Whether you are a Chinese food lover, or just occasionally indulge for the novelty, at some point you might have wondered this: is Chinese food healthy? After all, it does seem like there’s a lot of vegetables in Chinese dishes. On the other hand, though, high temperature cooking and heavy seasoning are typical signs of unhealthy eating.
I, too, am wondering if my occasional feasting of Chinese food is good for me. So, to find a good answer to this question, I did some research online, in both English and Chinese sites. The funny thing is, even among Chinese people, this subject is under heavy debate. Some absolutely swore upon the health benefits of Chinese food compared to “western food”, while others offered irrefutable arguments on how eating too much Chinese food can be bad for you.
However, since Chinese cuisine is such a broad topic, it’s really difficult to judge by the quality of a few dishes. After my research, I decided to compile a list of benefits and caveats to summarize all that I have learned.
7 Health Sins of Chinese Cuisine
Many criticisms of Chinese cuisine focus mainly on calorie count. However, compared to this list of more pressing issues, calories is the least of our concerns. Here are seven culprits of Chinese food that undermine healthy eating:
One of the most common meal structures of Chinese food is “starch + dish”. The starch is usually some form of grains or potatoes, completely bland and free of salt. The dish can be a stir-fry, soup, stew, or salad, and is often made salty enough to supplement the bland starch. This combination grew out of necessity in the olden days, when the commoners had little access to salt and protein. The best way to stretch out whatever luxurious food they had was to eat a small portion of it along with a lot of cheaper staples.
The problem arises when salt and protein is no longer scarce, like where we are today. The portion of the “dish” doubled and tripled, but still remains salty according to tradition tastes.
Another “high-sodium trap” is noodle soup. To make the noodle taste flavorful, restaurants often add a lot of salt to the soup to awaken the taste buds. It tastes so good that you drink all the soup to the last drop, and your sodium intake just went sky high.
Pork belly, skin and organs are all common ingredients in Chinese cuisine. They are tasty for sure, and the offal contains a good amount of vitamins, but the extra cholesterol can add up pretty quickly. Fortunately most Chinese restaurants don’t carry these ingredients, with the exception of “twice-cooked pork” which often uses pork belly instead of the proper way, with pork shoulder.
Dependence on MSG
If you just had Chinese food and felt very thirsty, chances are they added a lot of MSG to your order. While MSG sensitivity is a major concern for some, the amount of sodium that comes with MSG may be even more harmful. Unlike sodium chloride (table salt), MSG doesn’t taste as salty, which sends the wrong signal to the body, making you believe that you aren’t eating much sodium.
Don’t get me wrong – a lot of natural-occurring food contains detectable amount of glutamates, and it’s one of the important amino acids required by our body. Though it’s unnecessary to use MSG in order to cook up a delicious Chinese meal, the true power of MSG comes when it’s combined with ingredients that contain Inosinates. For example, when I make a large pot of pork soup, a tiny pinch of MSG just blows the umami out of proportion. But if not used correctly, the taste induced by excessive MSG feels very unnatural, not to mention all the added sodium.
High Temperature Cooking
Stir-frying and deep-frying are both common cooking techniques in Chinese cuisine. Stir-frying in restaurants often requires very high temperatures to produce “wok hei”, a pleasant, savory fragrance from ignited tiny droplets of fat. A lot of potentially harmful substances are results of high temperature cooking. At this point there’s still no firm scientific proof whether these substances, such as styrene oxide or acrylamide, are actually carcinogenic at the normal rate of consumption; however, it’s still a good idea to be mindful of what you are eating.
Hot Liquid Consumption
A lot of Chinese people love to drink their liquid piping hot. This includes hot tea, soup, or even just plain hot water. Luckily this is not much of a concern in western countries, where cold beverages are more preferred, but I just want to bring to your attention the health risk of drinking hot liquid: it scorches your mucosa, and you might even end up liking it. The effect of drinking scorching water is similar to eating spicy food. The sense of burning causes your brain to produce dopamine to counter the pain, and it’s possible for you to get addicted to the dopamine rush. The difference here is that unlike moderately spicy food, hot liquid can cause permanent damage to the mucosa in the mouth and esophagus, resulting in scar tissue and even certain precancerous conditions.
