Because of its emphasis on vegetables instead of meats, Asian food has a reputation for being healthful. Although, here in the US, many Chinese, Thai, and other Asian restaurants have Americanized their menus by using large portions of meat, cooking in extra oil, and including only a small portion of veggies. Whether you eat out or are a home cook who has mimicked this trend in your own kitchen, these five ways to make better-for-you Asian food will give you the best this cuisine has to offer with all the good taste intact.
Order what you’ll eat, and not extra!
This is my rule number one for Asian cuisine. When dining out, order fewer dishes than there are diners at the table. Three dishes between four or five people should be plenty. When you’re in a restaurant, eat more slowly by using chopsticks; consider trying this trick at home as well.
Double the veggies
In restaurants, either ask for extra vegetables to be added to a dish or, if you’re sharing, order a separate all-vegetable selection, such as stir-fried bok choy or steamed string beans to mix into a meat-containing entrée. At home, put vegetables center stage, and use meat as a flavorful condiment. Instead of cooking a pound of chicken, beef, or fish for a family of four, save money, fats, and calories by using just half as much meat and replacing the rest with your favorite vegetable. Another great veggie tip: add mushrooms to your meal. Mushrooms are rich in umami, a taste sensation that provides a rich, meaty flavor without the meat. Try it in lettuce wraps or Korean barbecue.
Watch out for sodium
Asian food can be packed with salt. This can be tough to trim in restaurants, but asking that your food be prepared without MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer, is a good start. Aside from that, order sauces on the side, and then season to taste, using only enough for flavor. At home, use reduced-sodium versions of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chili sauce. For something delicious and much lower in sodium, dilute soy sauce with an equal amount of water and spice it up with minced garlic and ginger (delicious either fresh or in jars).
Find the hidden fats and carbs
Start by paying attention to the size of your rice serving. A single cup contains 45 grams of carbohydrate, and many restaurants serve much more than a cup. If your meal plan doesn’t allow for that much carbohydrate, ask for only one rice bowl for every two diners. Watch out for sauces too. Plum, duck, sweet and sour, and Chinese barbecue sauces are all carb-heavy. And make sure to read the menu with a critical eye. The terms “crispy,” “battered,” “deep-fried,” and “basted” usually mean high fat, high calories, or both. You might be surprised to learn that General Tso’s Chicken is fried. Finally, “sweet and sour” dishes are both fried and covered in a sugary sauce.
If you’re eating at a chain restaurant, check its menu and nutrition information online; a smartphone app, such as GoMeals®, will even allow you to do this on the go. That can help you make decisions about what you should eat or the questions you may want to ask the server before you even walk through the door. At home, keep all the fixings for DIY healthful Asian food on hand, and you can always whip up a quick, healthy, and tasty meal. Here are my top choices to keep stocked in your kitchen:
- Frozen stir-fry vegetables
- Reduced-sodium teriyaki and soy sauces
- Rice vinegar
- Light coconut milk
- Sesame oil (a little goes a long way!)
- Garlic (fresh or jarred)
- Ginger (fresh or jarred)
- Red chili peppers
- Spicy mustard
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE* is contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition and has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Her Sports + Fitness, and LifeScript. Jill Weisenberger is a paid contributor for the The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.
© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience