How to Make Healthy, Lower-Calorie Vietnamese Food

healthy Vietnamese spring rolls on plate

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Vietnamese fare is usually filled with fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables, so there are plenty of diet-friendly options to choose from. But diners who are counting calories should be careful to choose dishes that are made using the healthiest preparation methods to keep their diets on track.

Healthy Vietnamese Food Tips

Need more help navigating the Vietnamese food menu? Here are a few more tips to make your meal healthier.

  • Choose grilled items: Grilled vegetables on skewers are a good alternative to traditional barbecued spare ribs.
  • Watch for caramel: Caramel sauce is typically listed as nuoc mau on Vietnamese menus. This sauce is high in sugar and calories. Dishes that have been simmered may sound healthy, but the addition of this sugary sauce makes them less so.
  • Look for soups: Soups that contain lots of vegetables to increase your fiber intake. They will help you feel fuller and prevent you from overeating on other foods during your meal.
  • Watch portions: When eating family-style, you experience a wider variety of foods, but be careful about portion control. Choose a roast, rice or noodles, a simmered dish and/or a steamed dish to share among the entire table. Leave off the deep-fried choices.
  • Share food: The best way to decrease the calories in any restaurant meal is to share the food. Vietnamese food is especially easy to enjoy "family style." Split the plate when it arrives or ask your server to split it ahead of time. If dining solo, or if no one wants the dish you select, ask that half of it be packed up to take home before it even hits your table.

Items to Choose and Avoid

The next time you visit a Vietnamese restaurant, scan this quick list of menu items to choose and those to avoid before you place your order. Recommended items tend to be lower in calories, while others tend to pack the biggest caloric punch.

Opt For
  • Steamed or simmered dishes

  • Lean, roasted meat or fish

  • Salad rolls, spring rolls, or summer rolls (steamed)

  • Canh chua soup

  • Vietnamese bouillabaisse

  • La sa ga or laa pho soup

  • Grilled vegetable skewers

Limit/Pass On
  • Fried dishes (e.g. deep-fried spring rolls)

  • Spare ribs

  • Xao gung (stir-fry pork, shrimp or chicken with sugar to caramelize)

  • Caramel sauce

Healthier Versions of Pho

One of the most popular Vietnamese foods is pho. This traditional street food is a soup made from broth, rice noodles, and meat, seafood, or tofu. You might see pho made with steak (phở tái), brisket or meatballs (phở bò), prawns (phở tôm), mushrooms (phở nấm rơm), or chicken (phở gà). The variations are endless.

The calorie count of pho varies based on the ingredients and the portion size, but it can range from around 300 calories per bowl to 450 calories or more. It is usually low in fat if it is made with lean meat (like chicken) but higher in fat if it is made with fattier meat like beef. Pho may also contain high amounts of sodium. 

If you go to a restaurant that allows you to customize your pho, choose ingredients that are full of fiber (plenty of vegetables) and lean meat to keep yourself full and satisfied.

You can also ask your server to cut back on the noodles, which are higher in carbohydrates. And if you are watching your calories, choose a smaller sized bowl of pho to keep your food intake moderate.

Lastly, choose your garnishes carefully. Spicy garnishes like peppers will add heat to your dish and may help you to eat less. But some of the sauces and garnishes in Vietnamese cuisine can be high in sugar and salt, adding some flavor, but very little nutritional value to your meal.

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