Low Calorie Chinese Meals: Restaurant or Take Out

If you want to find the real gems for managing your weight and better health, take your lead from the kind of meals the people in China might eat. Many of the dishes served in an American-style Chinese restaurant are meat dishes. Traditionally, the Chinese do not eat a meat-centered diet. What is more typical are low calorie and low fat meals made with lots of vegetables and little or no meat. However, that said, Chinese dishes are often high in sodium, which can lead to water retention and other problems.

So how do you go about choosing the best entrees and other selections on a Chinese restaurant menu? To begin with opt for vegetable dishes with or without small amounts of chicken, fish, or seafood. Look for snow peas, string beans, napa cabbage, bok choy, spinach, green and red peppers, and zucchini.

In addition, keep these key concepts in mind to help you with your decisions:

1. Remember Cantonese

There are five traditional Chinese cuisines from five different parts of China. Of these five, the one to remember is Cantonese. This cuisine from southeast China is known for lightly cooked vegetable and meat dishes. Not all Cantonese entrees are low calorie but they tend to be the better choice depending on how much you are served. Don’t forget to keep portion size in mind. Sharing an entree with others is a good way to keep your calorie count down.

2. If choosing noodles or a meat dish, pick one or the other instead of a dish that combines both.

To keep the calorie count reasonable choose chicken, seafood, or fish with vegetables and no noodles. Or choose noodles with vegetables and no meat. Noodles are pasta, and cooked pasta runs about 200 calories a cup before stir-frying or adding sauces. Another tip to keep your calorie count down with noodles is to look for lo mein dishes instead of chow mein. Lo mein means boiled and typically fewer calories than chow mein, which means fried. However, lo mein loses its advantage if it is stir-fried!

3. Terms to remember

Some of the terms to remember for lower calorie choices relate to the way the food is prepared. Here’s a short list:

*Jum (poached)
*Kow (roasted)

Some say “shu”, which means barbecued, such as Moo Shu Pork or Moo Shu Chicken may be a good choice. I find the taste is great! But the calorie count, although not as high as some other dishes, tends to be on the higher side if you are on a low calorie diet (1200 to 1500 calories). This may be a dish to share with a spouse or friend and let them have the bigger portion.

4. Limit or avoid deep-fried dishes and high calorie sauces

Items to limit or avoid include many of the appetizers such as fried spring rolls or egg rolls. Steer clear of meat and chicken dishes that are deep-fried or served with heavy sauces such as Sweet and Sour Pork, Crispy Chicken, Kung Pao Chicken, or General Tso’s Chicken. Also limit or avoid the greasy noodle and rice dishes such as chow mein and fried rice. Ingredients, portion sizes, and the resulting calorie counts do vary from one restaurant to the next. Learn what you can before going out to eat or ordering take out.

I spent some time on the DietFacts website and MyFoodDiary.com exploring the Chinese food offered at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Panda Express, Earl’s, and Manchu Wok. The Cantonese dishes were indeed some of the lower calorie choices. Dishes made with chicken, fish, or seafood served with lots of vegetables, whether Cantonese or not, were often but not always the better choice.

Kung Pao Chicken is an example of a dish that varies considerably in nutrient and calorie count depending on the restaurant. This dish ranges from 1230 calories with 78 grams of fat at P.F. Chang’s Bistro to as little as 242 calories with 19 grams of fat at the Manchu Wok for a 5 ounce serving. I’m sure the portion size makes up quite a bit of the difference (the serving size is not listed for P.F. Chang’s) but it does underscore the need to not only be careful about what you choose but to also limit how much!

With the exception of sodium (which was not listed for P.F. Chang’s Bistro), here are some examples of the healthy choices I found:

Buddha’s Feast (steamed) made with mixed vegetables (asparagus, black mushrooms, baby corn, broccoli, carrots, and snap peas.

Serving size = 1 plate

Total calories = 200 (Add other items or share an entree with someone else to round out the nutritional balance. Supplement with a little chicken, seafood, or fish and some rice.)

Total fat = 1.5 grams

Buddha’s Feast (stir-fried) made with mixed vegetables (asparagus, black mushrooms, baby corn, broccoli, carrots, and snap peas.

Serving size = 1 plate

Total calories = 370 (a little healthy fat is a good choice)

Total fat = 7 grams (saturated fat = 1 gram)

Cantonese Shrimp – Stir-fried with garlic, yellow chives, and snow peas

Serving size = 1 plate

Total calories = 380

Total fat = 15 grams (saturated fat = 2 grams)

Want to top off your meal with dessert? How about following a traditional Chinese custom for this as well. Fresh fruit is a national treat in China. Fruit has no fat and far less calories than the average American-style dessert. How about some lychees or pineapple? Now you have some tips for choosing low calorie Chinese entrees and desserts when dining out at your favorite local restaurant or ordering take out. Enjoy!