Adding excessive amount of oil is a common practice with Chinese restaurants. Oil not only makes the food taste more satisfying, it also improves the appearance. Therefore what they usually do is adding a lot of oil to the hot wok before stir-frying, and when it’s done, again add more oil to make the ingredients look shiny and appealing. Sichuan cuisine is especially guilty of this practice. The health impact of consuming too much oil is different for each person, but one thing remains true for everyone: it’s completely unnecessary.
Low Quality Ingredients
In recent decades, Chinese restaurants are trending towards bigger and bolder flavors, using dried chili, spices, and fermented soybean products. There’s nothing wrong with bold flavors, but they are particularly good at masking any undesirable tastes. Some restaurants are taking advantage of this and reduce food cost by using expired ingredients, at the expense of diner’s health.
Let’s Look at Some Numbers
Before we move on, I will share some nutrition facts of a widely popular, authentic Chinese dish: Ma Po Tofu. The recipe calls for:
- 400 grams of tofu (equivalent to one standard 14-oz packaged tofu)
- 50 grams of ground beef, which typically contains about 7 grams of fat
- 30 grams of vegetable oil
- 15 grams of soy sauce, which contains roughly 1 gram of sodium
- 30 grams of fermented bean paste, which contains roughly 2 grams of sodium
- 2 grams of salt, which is roughly 800mg of sodium
So for a dish of Ma Po Tofu, if we eat the entire plate of food, sauce and all, we will consume in total:
- 36 grams of fat
- 3.8 grams of sodium
With the recommended daily limit of 1500mg (1.5 gram) of sodium, and 44-77 grams of fat, we are borderline OK with fat (though we are not counting in other meals of the day), but way over the limit for sodium.
Now, I may have made it sound like Chinese food is terrible for your health. But if you make sure to avoid those culprits, Chinese food can offer quite a few benefits to promote your health.
5 Health Virtues of Chinese Cuisine
Less Simple Carbs
Apart from some dishes from the regions around Shanghai, most Chinese food don’t use much sugar, even for desserts. Sugar has never played a big part of Chinese diet. Don’t be confused by the name “sweet and sour” in some authentic courses – they should be barely sweet, and mostly boasting the fragrance of dark rice vinegar. The same goes with milk and fruit usage – they just don’t exist in most recipes.
China has had a long history of consuming mix grains. Millet, corn, barley, legumes, can all incorporated in daily diet to replace all or part of refined starches like white rice and flour. The best part is, they actually taste good with Chinese recipes!
More Fiber Intake
In the US, our typical meal structure consists of a meat as center piece with a couple of small side dishes of grains and vegetables. This is influenced by French haute cuisine, something enjoyed by the rich and royal, where the meat is the main focus.
Chinese cuisine, on the other hand, puts meat and vegetables on an even playing field, usually with more vegetables than meat in a home-made dinner. One ruling philosophy of Chinese cooking is to mingle the flavors of all the ingredients, which results in a more complex new flavor. For example, one of the most basic stir-fry dish – pork strips with celery – elevates both ingredients by adding meat flavor to the celery and infusing the flavor of celery into pork. As simple as it sounds, it’s a quick and easy fixing and everyone will happily eat a big portion of veggies.
Variety of Ingredients
In my opinion, this is by far the most important advantage of Chinese diet. Though humans have lived as a farming civilization for thousands of years, our digestive system is still the same from the hunting-gathering age, and our body still benefits the most from a diet with many different food sources. Thanks to China’s diverse climates and robust farming culture, there are so many different ingredients at our disposal.
You might not be surprised to hear how almost every part of an animal can be used in Chinese food, since this tradition is shared by many cultures around the world. But how about every part of a plant? A quick example that comes to my mind is garlic. The bulb is used, of course. The young leaves can be sliced and added to soup or stir-fries as garnish. The scapes, which are the long, thick stem holding the flour, taste fresh and crispy, and caramelize beautifully in hot oil. I grew up eating a summer dish in which garlic scapes and pork are fried and briefly simmered with soy sauce, a delicacy I still try to revisit every year.
While American supermarkets carry at best two types of mushrooms, there are dozens of fungal species in Chinese recipes. Black woodears, snow fungus, oyster mushrooms, Mongolian button mushrooms, shitake, and trumpet mushrooms are just a small set of fungi that can be cooked into Chinese food. A diet rich in mushrooms offers great health benefits, not to mention they are very delicious.
