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Chinese Restaurants: Calories Galore

Consumer Group Says Menus Contain High-Calorie, High-Sodium Dishes
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 21, 2007 -- Diners trying to cut calories may want to put down the chopsticks at their favorite Chinese restaurant, suggests an analysis by a consumer group.

That's because though most Chinese restaurant food offers lots of vegetables, it is often brimming with calories.

Americans on average get one-third of their calories outside of the house by eating at restaurants, coffee shops, and street vendors, according The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The group says that Chinese restaurant food has many healthy traits. Few restaurants offer as many vegetable choices as Chinese restaurants do, and the food's fat content tends to be unsaturated, not the saturated form that wreaks havoc on the cardiovascular system.

Still, Chinese entrées -- even the vegetarian ones -- frequently contain upward of 1,000 calories. That's half of the calories recommended for the average American adult.

"Dinner portions are still huge," says Michael Jacobson, MD, the group's executive director. He also decries most Chinese restaurant dishes for "artery-popping amounts of sodium."

The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. This is about 1 teaspoon of table salt. Those with certain medical conditions should follow a stricter sodium limit.

Worst Offenders

The group sent a selection of popular Chinese restaurant dishes for laboratory analysis. Some of the worst offenders included:

  • Orange Beef or Crispy Beef, with 1,500 calories and 3,100 milligrams of sodium.
  • Lemon Chicken, with 1,400 calories and 700 milligrams of sodium.
  • Sweet & Sour Pork, with 1,300 calories and 800 milligrams of sodium.
  • Eggplant in garlic sauce, with 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.
  • Tofu and Mixed Vegetables, with 900 calories and 2,200 milligrams of sodium

Bonnie Liebman, the group's director of nutrition, said diners can make their meals healthier by requesting steaming instead of frying and asking for sauces on the side. Most Chinese restaurants make a habit of responding to customer's special requests, she says.

"If you know what you're doing you can really cut down on these calories," she says. Liebman recommends Szechuan string beans as an alternative to eggplant. While still high in sodium, string beans contain an average of just 600 calories.

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