Chinese food, as most of us know it, is a greasy, unhealthy takeout option for those busy evenings when we’ve finished work late and are famished and tired. But a traditional Chinese diet is, on the contrary, an extremely nourishing, healthy and fulfilling way of eating, offering a range of health benefits and interesting, tasty dishes.
Can Chinese Food Be Healthy?
A lot can be learnt from traditional Chinese cooking, medicine and lifestyles. For a start, the Chinese didn’t have a word for “calories” until they adopted one from the English language, and they certainly didn’t count them. Instead, they looked at food as nourishment, not extra inches around the waist. Some studies over the past few years have concluded that counting calories can give people an unhealthy relationship with food, which can lead to binging or food restriction, and a disconnect with the nutritional value of food. Other issues with counting calories include the potential inaccuracy of food labels and the fact that not all calories are equal.
Chinese food can be extremely nutritious and fulfilling, with plenty of dishes and ingredients that offer an array of health benefits, including ginger, garlic and spices. There have been some compelling studies suggesting Chinese diets can cure ailments and prolong life. Traditional Chinese diets were mainly vegetarian, and included just 20% meat or fish. Food was steamed or lightly stir-fried in something like peanut oil, which was much healthier than the meat and vegetables that are battered, deep-fried or drowned in sugary, salty sauces that you tend to get from Chinese fast food outlets.
Like the Ayurvedic medical system of India, traditional Chinese medicine incorporates an overall approach to healing, including acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, exercise, and, you guessed it, dietary therapy through food. In the western health system, food is judged on its nutritional value, without taking the individual person who is eating it into account. In Chinese medicine, however, food is classified according to its energetic effects on the patient, rather than its components. That means the same meal would have different value depending on a person’s yin and yang energy. This philosophy allows people who follow its principals to be in tune with what their bodies need.
What You Need To Know About Chinese Takeout
Like most takeout or fast food, Chinese is full of oil, sugar, salt and, often, artificial preservatives. Unfortunately, not even ordering vegetables from a Chinese fast food outlet will ensure you’re avoiding some of these harmful additives. Side vegetables from Chinese takeout restaurants are often deep-fried for added flavor and texture, or smothered in unhealthy sauces. There are a few health issues with that, the main one being the fact that there are a number of vegetables that absorb oil like a sponge (such as eggplants). That means an eggplant side dish that is deep-fried, for example, would have a huge percentage of oil in it, and probably not healthy oil.
Tip: If you are ordering takeout, you should say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to shrimp crackers. Although they might seem healthier that crisps or crunchy noodles, all they are is a deep-fried mix of starch (unwanted carbs), salt and flavoring. Even though one of the lessons from this blog post is not to count calories, it’s worth noting that a small handful includes more than 200 calories and 14 grams of fat, and not the nutritious kind!
Is MSG Harmful?
There is still a lot of controversy surrounding monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancing food additive that has plagued the Chinese takeout world for quite a few years now. MSG is a white crystalline powder derived from a non-essential amino acid, which the human body is able to produce itself. It is made during a starch fermentation process and is used to enhance the savory flavor of a meal. Over the years, MSG has been blamed for a number of health issues, including asthma, headaches and brain damage. That, however, is disputed by organizations like the FDA, which concluded in its most recent investigation into the additive that it is safe to eat.
There is, however, something called Chinese restaurant syndrome (MSG symptom complex), which can cause a reaction or set of symptoms following the consumption of Chinese food in some people. Symptoms include chest pain, headaches, flushing, numbness or burning around the mouth, facial pressure and sweating. MSG has been blamed for the condition, but it has not been proven to be the cause.
MSG has also been linked to obesity and disorders associated with metabolic syndrome in a study performed by a team of international researchers. Scientists in the study found that, although MSG has been deemed ‘safe’, there are factors, including its dosage, interaction with other substances, effects on people with chronic inflammatory conditions, effects on vulnerable populations and effects on people with neurological diseases, that are still unknown.
Some Tips For Healthy Chinese Eating
- Poach (Jum), broil (Chu), roast (Kow), barbecue (Shu), steam or lightly stir-fry in healthy oil when cooking Chinese food, instead of deep frying or coating in white flour, breadcrumbs or batter.
- Use chopsticks, especially if you are eating Chinese takeout. This will decrease the amount of oils and sauce you are consuming with each mouthful. It also encourages slower eating and smaller bites, which may reduce calorie intake and help to maintain a healthy weight, as well as give you a chance to realize when you’re full before it’s too late and you’ve overeaten!
- If you are eating Chinese takeout, skip the starter. One tendency people often have when eating takeout is to binge or over-indulge. Main course servings are generally very large, so you definitely don’t need starters on top of that. You can also go one step further and share, say, two main courses between three people so that you stop eating when satisfied, not when you’re about to burst!
