When considering whether Chinese food is bad for you, it’s essential to differentiate between traditional Chinese cuisine and the Americanized version typically found at takeout restaurants. Traditional Chinese cuisine consists mainly of steamed vegetables and lean proteins, contributing to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in China.
However, the Chinese food most Americans are familiar with often includes dishes that are high in sodium, fat, and calories.
Now, you might be wondering if all Chinese food is bad for you. The answer is both yes and no. While indulging in egg rolls, deep-fried beef, and other high-sodium or high-fat foods can negatively impact your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, enjoying them in moderation is key. What truly matters is your overall diet and the choices you make when selecting dishes.
By making informed decisions, you can enjoy Chinese cuisine without sacrificing your well-being.
What Is Chinese Food?
Chinese food, also known as Chinese cuisine, is a broad term that encompasses the rich and diverse cooking styles, techniques, and ingredients from various regions of China. This centuries-old culinary tradition has spread across the globe, and you will encounter variations of Chinese food in restaurants and homes worldwide.
When exploring Chinese cuisine, you will discover an exciting array of flavors, textures, and ingredients. Classic dishes are typically characterized by the use of fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, and herbs, combined with different cooking methods such as stir-frying, steaming, or braising. A key aspect of Chinese food is the balance of flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy – to create harmony in your dishes.
While traditional Chinese cuisine emphasizes the use of healthy ingredients and cooking techniques, the version you often find in Western restaurants might differ significantly. American Chinese food, for example, tends to be less healthy as it is generally high in fats, sugars, and salts, making it comparable to other fast food options. This adaptation caters to local tastes, but strips away some of the benefits of authentic Chinese food.
It’s crucial to differentiate between traditional Chinese cuisine and the Westernized versions when considering its impact on your health. Some popular Chinese takeout dishes, like orange chicken or egg rolls, can be high in calories, fat, and sodium. Frequent consumption of these dishes might lead to health issues, such as hypertension due to excessive salt intake.
Types of Chinese Food
When exploring Chinese food, it’s essential to understand the differences between traditional Chinese cuisine and American-Chinese food. Traditional Chinese food primarily consists of steamed vegetables with a smattering of lean proteins, which contributes to lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in China.
However, American-Chinese food often contains more fried dishes and higher levels of sodium and fat.
Common dishes in traditional Chinese cuisine include:
- Dumplings with various fillings such as vegetables, meat, or seafood
- Stir-fry dishes with a variety of veggies and lean proteins like tofu, chicken, or shrimp
- Soups like wonton soup, hot and sour soup, and egg drop soup
- Vegetable-focused dishes, such as vegetable stir-fry, Buddha’s delight, and eggplant with garlic sauce
While authentic Chinese food can be healthy, American-Chinese food tends to include unhealthier options. Some popular American-Chinese dishes are:
- Egg rolls: These deep-fried rolls contain veggies but are generally not healthy due to their high-fat content
- General Tso’s chicken and sweet and sour pork: Both of these dishes are deep-fried and coated in sugary sauces
- Fried rice and lo mein: These carbohydrate-heavy dishes contain white rice or white noodles with lots of oil and few vegetables
- Crab rangoon: Another deep-fried dish, this one filled with cream cheese
Some healthier American-Chinese options do exist though such as:
- Chicken and vegetable stir-fry or moo goo gai pan: These dishes emphasize lean protein and vegetables
- Beef and broccoli or chicken and broccoli: These options focus on protein and vegetables in a lighter sauce
- Kung pao chicken: A stir-fried dish with vegetables, chicken, and peanuts in a spicy sauce
- Chow fun: Wide rice noodles with vegetables and protein, which can be a healthier alternative to fried noodles
Keep in mind that while occasional indulgence in American-Chinese dishes like fried rice, egg rolls, or General Tso’s chicken is unlikely to harm your health, moderation is key. To maintain a balanced diet, opt for healthier options such as vegetable stir-fry, lean proteins like tofu or chicken, cabbage-based dishes, and lighter soups.
When considering the nutritional value of Chinese food, it’s important to examine the individual components that make up a typical dish. Here, you will find information on calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar, sodium, saturated fat, rice, oil, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
In a traditional Chinese meal, steamed vegetables serve as the primary component, alongside lean proteins. This combination allows for a lower caloric intake and a generally healthy diet. However, it’s essential to be mindful of the specific ingredients and preparation methods of each dish.
