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Healthy Tables: Chinese Food

Healthy Tables is a series of articles that focus on healthy eating when dining out in local restaurants.

The articles outline common sense things you can do whenever and wherever you eat out. Each article highlights a specific restaurant in Falmouth, including menu choices that are delicious as well as being healthier options. 

Some Basics About Chinese Menus

Chinese food is one of the favorite restaurant meals for many Americans. But is it healthy for you? Most certainly, if you make the right choices. But beware, according to studies by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumer Reports, many dishes commonly served in Chinese restaurants are high in calories and overloaded with sodium, fat and cholesterol.

One of the biggest problems with some Chinese menus is that many of the dishes have been "Americanized" and favor deep fried or battered meats—including perennial favorites such as sweet and sour chicken and crispy orange beef—instead of vegetables and steamed dishes. In addition, portions are often too large.

Here are some suggestions for ordering from a Chinese menu: 

  • Order a broth-based or clear soup—such as Chinese vegetable or seafood soup—instead of appetizers, which are often battered and deep-fried. 
  • Look for a diet section, which often includes steamed dishes featuring vegetables and lower fat protein options such as chicken breast, shrimp, or tofu 
  • Order steamed rice—preferably brown rice, if available—instead of fried rice or a noodle dish 
  • Order vegetable dishes—such as sautéed Chinese greens—or dishes that have a high proportion of vegetables, such as chicken with broccoli. And, ask your server to have the dish prepared with more of the vegetable and less of the meat.

Let the restaurant know if you have any specific dietary needs so they can accommodate you if possible. Ask that dishes be prepared with less oil and no additional salt. If sauces are added after the food is cooked, ask for it to be served on the side. 

3 Steps to a Healthy Chinese Dining Experience

Try this the next time you eat in a Chinese restaurant with a friend, partner, or business companion.

Step 1: Ask for one entrée of your choice and one order of steamed vegetables
You are going to share each dish, thereby cutting down on the calories, fat, and sodium as well as adding fiber. For example, an order of sweet and sour pork may have upwards of 1000 calories with more than 50% of the calories from fat. The steamed vegetables will have about 150 to 200 calories and no fat or added salt. By sharing the two dishes, you will significantly decrease your calories and cut the amount of fat and sodium in half.

Step 2: Order two bowls of brown rice—if not available ask for steamed white rice
Brown rice is filling, very low in fat and sodium, and high in fiber. Adding it will make your meal more nutritious.

Step 3: Use chopsticks, which may slow down your eating, especially if you have not mastered their use
Place the bowl of brown rice in front of you. With your chopsticks—or your fork, if you absolutely refuse to try chopsticks—lift some food from each of the dishes you have ordered and place on the bowl of rice. Then eat from your rice bowl in the way that many Chinese people do.

Peking Palace

Peking Palace, located at 452 Main Street, is one of the most popular restaurants in Falmouth and my favorite local Chinese restaurant. The large and varied menu includes traditional and innovative Chinese dishes as well as seasonal specialties.

If you are trying to eat healthy or have a health problem that requires a special diet, such as obesity or diabetes, you can find plenty of options on the restaurant’s menu. I often eat at Peking Palace and as a person with type 2 diabetes, I have no problem maintaining my diet. And, it is easy to make tasty choices that won’t clog your arteries.

At a recent lunch, for example, I had a small Miso Soup, brown rice, and an order of steamed chicken with mixed vegetables. The steamed dish was perfectly done. The generous slices of chicken breast were tender and the variety of vegetables crisp. The dish was served with a fragrant brown sauce on the side, which I used sparingly. I had enough left over for another meal.

If you need to have a dish modified, don’t be shy about asking. The chef may be able to use less oil and less sauce, especially if the dish is a stir-fry or being sautéed.

Peking Palace is part of the growing trend among Asian restaurants to serve multiple cuisines and has a menu of classic Japanese appetizers, tempura, and a full-service sushi bar. If you are squeamish or worried about eating raw fish, the sushi chef prepares a variety of vegetarian and cooked options, including ebi (shrimp), kanikama (crab stick), unagi (grilled eel), kappa maki (cucumber), avocado maki, oshinko maki (pickled radish), and my, una-avo maki (grilled eel and avocado).

Other healthy Japanese dishes to try include edamame, seaweed salad, avocado salad, and just about anything from the sushi bar. About half of the sushi menu options consist of cooked items and the others are based on raw fish. These items are clearly marked and the menu carries the requisite Massachusetts’s warning about consuming raw or undercooked fish and the increased risk of foodborne illness.

And don’t forget to have a fortune cookie. They have just 30 calories and the fortunes at Peking Palace include lucky numbers—who knows, you might become rich along with staying healthy!

By Michael Bihari, MD
Member, Board of Directors, Community Health Center of Cape Cod and member of the Falmouth Public Schools Health Advisory Committee

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