Avoiding the Shanghai Surprise

by Charles Platkin, PhD

The Chinese diet, long known for its emphasis on grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes, has fueled the perception that Chinese food is healthy. Unfortunately for our waistlines, we have significantly altered this healthy diet, with the end result being what we currently see on the menu at our local Chinese restaurant.

So how can you still enjoy Chinese food without packing on the pounds? Here are a few pointers to help you navigate the menu:

AVOID THE FRIED: I know this sounds obvious, but the point is that you can enjoy Chinese food without going for fried foods. If you do anything, avoid “deep fried” completely. Deep-fried dishes like Sweet and Sour Chicken, Sesame Chicken, and my favorite, General Tso, can pack over 1000 calories and about 70 grams of fat! While you’re at it, be wary of stir-fried dishes, too. Trust me, they’re not using a tablespoon of oil like you do at home. Aside from the oil, these dishes are usually fairly nutritious.

SPEAK UP: Most Chinese food is made to order, so ask for your food steamed. If you can’t bring yourself to take it that far, ask the server to have the dish prepared with little or no oil. If you’re clear and insistent, you can get them to keep out much of the oil. You can also request that chicken or fish be used in place of red meat in your favorite dishes, and for extra green veggies as a side. Avoid meals that are described as breaded or contain eggs or nuts, or at least ask to have these high calorie items left out.

KEEP IT BROWN AND STEAMED: If it’s available, choose brown rice instead of white rice for extra fiber, and order steamed rice — not fried rice. Aside from the obvious, fried rice also contains a lot of egg, which adds more calories, fat, and cholesterol. Choosing steamed rice trims 13 to 20 fat grams (about 3 to 4 teaspoons of oil). But just because it’s brown doesn’t mean you can go to town — it still has calories. The steamed stuff packs about 217 calories per cup, so watch those portion sizes!

WATCH THE SAUCE: Don’t just dump the main dish onto the rice. Use a fork to get the veggies and meat on top of it, leaving the pool of fatty sauce behind. Try not to “drink” the sauce that comes with your dish — this is the primary source of fat in most instances. By using chopsticks or a fork, you can leave more of the calorie-laden sauce on the serving plate and not in your belly. Or even better, how about ordering the dish steamed with garlic and herbs, and have the sauce on the side? This way you can dole it out consciously. In a cup and a half, a typical brown sauce has about 255 calories, 7.5 g fat, and 41 g carbohydrate, whereas a black bean sauce contains as much as 358 calories, 30 g fat, and 14 g carbohydrate for a cup and a half serving.

EXTRA VEGGIES: Order a few sides of vegetables steamed in garlic and herbs. You can mix them with your main dish — a welcome addition to any stir-fried food. And because the veggies increase the portion size, the entree will serve more people while also cutting back on overall calories.

CUT THE CRISPIES: Watch out for those crispy things they put on the table. Whether it’s colorful shrimp toast or crunchy Chinese noodles, they’ve all been fried. Just a single cup of chow mein noodles has 237 calories with nearly 14 g fat and 26 g carbohydrate — and you can probably eat significantly more than 1 cup waiting for your main dish to arrive. Three pieces of shrimp toast contain 222 calories and a whopping 14 g fat, plus 16 g carbohydrate, and that’s before the actual entree! Also, watch where you dip those noodles. Saucy Susan Duck Sauce has 80 calories, 0 g fat, and 19 g carbohydrate for just 2 tablespoons.

DON’T GO NUTS: While many nuts have health benefits, they are very high in fat and calories. Since most Chinese dishes are already fattening, it’s a good idea to stay away from these menu items. At the very least, ask the kitchen to go light on the nuts — even just a few nuts can go a long way in enhancing taste and flavor. Ten peanuts have about 51 calories, 4 g fat, and 2 g carbohydrate. Ten cashews (which are bigger than peanuts) have about 91 calories, 8 g fat, and 4.5 g carbohydrate.

ADD SOUP: Soup can be a great way to fill up as long as you choose carefully. Plus, the serving sizes tend to be small, so you are less likely to overdo it. Start out your meal with a bowl of hot and sour soup. One cup contains only 160 calories, 8 g fat, and 5 g carbohydrate — wonton soup is slightly higher at 182 calories, 7 g fat, and 14 g carbohydrate per cup. And despite its name, egg drop soup (without noodles) is the best deal with only 70 calories, 3 g fat, and 3 g carbohydrate per cup.

PORTION DISTORTION: Most Chinese restaurants in America are independently owned, and therefore portions vary from place to place. Keep in mind that many dishes are meant to be shared with at least one other person. A typical order of Chinese food can be more than 4 cups!

SODIUM: Chinese food tends to be very high in sodium. Stay away from anything made with soy sauce; even the reduced-sodium soy sauce contains over 500 mg of sodium per tablespoon. Skip the soup too, since it’s rare to find a low-sodium soup at a Chinese place.

WATCH THE FRUIT: This means anything orange- or lemon-flavored. Their fruity names might imply a nutritious choice, but in fact, these types of dishes usually involve deep-fried meats covered in a citrus-flavored sauce, which may also contain oil.

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