Traditional Chinese cuisine is rife with fresh vegetables, lean proteins and aromatic herbs, but when you order takeout in America, you’re also likely to get an excess of sodium, plenty of fat and oversized portions. That doesn’t mean your takeout night has to be a dietary disaster; choose wisely, and you can enjoy a healthful Chinese meal -- or at least one that won’t derail your health efforts. Calorie amounts can vary, depending on the restaurant.
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What to Order
On a Chinese takeout menu, the list of what you should order is much shorter than the options you should avoid. Dishes on the first list include a starter of won ton soup, which has approximately 100 calories, according to Shape.com. The broth-based soup can also help you avoid eating too much of your higher-calorie main course. If your favorite Chinese restaurant has a light-and-healthy section on its menu, order from there to avoid salty sauces or too much oil. If not, look for lean proteins including seafood, chicken, beef, pork and tofu -- and order your protein steamed or boiled. A dish such as Buddha’s Delight, made with tofu and vegetables, can have as few as 200 calories if you have a small, steamed portion, or it could come in at round 500 calories or more if you have a larger, stir-fried portion. If you don't want your entree boiled or steamed, ask the chef to stir fry it in less oil than usual, suggests the American Heart Association. Ask for brown rice instead of white, as it is higher in fiber. If you can only choose between white and fried rice, go for the former -- or skip it entirely.
Foods to Avoid
If a menu lists a dish as crispy, coated, twice-cooked or battered, it’s a good indication you should avoid it. Even veggies aren’t safe, as Chinese restaurants typically deep-fry them before stir-frying, Chef Brian Ray told Health.com. Some of the most offensive Chinese takeout dishes -- nutritionally speaking -- include lo mein, which can contain more than 900 calories of mostly refined carbohydrates; orange beef, a fried dish with a sugary sauce that often contains 1,200 to 1,500 calories; and mu shu pork, which boasts about 1,000 calories per order -- without the traditional pancakes.
Swimming in Sodium
Even when you manage to control the calories in a Chinese dish, you still face one nutritional pitfall: sodium. For example, a 2012 “Shape” magazine article notes that chicken in black bean sauce is fairly low in calories at 800 per order, but it contains a whopping 4,000 milligrams of sodium. It’s often the sauces that are packed with sodium, so ask for sauce on the side. Condiments can also play a major role in sodium content; skip the soy sauce, which provides more than 1,000 milligrams per tablespoon, while hoisin sauce is also high, at 250 milligrams per tablespoon.The American Heart Association recommends aiming for less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
It’s easy to eat too many calories when you order Chinese takeout because the portions are so large. Don’t forget that Chinese food -- even takeout -- is often meant to be served family-style -- each order is enough food for two to three people. Split an entree and an appetizer with a friend or, if you’re dining alone, save half the meal for tomorrow.