- And our final, very obvious tip, is to make your own homemade Chinese meals rather than going for the takeout option! That may seem daunting, but that’s why we’ve added some fantastic, easy and creative healthy Chinese recipes below to get you started!
Healthy Chinese Food Recipes
Salmon Rice Bowl – This colorful bowl of goodness is fresh, nutritious and tasty. Not only does it look beautiful when served up, but it is full of flavor and healthy ingredients. To make this recipe that extra bit special, use fresh, locally-sourced salmon, if possible. And if you can’t, you could always substitute the salmon for a local fish that’s easy to find where you live. The thing we love about this recipe is how quick and easy it is – all you need is one pan and a bowl!
Asian Pear Salad With Orange Ginger Dressing – As the name suggests, this salad is light, fresh and perfect for summer! If you’re a fan of sweet, crispy Asian pears, then this is definitely the recipe for you. This blogger has chosen the perfect mix of vegetables to accompany the pears, with zesty orange and ginger, crunchy cabbage and the strong, earthy flavor of shallots, to compliment the sweet fruit. This salad is so handy because it’s quick and easy, with no cooking needed. It’s also great to see the author offering an easy homemade dressing recipe, because we all know premade sauces and dressings are where the extra calories come from! This dish is a great light lunch option or side dish that would go well with chicken or fish.
Chinese Chicken Kale Salad With Peanut Dressing – You will never call salad boring again with this second fantastic salad option! This one is a better choice if you’d rather a savory and filling salad for lunch or dinner. It is absolutely bursting with colors and flavors, and the author suggests making sure you chop everything well so that you get a few different tastes in each bite.
The Ultimate Vegan Chinese Noodle Soup – You’re probably used to the traditional chicken noodle soup, but this satisfying vegan alternative offers all the same authentic Chinese flavors without the meat! It has everything, including flavor, tang, texture, and even a little spicy kick from the chili oil.
Spicy Vegan Chinese Eggplant – This recipe is full of different tastes and is a great comfort food. Obviously a far healthier option than spare ribs or sticky Chinese pork, this vegan alternative has all the intense flavors without the additives and calories, and also has a nice spicy kick to it. It also includes a pretty handy tip for handling spicy ingredients, especially if you accidentally get any in your eye!
Mongolian Beef With Brown Basmati Fried Rice – This quick, simple meal takes about as long to make as a Chinese takeout order will take to appear at your door. As the author admits, this recipe was born out of laziness, which is great news for us, because it means it is quick and simple! It helped her ditch the takeout option and satisfy her craving for Mongolian beef with a healthier homemade version. There are lots of Mongolian beef recipes floating around the internet but this one seems to be one of the better, more authentic versions, so enjoy!
Stir Fried Chicken With Pineapple And Pepper – This interesting blend of flavors is a creative take on the traditional sweet and sour Chinese takeout option, and far healthier! It is a nice quick meal that can be whipped up in about half-an-hour, making it a great weekday option. The author even offers some useful tips about the equipment and techniques needed to make the ultimate stir fry, which you can then use with any stir fry recipes in the future!
Lettuce Wraps With Five Spice Flank Steak And Peanut Sauce – These juicy, flavorful flanks take just 30 minutes to prepare, and the lettuce is a brilliant substitute for traditional Chinese pancakes. We had to include a recipe that featured mouthwatering Chinese Five Spice, and this is the perfect one. If you are unfamiliar with Chinese Five Spice, it includes cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and pepper, all ground together. There’s also another fantastic peanut sauce recipe included in this blog that you can re-use in other meals.
Easy Veggie Lo Mein – This food blogger used to work in a Chinese takeout restaurant and saw firsthand exactly what goes into those delicious, and sometimes addictive, meals. That’s why she has shared this easy and scrumptious low-sodium version of Lo Mein, without the excess fat and salt you would traditionally get. It’s a great recipe because you are free to use whatever fresh vegetables you happen to have in the house or whatever is in season.
Hot And Sour Soup – It takes just 15 minutes to whip up this flu-fighting tasty, tangy soup. It is low in both fat and calories, and is cheap and very simple to make. There are just eight ingredients that basically need to be chucked into a pot together – chicken stock, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, mushrooms, tofu, an egg and scallions (spring onions). And, despite being low-fat, it is warming and satisfying!
Pu-Erh Chocolate Brownies – We can’t finish without giving you a delicious, indulgent dessert recipe. This isn’t technically a traditional Chinese dish, but it offers a fantastic and creative use of some healthy Chinese ingredients, with an irresistible mix of chocolate and tea! Matcha, Earl Grey and Chai are often used in baking, but this blogger wanted to try Pu-Erh, and found that it was the perfect tea to use with chocolate. This recipe is moist, dense and tastes absolutely indulgent, but it is full of nutritious ingredients, including cocoa, tea and even spinach.