If you're following a low-carb diet to lose weight or manage a medical condition, Chinese food can still be on the menu. A low-carb diet, as defined by American Family Physician in 2006, is a diet that keeps daily carbohydrate intake to 20 to 60 grams, or less than 20 percent of total daily calories. The percentage of fats and proteins you eat increases to compensate. With Chinese fare, the trick is to avoid the obviously starchy items, breaded meats and sweet sauces, focusing instead on plainer meats with steamed or stir-fried vegetables flavored with broth or soy sauce.
Identifying Carbs in Chinese Food
Starches and sugars are the carbs to avoid on a low-carbohydrate diet. They're plentiful in grains, such as rice, corn and wheat, as well as hearty vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and legumes. In most types of Chinese cuisine, you'll encounter starches used as a base for dishes -- such as lo mein, wonton and egg rolls -- as well as in the side dish of rice. Starch also sneaks in as a coating for proteins fried before adding the sauce, such as in sweet and sour or orange chicken or shrimp. Some dishes are low-carb until you add starch as an accompaniment, such as with the pancakes in moo shoo pork. Many Chinese food sauces and soups use cornstarch as a thickener; with 7 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon, it's to be avoided on a low-carb regimen.
Sugar shows up as an additive and in natural forms in Chinese food. Stir-fries that have pineapple or pineapple juice added will have an accelerated carb content. Ketchup, brown sugar and honey are an essential ingredient in many sauces as well.
Fiber is also a carbohydrate that helps regulate your digestive tract, so getting an adequate intake of 25 to 30 grams is necessary for a healthy body. Look for fiber in plant foods, especially fresh vegetables in Chinese stir-fries. When you go low-carb, you don't need to be as concerned with reducing fiber as you are with reducing sugars and starches.
Low-Carb Chinese Appetizers
Opt for soups with a clear, thin broth, such as egg drop. Watch, though, since many of these seemingly safe soups are still thickened with cornstarch; ask your server if you can get the soup without the thickener. Roasted chicken wings, beef kabobs or chicken kabobs are all low-carb options. Be sure to order any barbecue, duck or plum sauce on the side.
Low-Carb Chinese Entrees
Peking duck and moo shoo pork, minus the pancakes, make appropriate low-carb options. Order a sizzling shrimp platter, which consists of a hot plate topped with fresh seared shrimp and a mix of Chinese-style vegetables, including snow peas, onion and bell pepper. Some restaurants give you the option of ordering steamed chicken or tofu with vegetables; decline the sauce or have it served on the side.
Low-Carb Vegetables in Chinese Dishes
Salad often seems a safe option when you're following a low-carb diet, but beware of high-carb additions in Chinese-inspired versions, such as fried wonton strips or mandarin oranges.
If you're following an extremely limited carbohydrate diet of 20 grams or fewer per day, you may even limit the vegetables you choose to eat in a salad or stir-fry and stick primarily to lower-carb options, such as spinach, snow peas, mushrooms or broccoli. Carrots and baby corn come in many Chinese entrees, but are higher in carbs.
Homemade stir-fry made with a lean protein, such as pork tenderloin, shrimp, chicken breast or tofu, and low-carb veggies, such as bok choy, celery, scallions and asparagus, make a good meal for a low-carb plan. Line the pan with a few teaspoons of olive oil, which has no carbs, and season with chopped garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
- Atkins: Dining Out, Chinese Style
- Fox News: 13 Best and Worst Foods for People With Diabetes
- Serious Eats: Sweet and Sour Sauce
- American Diabetes Association: Types of Carbohydrates
- American Family Physician: Low-Carbohydrate Diets
- Atkins: Phase One Overview: Beginning a Low-Carb Diet
- USDA Nutrient Database: Cornstarch