The next time you're at a Chinese restaurant, back away from the fried rice and think twice about General Tso's chicken--many dishes are loaded with sodium, oil and carbs, says Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Hurley and Bonnie Liebman published "Chinese Restaurant Food: Wok Carefully," an analysis of options from national Chinese food chains, last year. Her picks for some of the worst offenders on the menu, as well as a few ways to make your meal a little healthier:
1 and 2. Fried rice and lo mein: "Those dishes are basically three quarters of a day's calories, and you're just getting four or five cups of white rice or white noodles with oil and a sprinkling of vegetables," Hurley says. They're especially dangerous because they're often served alongside people's main orders, she says, and deliver "not much more than a smattering of vegetables or protein from the meat." Hurley thinks people should steer clear entirely of the noodle dishes and instead focus on choices that'll deliver a few more nutrients, such as mixed vegetables or tofu.
3. Chow fun: This dish is made of wider rice noodles and might taste more healthy than lo mein, but it's not. "The noodles are thicker, but they're going to do the same damage to your belly and blood pressure as the lo mein," she says.
4. Crispy (orange) beef: Many meat-based menu items simply offer "hunks of fried meat," she says. "What you're getting is three quarters of a pound of deep-fried meat, garnished with vegetables," she says. The same goes for sweet and sour pork.
5. Lemon chicken: A plate of lemon chicken contains 1,400 calories, two thirds of a day's fat and no vegetables. "It's like eating three McDonald's McChicken sandwiches and a 32-ounce Coke," Hurley says.
6. General Tso's chicken: Though some restaurantgoers think chicken is a healthier option than pork and beef, it isn't necessarily. General Tso's chicken features breaded, deep-fried chicken chunks that are then soaked in sauce; Hurley and Liebman found that one plate has about 1,300 calories and half a day's worth of saturated fat—"so about the same as pork," Hurley says.
7. Barbequed spare ribs: These "appetizers" pack a punch—one plate of spare ribs carries two thirds of a day's worth of saturated fat and 600 calories. That's the same amount of calories as in two pork chops, Hurley says. "I don't think people would eat two pork chops as an appetizer, but they sure do eat four spare ribs," she says. Dumplings, steamed or pan-fried, are much more health-friendly, she says.
The best way to cut the sodium out of your Chinese restaurant meal is to opt for steamed vegetables, but that's no fun. Luckily, Hurley's quick to offer healthier and still-delicious options. Stir-fried dishes, such as shrimp with garlic sauce, Szechuan shrimp, moo goo gai pan and chicken with black bean sauce all contain less than 1,000 calories a plate, she says, and vegetarian dishes such as Buddha's Delight, stir-fried mixed vegetables, ma po tofu and Szechuan string beans also are healthier. Still, she cautions that these alternatives are all still heavy on the salt, so think about ordering the sauce on the side.