The Best Choices for Low-Carb Chinese Food

Best Choices and Dishes to Avoid

In This Article

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, most of the dishes seem to have at least some sugar and starch. Although it is entirely possible to eat a delicious controlled-carb meal in a Chinese restaurant, you'll need to be careful to make low-carb choices.

Low Carb Chinese Food
Verywell / Josh Seong

Planning Ahead for a Low-Carb Chinese Meal

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.

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.

If the restaurant has its menu online, browse for choices that will be lower in carbohydrates. You may even want to call the restaurant or message them to see their suggestions for a low-carb meal.

Variations in Chinese Food

Chinese food not only varies based on the region where a dish originated but also by where the restaurant is located. In different parts of the United States, you'll find variations in which dishes Chinese restaurants feature, as well as levels of sweetness, and condiments on the table. 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.

Safest Choices at a Chinese Restaurant

Make these your go-to low-carb items:

  • Black bean sauce: This does not tend to have as many carbs as some of the others, although there is a very small amount of beans in the sauce.
  • Clear thin soups: For instance, egg drop, is a better choice than other appetizers or thick soups.
  • Egg foo yung: This is another good choice, especially without gravy.
  • Meat and vegetable combinations: Dishes with thin, savory sauces can have fewer carbs and added sugar, perhaps 4 grams of carb for the whole dish. Examples would be chicken with mushrooms (in many places), 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.
  • Mongolian barbecue: For a different choice in Asian cuisine, Mongolian barbecue allows you to choose your meats and vegetables and prepare them to order without adding sugar or starch.
  • Mu shu: Enjoy without the wrappers as a low-carb choice.
  • Steamed food: Whole steamed fish or steamed tofu with vegetables, are a good substitute for those that are deep-fried.
  • Stir-fried dishes: These often have only a small amount of sugar or starch, perhaps a gram or two of carb per serving. You may ask whether they can leave out the cornstarch if they normally coat meat with it before stir-frying.
  • Walnut chicken: This dish is usually not made with starch or sugar.

High-Carb Chinese Foods to Avoid

When you see some items on the menu, you will know they are the ones higher in carbohydrates. But it's often hard to tell by looking at the menu which sauces have sugar in them, so it's good to know which to avoid either on the dish or as a dipping sauce or condiment.

Dishes
  • Breaded meats, such as in General Tso’s chicken

  • Egg rolls

  • Noodles, including chow mein, lo mein, and chow fun

  • Rice, including fried rice and steamed rice

  • Wontons, including the deep-fried type

Sauces
  • Duck sauce (orange sauce for egg rolls)

  • Hoisin sauce

  • Oyster sauce

  • Plum sauce (often served with mu shu)

  • Sweet and sour sauce

Dishes With Hidden Carbs

Keep these sources of added carbohydrates in mind as you order your meal.

Cornstarch

Thick soups and sauces are thickened with cornstarch. One tablespoon of cornstarch has about 7 grams of carbohydrates. In a platter of food with a thickened sauce, there will be about 1 to 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. A cup of hot and sour soup might have about a teaspoon of cornstarch (2 grams of carb).

Cornstarch is also often used to “velvet” meats before stir-frying. Meats prepared in this way don’t necessarily look breaded, as they have a very thin coat of starch. You may want to ask that the meat in your stir-fry be prepared without the cornstarch.

Buffet items are often dishes with sauces thickened with cornstarch, all the better to keep them warm on a steam table. Many others are deep-fried with a coating that has carbs.

Additional Carbohydrate Sources

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. Four whole water chestnuts have about 3 grams of effective carb. A 1/2 cup of slices has about 7 grams.

Asking for Low-Carb Preparation

Ask if it's possible to have a dish without sugar or starch. Your server may need to consult with the kitchen, but many restaurants will graciously comply with your request. In some cases, it won't be possible, but they may have a different suggestion to offer.

Another alternative is to ask for the sauce on the side. You'll be able to adjust the amount you want to add for flavor and thus reduce the carbs.

A Word From Verywell

Dining out on a low-carb diet presents different challenges with different cuisines. You are more likely to be able to stay within your eating plan if you do your research ahead of time and commit to selecting and requesting the lower-carb options. You may find new favorites and not miss the carb-laden ones you used to crave.

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