Calories, fat, and carbs vary significantly between dishes. For example, a vegetable stir-fry offers a healthier option compared to deep-fried or sweet-and-sour dishes. While calories in a vegetable stir-fry may range from 200-400, other dishes like sweet-and-sour pork could contain upwards of 1000 calories. The same principle applies to fat and carbohydrate content.
When it comes to rice, brown rice is the healthier choice as it contains more fiber and nutrients compared to white rice. Choosing a dish with a moderate portion of rice, preferably about the size of your fist, can help maintain balanced meal.
In terms of oils, many Chinese dishes are prepared with vegetable oils rather than butter, leading to lower levels of saturated fat. Nonetheless, some dishes involve deep-frying or heavy oil use, which may increase the overall fat content of your meal.
Sugar content varies among dishes too, with some sauces containing high amounts of added sugar. Opting for dishes with light sauces or requesting sauce on the side can be beneficial in controlling your sugar intake.
Sodium is often a concern in Chinese cuisine, primarily from the use of soy sauce and other salty condiments.
Lastly, MSG (monosodium glutamate) is sometimes used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese cooking. While it is generally recognized as safe, some individuals may experience mild allergic reactions or sensitivity to it. If you are concerned about MSG, inquire about its use at your chosen restaurant and request dishes without it when applicable.
Health Benefits of Chinese Food
Chinese food can offer a variety of health benefits, depending on the ingredients and preparation methods used. Some of the key health-promoting components found in Chinese cuisine include:
- Fish, shrimp, crab
- Lean proteins like chicken and pork
- Garlic, cabbage, carrots, onions
- Leafy greens
Vegetables are an essential part of Chinese cuisine and provide a wide range of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. They are often stir-fried, which helps retain their nutritional value compared to boiling or microwaving. Chinese dishes tend to incorporate fresh vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onions, and leafy greens, which can provide antioxidants and fiber to support good health.
Rice, a staple in Chinese cuisine, serves as a good source of energy-providing carbohydrates. Brown rice or cauliflower rice can be a healthier option, as they are less processed and contain more nutrients.
Fish, shrimp, and crab are frequently used in Chinese recipes, offering a lean source of protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids. These ingredients can have positive effects on cardiovascular health.
Chicken and pork are also commonly featured in Chinese dishes, offering lean proteins that promote muscle growth and overall health. By choosing dishes with steamed, grilled, or stir-fried chicken or pork, you can enjoy a protein-packed and flavorful meal while avoiding excess fat and calories.
Tofu is another popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine. It’s an excellent source of plant-based protein and contains essential amino acids, making it a great option for vegetarians and vegans.
Mushrooms, garlic, and other spices not only add flavor to Chinese dishes, but they also provide health benefits. Garlic, for example, promotes immune system health and may protect against certain types of cancer.
Pros and Cons of Chinese Food
- Low in fat: Most Chinese dishes are generally low in fat, which can be beneficial for those watching their calorie intake.
- Rich in vegetables: Chinese cuisine often includes plenty of fresh vegetables, providing you with essential nutrients and vitamins.
- Lean proteins: Chinese food commonly incorporates lean proteins, helping you meet your protein needs without consuming excess fat.
- Variety of healthy options: With numerous dishes to choose from, you can easily select healthier options when dining on Chinese cuisine.
- High in sodium: Many Chinese dishes contain large amounts of salt, which, when consumed frequently, can increase your risk of hypertension.
- Oily dishes: Some Chinese dishes can be quite oily, leading to a delay in stomach emptying and causing bloating.
- Fried foods: Unfortunately, popular items such as fried rice and lo mein are not the healthiest choices, as they contain white rice or white noodles with lots of oil and few vegetables.
In recent years, several studies have looked into the health effects and nutritional content of Chinese food.
When considering the impact of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common additive used in Chinese cuisine, research indicates that certain individuals may experience symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and sweating after consuming foods containing MSG.
This phenomenon has been termed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” in a study published in 2017, but it’s essential to remember that such symptoms are experienced only by a sensitive subset of the population.
