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Low-Carb Eating in a Chinese Restaurant

Your Guide to the Chinese Menu

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Updated April 04, 2014

low carb chinese food

Low-Carb Chinese Food

Photo © Hywit Dimyadi
From the spicy food of Szechuan and Hunan to the more subtle flavors of Canton, Chinese food tends to present somewhat of a challenge for low-carb diners. Besides the rice and noodles, the majority of the dishes seem to have at least some sugar and starch. Although it is perfectly possible to eat a delicious controlled-carb meal in a Chinese restaurant, the diner must be careful.

Before You Go

Before heading out to the restaurant, it is important to make some decisions about how strict you’re going to be in regards to carbohydrates. If you are on a moderate-carb plan, then you probably don’t need to worry too much about a little cornstarch in a dish. On the other hand, if you are in a restrictive diet phase, such as Atkins Induction, you will want to be more “pure” in your low-carb eating. On the other hand, if low-carb eating has become a permanent way of eating for you, occasional, structured, planned deviations are probably going to be part of your life. You just have to decide when those times and places are going to be. Some people make Chinese restaurants such a planned deviation.

Variations in Chinese Food

Chinese food not only varies based on where in China the food originated, but according to where the restaurant is located. Featured dishes, levels of sweetness, and condiments on the table are different, for example, in various parts of the United States. This makes it hard to find strict rules about menu choices. Kung Pao Chicken may be relatively low-carb in one place, and loaded with sugar in another. However, some guidelines will help you in making selections. Here are the basics of eating out low-carb in Chinese restaurants:

Foods to Avoid

  • Rice, including fried rice and steamed rice
  • Noodles, including chow mein, lo mein, and chow fun
  • Wontons, including the deep-fried type sometimes on tables
  • Breaded meats, such as in General Tso’s Chicken
  • Egg rolls

Sweet Sauces

It’s often hard to tell by looking at the menu which sauces have sugar in them, but these sauces generally will have quite a bit. Obviously the amount you eat will govern the carb level:
  • Sweet and sour sauce
  • Duck sauce (the orangish sauce for egg rolls in some places)
  • Plum sauce (often served with mu shu)
  • Oyster sauce
  • Hoisin sauce

Proceed With Caution

  • Thick soups and sauces are thickened with cornstarch. One tablespoon of cornstarch has about 7 grams of carb. In a platter of food with a thickened sauce, there will be about 1 to 2 tablespoons of corn starch. A cup of hot and sour soup might have about a teaspoon of corn starch (2 grams of carb).
  • Cornstarch is also often used to “velvet” meats prior to stir frying. Meats prepared in this way don’t necessarily looked breaded, as it is a very thin coat of starch.
  • Some Chinese dishes are quite sweet. If it’s a dish you’ve had before, your taste buds will be your guide. If not, ask. Spicy sauces are apt to have sugar in them, so ask about this. Lemon chicken almost always has a lot of sugar.
  • Water chestnuts are somewhat starchy, but a few slices aren’t a big deal. 4 whole water chestnuts have about 3 grams of effective carb. ½ cup of slices has about 7 grams.

The Safest Choices

  • Clear thin soups like egg drop, which is usually thin
  • Steamed food, including whole steamed fish or steamed tofu with vegetables.
  • Meat and vegetable combinations with thin, savory sauces (a small amount of sugar may be added, perhaps a teaspoon (4 grams of carb) for the whole dish. Examples would be (in many places) chicken with mushrooms, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Szechuan prawns, and curry chicken. Again, use your eyes and taste buds to figure whether the sauce is sweet and/or thick.
  • Stir-fried dishes without sugar or starch (normally there may be a small amount, perhaps amounting to a gram or two of carb per serving)
  • Black bean sauce does not tend to be carby as some of the others (there is a very small amount of beans in the sauce)
  • Mu Shu without the wrappers
  • Walnut chicken is usually not made with starch or sugar
  • Egg Foo Yung (without gravy)
  • Mongolian Barbeque, while not Chinese, is near to it. It is a good choice, as you can choose your own meats and vegetables and prepare them to order
Practice saying the following sentence: “Is it possible to have this dish without sugar or starch?” Many (but not all) restaurants will do this for you. An alternative is to ask for the sauce on the side.

An Excellent Example

This review of the chain P.F. Chang's on the Low Carb Luxury site is a great example of how to find your way around a Chinese menu.
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