has lots of carbs. Skip it altogether for something equally delicious but less caloric like Sichuan-style green beans. (Or if you absolutely must, order it with veggies.)
5. Crab Rangoon: These entirely American takeout bites are basically just deep-fried cream cheese. Swap for steamed spring rolls if they’re on the menu.