On the other hand, Chinese cuisine is known for incorporating a variety of ingredients and cooking techniques that have been associated with various health benefits. In fact, a study conducted in 2021 found that traditional Chinese food offers various positive health outcomes, such as enhancing longevity and promoting overall well-being.
To make more informed choices about the healthiness of the Chinese food you consume, consider the following factors:
- Saturated fat content: As mentioned earlier, some Chinese dishes may contain high levels of saturated fat, which can be harmful to your health in large amounts. Aim for dishes with leaner meat options or more vegetables.
- MSG: If you’re sensitive to MSG, you might want to avoid dishes known to contain high levels of this additive. However, not all Chinese dishes contain MSG, so it’s crucial to inquire about the ingredients before making your selection.
- Cooking techniques: Many traditional Chinese cuisine dishes utilize healthy cooking techniques such as steaming, stir-frying, or boiling, which can help retain the nutritional value of the ingredients. Opt for dishes prepared using these methods over deep-fried or heavily sauced options.
It’s essential to remember that not all Chinese food is created equal in terms of its nutritional value and potential health impacts. Approach your food choices with consideration, focusing on healthier alternatives that align with your dietary requirements and preferences.
What Do Health Experts Say About Chinese Food?
Chinese food can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the specific dishes you choose and how they’re prepared. Traditional Chinese cuisine primarily consists of steamed vegetables with a smattering of lean proteins, which can be quite good for you. In fact, that’s why the Chinese have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
However, the type of Chinese food that most Americans consume at their favorite Chinese restaurants might not offer the same health benefits.
When deciding what to order, consider the following factors:
- Fat content: Steer clear of deep-fried dishes, such as egg rolls, as they can be high in fat and contribute to high cholesterol levels and blood pressure if consumed in excess Sodium: Many Chinese dishes are high in sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure. Choose dishes with sauces that are lower in sodium, such as those made with soy sauce alternatives or ask for sauce on the side.
- Vegetables: Opt for dishes that are rich in vegetables, as they typically provide essential nutrients and fiber. Avoid dishes like fried rice and lo mein, which contain white rice or white noodles with lots of oil and very little vegetables.
Additionally, organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics may offer recommendations on how to make healthier choices when dining out or cooking Chinese cuisine at home.
While some Chinese food can be bad for your health due to high fat and sodium content, if you make mindful choices and opt for dishes rich in vegetables and lean proteins, you can enjoy the delicious flavors of Chinese cuisine without compromising your well-being.
Who Should Avoid It?
There are certain individuals who should be more cautious when it comes to consuming Chinese food due to health concerns. These groups of people include those who:
- Diabetes: If you have diabetes, you need to be careful with the sugar and carbohydrate content in Chinese food. Many dishes contain high amounts of sugar like General Tso’s chicken and carbs found in rice and noodles. Keep an eye on portion sizes and opt for steamed or stir-fried options over deep-fried ones.
- Heart disease: For those with heart disease, it’s essential to watch the sodium and fat content in Chinese food. High-sodium dishes can increase blood pressure, while foods with high levels of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels. Be mindful of dishes with soy sauce, oyster sauce, or other high-sodium sauces and choose dishes containing lean proteins and plenty of vegetables.
- Obesity: When struggling with obesity, you should pay attention to the calorie count and portion sizes in Chinese food. Fried foods and heavy sauces can contribute to weight gain, making it harder to maintain a healthy weight. Choose options like steamed vegetables, grilled proteins, and brown rice to keep your meal balanced.
- Headache: If you’re prone to headaches or migraines, you might be sensitive to MSG. Some people experience headaches or other symptoms after consuming foods containing MSG. Be cautious and choose dishes that are free from or low in MSG. Don’t hesitate to ask restaurants about their use of MSG to ensure you’re making the best choices for your health.
Make informed choices about the dishes you consume and pay attention to the ingredients, preparation methods, and portion sizes to manage your health concerns effectively when enjoying Chinese food.
Alternatives to Unhealthy Chinese Food
When choosing healthier options for Chinese food, it’s essential to pay attention to the cooking method and ingredients used. Instead of deep-fried dishes, opt for boiled or steamed options, which typically contain fewer calories and unhealthy fats.