Variety of Cooking Techniques
If you have eaten a lot in Chinese restaurants, you might be under the impression that most Chinese dishes are stir-fried. That’s because stir-frying is very easy and quick to churn out orders, which saves time and labor. In reality, Chinese cooking deploys many techniques uncommon in the Western world:
The list goes on and on. In fact, just stir-frying itself has six or seven variations depending on the temperature, duration, moisture level etc. You are certainly not limited to high temperature techniques if you want to cook some tasty Chinese food. The versatility allows you to cook anyway you want according to your preference and health needs.
State of Balance
Just like how traditional Chinese philosophy teaches Zhongyong (中庸) , or “Doctrine of the Mean”, Chinese cuisine focuses on achieving as much balance as possible. Each meal contains everything our body needs: protein, carbs, fats, fiber, minerals and vitamins, all in moderate and balanced quantities. Without being experts in nutritional science, a typical Chinese family designs their meals just like what the experts would suggest.
So, Is Chinese Food Healthy?
Now that we have gone through the opinions of others, I’ll give my own two cents on this subject.
Chinese food is more than just takeout
As a Chinese who grew up solely on Chinese cuisine, I have to say, first and foremost, that there’s nothing healthy about the “Chinese takeout”. Those dishes are designed to maximize sensual satisfaction with cheapest possible ingredients and cooking methods.
But Chinese cuisine is so vast and diverse! To say “all Chinese food is healthy/unhealthy” is like saying “Americans only eat hot dogs and burgers” (which happens to be a common misconception among Chinese). Not everything is stir-fried or deep-fried, and rice is not the only staple. Here’s the thing – no matter where on Earth, we are all sinners of unhealthy eating. We all love to satisfy the primal, instinctive desires for fat, salt, and sugar. And yet, we all share the same appreciation for balanced diet and the “good feeling” after a master-crafted meal.
Therefore, a better question to ask is probably “how to eat healthy with Chinese food?” I have a few suggestions on how to avoid some of the healthy-eating traps:
How to Eat Healthy with Chinese Food
- Treat the Americanized Chinese takeout as fast food. Just like the Big Mac, it’s OK to have it once in a while for the comfort, but definitely not too often. This includes General Tso’s Chicken, any fried rice, Chow Mein, or Egg Fuyong.
- Try to avoid any dishes labeled as “with black bean sauce”, if you are controlling your sodium intake.
- Some dishes like dumplings often come with sodium-heavy dipping sauces. Go easy on them! Or be like the northern Chinese people, who only dip dumplings in garlic and vinegar.
- Do NOT eat the sauce left in the dish, no matter how yummy it tastes. Most of the fat and sodium content of the dish are there!
- Soups from Chinese restaurants are often loaded with MSG.
- If you are watching your fat intake, don’t order any eggplant dishes. They are almost always deep-fried and then tossed in sauces with more oil, and eggplants are notoriously easy to soak up a lot of oil with their spongy structure.
- As a hotpot lover, the most healthy style of hotpot is “bland soup + dipping sauce on the side”. This way, you have full control of what you are eating. On the other hand, Sichuan style spicy hotpot is full of salt and oil which can easily cling onto vegetables.
- Breaded meats may contain higher calories than the unbreaded counterpart of same weight, if not fried properly. Unfortunately, to achieve easy crispy texture and save money, many Chinese restaurants religiously bread the meat when they aren’t supposed to. Make sure to clarify with the staff about breading if you are weight-watching.
Overall, the best way to enjoy Chinese food healthily is to learn about it. Such as, which ingredients each dish consists of, and how the ingredients are processed and handled. But don’t sweat it too much! As long as you only eat in moderation, and make sure to have a balanced diet, there’s nothing wrong with exploring the diverse landscape of Chinese cuisine.
One Aspect of Healthy Eating Overlooked by Experts
Looking over all the authoritative articles on healthy eating, everyone’s talking about calorie count, fiber, sodium, fat, cholesterol, vitamins… But what about happiness? Good food makes you happy as you cook it, munch on it, share with family, study its origins, and of course, blog about it! There’s no better medicine for your healthy than happiness. And this is exactly what Chinese cuisine is all about: taste, comfort, art, companionship, and joy. So yes, armed with knowledge and experience, you can eat Chinese food just as healthily as anything else around the world.