Chinese food is often associated with calorie-rich dishes such as kung pao beef and General Tso's chicken. Traditionally, Chinese food is more moderate, with plenty of healthy ingredients full of important nutrients. Choosing healthy Chinese food options can help you avoid dishes that are potentially fattening.
There is no single style of cooking that can cover the wide range of different Chinese cooking styles. From spicy food from Sichuan province from the sweet and sour flavors of Canton, Chinese food runs the gastronomical gamut. A common element of Chinese cuisine of all kinds includes liberal use of vegetables, ginger, garlic, rice, vinegar and soy sauce. An important aspect of whether Chinese food is fattening is the cooking method.
Stir-frying uses fats such as vegetable oil or lard. Fats have twice the amount of calories as carbohydrates and protein and may promote weight gain. Research published in the June 2008 "International Journal of Obesity" found that a diet rich in vegetables was strongly associated with obesity levels in a group of approximately 3,000 men and women living in China. They explain that most other scientific research has found that vegetables actually protect against obesity. The researchers note that the added calories from stir-frying vegetables likely contribute to obesity levels.
Stir-frying isn't the only consideration in determining whether a Chinese dish is fattening or not. Dishes that have a sweet flavor -- such as sweet and sour pork -- often contain significant amounts of sugar. Fatty meats such as pork and beef are also high in total calories and saturated fat. Won tons, chicken wings and other deep fried options may also be calorie-rich.
Steamed, boiled and baked Chinese foods are generally healthier and lower in calories than their stir-fried or deep-fried counterparts, according to the American Heart Association. Healthy Chinese foods that are less likely to be fattening include steamed dumplings, steamed rice, steamed vegetables, baked fish and hot pot. Registered dietitian Jim White adds that you can limit the caloric impact of Chinese food by limiting or eliminating sauces and choosing whole grain brown rice over white rice.
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- "Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine: The Fabulous Flavors and Innovative Recipes of North America's Finest Chinese Cook"; Susanna Foo; 2002
- "International Journal of Obesity"; Vegetable-rich food pattern is related to obesity in China; Z Shit et al.; June 2008
- American Heart Association: Tips for Eating Chinese Food
- ABCNews.com: Healthy Chinese Food
Ryan Devon is a registered dietitian with a Master of Science in nutrition and health promotion from Simmons College. He starting writing in 2010, specializing in weight management and eating-disorder science.