For starters, consider ordering steamed dumplings over fried versions. They have less fat, and you’ll still enjoy the delicious flavors. Additionally, filling your plate with dishes consisting of primarily vegetables, such as stir-fries, can provide a more nutritious and lower-calorie option.
When it comes to sauces, request them on the side, giving you more control over how much you consume. Thicker sauces are often higher in calories and sugar, so choosing lighter options, like soy sauce or a simple vegetable broth, is a better alternative for a healthier meal.
Regarding rice, choose steamed rice over fried versions. Steamed brown rice is even better because it retains more nutrients and fiber than white rice. Here is a comparison of various rice types:
|Steamed Brown||Higher in fiber, more nutrients|
|Steamed White||Lower in calories than fried|
|Fried White||High in calories, less healthy|
When selecting dishes with protein, braised or grilled options are usually healthier than battered or deep-fried alternatives. Keep an eye out for leaner proteins such as chicken or fish, which are more nutritious choices than heavier meats.
Lastly, note that many dishes are cooked with oil, so it’s crucial to pick options with healthier oils. For instance, peanut oil has a higher smoke point than other oils, which means it doesn’t break down as quickly into harmful substances during cooking.
By selecting healthier options and being mindful of the cooking methods, you can enjoy Chinese cuisine without compromising your health.
In evaluating the health aspects of Chinese food, it’s important to remember that “bad” is subjective and depends on the choices you make. By selecting dishes that are rich in vegetables and lean proteins, you can easily include Chinese food as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
To make wiser choices when eating Chinese food, consider the following tips:
- Opt for steamed or stir-fried dishes over fried options, which are higher in fat and calories.
- Limit your intake of dishes with heavy sauces, and request low-sodium variations when possible.
- Pay attention to portion sizes, especially when dining out, as restaurant servings can be quite large.
It’s also important to note that enjoying Chinese food occasionally, even if it’s not the healthiest option, will not derail your overall health or diet goals. Moderation is key when incorporating any type of food into your diet. By being mindful of your choices and portion sizes, you can savor the delicious flavors of Chinese cuisine without compromising your well-being.
Is Chinese food healthy?
Traditional Chinese cuisine primarily consists of steamed vegetables and a variety of lean proteins, which can be quite healthy. In fact, this is why the Chinese have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. However, American Chinese restaurants often serve dishes that are high in fat, sugar, and salt, making them less healthy options.
What are the healthiest Chinese dishes?
Some healthier Chinese dishes include:
- Steamed vegetables
- Boiled dumplings
- Stir-fried tofu with vegetables
- Shrimp with broccoli
- Chicken or shrimp with cashew nuts
Keep in mind that it’s best to avoid dishes with high sodium and deep-fried options.
What are some potential health issues from eating Chinese food?
Eating Chinese food with high sodium content can lead to hypertension, which can cause various complications for your heart. Frequent consumption of high-fat, deep-fried dishes can also increase cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Moderation is key when indulging in these types of dishes.
How can I make my Chinese food healthier?
Here are some tips to make your Chinese food healthier:
- Opt for steamed, grilled, or stir-fried dishes over deep-fried options
- Choose dishes with lean proteins like chicken or shrimp, and avoid those with battered or fried meats
- Select vegetable-heavy dishes
- Request less sauce or sodium when ordering
- Swap white rice for brown rice or ask for a smaller portion
By making these adjustments, you can enjoy your favorite Chinese dishes while keeping your meal balanced and nutritious.
Why is sodium a concern in Chinese food?
A4: Many Chinese dishes contain soy sauce, broth, or other seasonings that can be high in sodium. Consuming too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. If you’re watching your sodium intake, ask for your food to be prepared with less sauce or choose dishes that don’t rely on high-sodium ingredients.
Can Chinese food be part of a balanced diet?
Absolutely! As with any cuisine, it’s about balance and moderation. Chinese cuisine includes a wide variety of dishes, many of which are rich in vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. So long as you’re mindful of your choices and portions, Chinese food can definitely be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.
- Bawaskar, Himmatrao, et al. “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 49–50, https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-5229.198327.
- Carbone, John W., and Stefan M. Pasiakos. “Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 5, 22 May 2019, p. 1136, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566799/, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051136.
