WASHINGTON — The typical Chinese restaurant menu is a sea of nutritional no-nos, a consumer group has found.
A plate of General Tso’s chicken, for example, is loaded with about 40 percent more sodium and more than half the calories an average adult needs for an entire day.
The battered, fried chicken dish with vegetables has 1,300 calories, 3,200 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of saturated fat.
That’s before the rice (200 calories a cup). And after the egg rolls (200 calories and 400 milligrams of sodium).
“I don’t want to put all the blame on Chinese food,” said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which did a report released Tuesday.
“Across the board, American restaurants need to cut back on calories and salt, and in the meantime, people should think of each meal as not one, but two, and bring home half for tomorrow,” Liebman said.
The average adult needs around 2,000 calories a day and 2,300 milligrams of salt, which is about one teaspoon of salt, according to government guidelines.
Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association, said that restaurants around the country were already making efforts to offer customers healthier choices. In particular, Chinese restaurants typically offer plenty of options for customers looking to steer clear of fried foods and heavy sauces, she noted.
"Restaurants have a responsibility to provide options and they do," said Weiss, but "customers also have a responsibility to understand their own dietary needs and know how to make special requests."
In some ways, CSPI's Liebman said, Italian and Mexican restaurants are worse for your health, because their food is higher in saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
While Chinese restaurant food is bad for your waistline and blood pressure — sodium contributes to hypertension — it does offer vegetable-rich dishes and the kind of fat that’s not bad for the heart.
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However — and this is a big however — the veggies aren’t off the hook. A plate of stir-fried greens has 900 calories and 2,200 milligrams of sodium. And eggplant in garlic sauce has 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.
“We were shocked. We assumed the vegetables were all low in calories,” Liebman said.
No safe harbor
Also surprising were some appetizers: An order of six steamed pork dumplings has 500 calories, and there’s not much difference, about 10 calories per dumpling, if they’re pan-fried.
The group found that not much has changed since it examined Chinese food 15 years ago. That’s not all bad, Liebman said.
“We were glad not to find anything different,” she said. “Some restaurant food has gotten a lot worse. Companies seem to pile on. Instead of just cheesecake, you get coconut chocolate chip cheesecake with a layer of chocolate cake, and lasagna with meatballs.”
The group says there is no safe harbor from sodium on the Chinese restaurant menu, but it offers several tips for making a meal healthier:
- Look for dishes that feature vegetables instead of meat or noodles. Ask for extra broccoli, snow peas or other veggies.
- Steer clear of deep-fried meat, seafood or tofu. Order it stir-fried or braised.
- Hold the sauce, and eat with a fork or chopsticks to leave more sauce behind.
- Avoid salt, which means steering clear of the duck sauce, hot mustard, hoisin sauce and soy sauce.
- Share your meal or take half home for later.
- Ask for brown rice instead of white rice.
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