Fiery curry, rich peanut sauce, bold fish sauce and creamy coconut milk are a few of the strong flavors common to Thai food. Unfortunately, these delights may often come overflowing with calories, sodium and unhealthful saturated fats. Depending on the specific dish, your plate might be loaded down with excess carbohydrates, too.
Have no fear: Smart restaurant ordering or a few simple tweaks at home may give you both delicious taste and good nutrition in one satisfying meal. Here are my tips – with the help of registered dietitian Phoowanai Ektheerachaisakul, an expert in both nutrition and Asian cuisine – for wholesome, diabetes-friendlier Thai food. (Be sure to check with your diabetes care team before making any changes to your meal plan.)
Lower-fat and lower-calorie soups and salads may add bulk to a meal without a lot of excess calories. Ektheerachaisakul’s favorite healthful soup is tom yum goong, a spicy, broth-based lemongrass soup with shrimp.
When choosing a salad, stick with fresh fruits and vegetables, and ask for the dressing on the side. Other healthful starters are steamed dumplings and the Thai summer roll. Share with a friend, so you don’t fill up and use your carbohydrate and calorie budgets before your entrée arrives.
Choose a light and lean entrée
Stir-fries or “over-rice” dishes tend to be lower in calories and fats than many other entrees. Ektheerachaisakul recommends pad kra pow, which is made with a stir-fry basil sauce, and pad khing, made with a stir-fry ginger sauce. Choose chicken, beef, seafood and tofu, but skip the fattier duck. Steamed poultry, beef and fish dishes are also good choices, but curries and others with coconut milk may be rich in saturated fats. If curry is on your must-have list, order one dish to share with the entire table or take the majority home to eat at other times. Whatever you order, be sure to include lots of nonstarchy vegetables like cabbage, carrots, broccoli, eggplant and mushrooms to boost flavor and nutrition without many calories or carbs.
Next choose one portion total of rice or noodles, but not both or your carb count will surely go too high. (And don’t forget count any noodles or rice that are part of other dishes.) For a whole-grain option, order brown rice as many Thai restaurants now offer it in addition to their more traditional jasmine rice.
Get comfortable with personalized requests
- Some chefs prepare stir-fry dishes with butter, lard or coconut oil. Ask that yours be cooked with liquid oil – like vegetable or canola oil – instead. (Learn more about cooking oils if you live with diabetes.)
- Both fish sauce and soy sauce are rich on flavor but also heavy on sodium. Ask that your meal be prepared with as little as possible.
- Dip lightly into peanut sauce on the side instead of allowing it to cover your food.
- Request a takeout container to portion out just the right amount of food. Take the rest home for another meal or meals.
Go halfway with takeout
To keep calories, sodium, carbs and unhealthy fats in check, pick up a soup or an entrée to eat at home with other foods. For example, enjoy a portion of your Thai entrée with a mixed greens salad you prepare in your own kitchen. Or slurp your saltier restaurant soup at home as a starter to a lower-sodium salmon or chicken dish you’ve already cooked.
Cooking Thai food at home
Home is where you have the most control of the ingredients included in your meals. Focus on the sodium-free and low-calorie seasonings common in Thai food such as lemongrass, coriander, ginger, citrus, turmeric and Thai basil. (Read more tips for adding spice and flavor to your dishes.)
If preparing curry, stir in light coconut milk to trim down the saturated fats. In any dish, use a light hand with soy sauce and fish sauce to cut sodium.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE*, FAND, is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week by Week, The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition and 21 Things You Need to Know about Diabetes and Your Heart. She is contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition, and has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Diabetes Forecast and Kids Eat Right. She has a private practice in Newport News, VA. Weisenberger is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, 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.
© 2016 The DX: The Diabetes Experience