- Du, Wenwen, et al. “Sodium Content of Restaurant Dishes in China: A Cross-Sectional Survey.” Nutrition Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, 17 Feb. 2022, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12937-022-00762-4. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.
- Eze, Ngozi M., et al. “Acceptability and Consumption of Tofu as a Meat Alternative among Secondary School Boarders in Enugu State, Nigeria.” Medicine, vol. 97, no. 45, 9 Nov. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6250531/, https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000013155.
- Fang, et al. “Dietary Sodium Intake and Food Sources among Chinese Adults: Data from the CNNHS 2010–2012.” Nutrients, vol. 12, no. 2, 11 Feb. 2020, p. 453, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020453.
- Fukagawa, Naomi K., and Lewis H. Ziska. “Rice: Importance for Global Nutrition.” Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, vol. 65, no. Supplement, 2019, pp. S2–S3, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31619630/, https://doi.org/10.3177/jnsv.65.S2.
- Grillo, Andrea, et al. “Sodium Intake and Hypertension.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 9, 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770596/, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11091970.
- Halawa, Abdelhadi. “Analysis of the Health Effects of the Transition of Traditional Chinese Food on the Emergence of Nontraditional Eating Behaviors.” Journal of Ethnic Foods, vol. 8, no. 1, 30 July 2021, https://doi.org/10.1186/s42779-021-00087-3.
- Hosomi, Ryota, et al. “Seafood Consumption and Components for Health.” Global Journal of Health Science, vol. 4, no. 3, 28 Apr. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4776937/, https://doi.org/10.5539/gjhs.v4n3p72.
- Kazi, Raisa Nazir Ahmed, et al. “Prevalence of Salt Rich Fast Food Consumption: A Focus on Physical Activity and Incidence of Hypertension among Female Students of Saudi Arabia.” Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, vol. 27, no. 10, Oct. 2020, pp. 2669–2673, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sjbs.2020.06.004.
- Mohammed, Sawsan G., and M. Walid Qoronfleh. “Vegetables.” Advances in Neurobiology, vol. 24, 2020, pp. 225–277, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32006363/, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-30402-7_9.
- Mondal, Arijit, et al. “Garlic Constituents for Cancer Prevention and Therapy: From Phytochemistry to Novel Formulations.” Pharmacological Research, vol. 175, Jan. 2022, p. 105837, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phrs.2021.105837. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022.
- Obayashi, Yoko, and Yoichi Nagamura. “Does Monosodium Glutamate Really Cause Headache? : A Systematic Review of Human Studies.” The Journal of Headache and Pain, vol. 17, no. 1, 17 May 2016, https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-016-0639-4.
- Saleh, Ahmed S. M., et al. “Brown Rice versus White Rice: Nutritional Quality, Potential Health Benefits, Development of Food Products, and Preservation Technologies.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, vol. 18, no. 4, 4 June 2019, pp. 1070–1096, https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12449.
- Sayon-Orea, C., et al. “Consumption of Fried Foods and Weight Gain in a Mediterranean Cohort: The SUN Project.” Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, vol. 23, no. 2, Feb. 2013, pp. 144–150, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2011.03.014. Accessed 3 Dec. 2020.
- Schwingshackl, Lukas, et al. “Effects of Oils and Solid Fats on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Lipid Research, vol. 59, no. 9, 13 July 2018, pp. 1771–1782, https://doi.org/10.1194/jlr.p085522.
- Vessby, B. “Dietary Carbohydrates in Diabetes.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 59, no. 3, 1 Mar. 1994, pp. 742S746S, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/59/3/742S/4732278, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/59.3.742s. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.
- Yuan, Gao-feng, et al. “Effects of Different Cooking Methods on Health-Promoting Compounds of Broccoli.” Journal of Zhejiang University SCIENCE B, vol. 10, no. 8, 30 July 2009, pp. 580–588, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2722699/, https://doi.org/10.1631/jzus.b0920051.
- Zanfirescu, Anca, et al. “A Review of the Alleged Health Hazards of Monosodium Glutamate.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, vol. 18, no. 4, 1 July 2019, pp. 1111–1134, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6952072/, https://doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12448.
Next, check out some recent reviews you might find useful: