Chinese Restaurants: Calories Galore

Consumer Group Says Menus Contain High-Calorie, High-Sodium Dishes

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 21, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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.

The other option is to eat just half an entree and take the rest home for lunch, she says.

Larry La, a restaurateur in Washington, D.C., says customers frequently ask for take-out boxes along with their sit-down orders, then save half the food for the next day.

Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association, says the organization does not keep records on the number of Chinese eateries nationwide.

Wiess argues that Chinese restaurants offer wide choices for healthier eating. "They make so many different kinds of vegetables available to consumers and they're prepared in so many different ways," Weiss tells WebMD. "That can be anything from asking for brown rice instead of white rice or asking for meats to be prepared in a different way."

The report by the CSPI offered some tips to limit calories and fat in Chinese restaurant foods:

  • Look for dishes that feature vegetables, not meat or noodles. Ask for extra vegetables.
  • Order chicken, tofu, or seafood that is stir-fried or braised; avoid breaded, battered, or deep-fried items.
  • Use chopsticks or a fork -- not a spoon -- to get food from the serving plate. This helps keep some of the high-fat and high-sugar sauce on the serving plate.
  • Don't add extra salt by adding high-salt sauces to your food, such as soy sauce, duck sauce, and hosin sauce.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Michael Jacobson, MD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chinese Restaurant Food: Wok Carefully, CSPI Health Action Newsletter, April 2007. Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director, CSPI. Larry La, restaurant owner, Washington, D.C. Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition, National Restaurant Association. American Heart Association.

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