We’ve all got our favorite American adaptations of Chinese cuisine, even though they’re often far removed from the authentic dishes found overseas. Menu items in the U.S., like General Tso’s chicken, chop suey and fortune cookies, are still beloved by many because — no surprise — they taste so darn good.
“Chinese American food is comforting, consistent, affordable and filling,” said Rebecca Valdez, who is a registered dietitian nutritionist, or RDN.
Still, anyone looking to eat healthfully would be better off following traditional Chinese ways of eating, not American ones.
“It’s a common misconception that Chinese food is heavy and greasy and that the portions are oversized,” said Valdez, who is Taiwanese American. “This may be true for Chinese American takeout, but Chinese people don’t eat this way. We eat small amounts of rice from palm-sized bowls, lots of vegetables and a little bit of meat. Most of our food is not deep-fried or even cooked in a lot of oil.”
Sherene Chou, a Chinese American dietician, said establishments serving these cuisines have a positive impact in the U.S.
“While they’re often demonized for serving so-called unhealthy foods, I see Chinese restaurants as a celebration and an introduction to sharing Chinese flavors and dishes with white American culture,” she said. “Our foods can be a bridge to diving deeper into authentic Chinese regional cuisines.”
And even though the American version is not always authentic, it can still be enjoyed as a blast from your past. RDN Sherry Lin grew up as a self-described “restaurant kid” in a town 30 minutes outside Chicago.
“We served all the American Chinese food classics, including chop suey, egg foo young and crab Rangoon, which were things I never saw or ate growing up in Taiwan in my early childhood,” she said. “Now as an adult, I sometimes crave an egg foo young patty for nostalgia.”
How To Order A Better-For-You Chinese Meal
Breana Lai Killeen, a Chinese American registered dietician, said diners should be aware of how Chinese cuisine is meant to be ordered and enjoyed.
“Food is typically shared,” she said. “That’s why I always suggest getting a balance of dishes for the table. This way you can — and should — enjoy the dishes that might be fried or heavier alongside lighter dishes of vegetables and items that are steamed.”
Vicki Shanta Retelny, an RDN and the host of the podcast ”Nourishing Notes,” agreed that healthier choices are always possible at a Chinese restaurant.
“Many of the dishes are made with vegetables and lean proteins, and you can order them with whole-grain brown rice,” she said. “Since the sauces often are high in salt and sugar, order them on the side and drizzle them on yourself. Choose low-sodium soy sauce, too.”
RDN Amanda Frankeny had some tips as well. “Regardless of what you choose on the menu, it’s always smart to stick with a side of vegetables,” she said. “Or try vegetable bao, a steamed bun with a stack of veg sandwiched in between the pillowy bread.”
But you need to listen to yourself too, the experts added.
“Your best choice is whatever you’re craving, what’s filling and what hits the spot,” Valdez said.
“If you order your favorite dish, sink your teeth into every bit and don’t look back,” Frankeny said.
How Healthy Are The Most Popular Dishes?
We asked nutritionists to weigh in with their top picks among the most popular dishes found in the U.S., along with ordering suggestions.
Beef with broccoli: “I love the broccoli in this dish,” Retelny said. “I always recommend eating more cruciferous veggies.”
“Beef is a tasty, nutrient-dense meat that’s higher in fat than the lean alternatives like chicken, shrimp or tofu,” Frankeny said. ”But it definitely fits into a healthful diet, so mixing it with broccoli and a handful of brown or white rice makes the dish that balanced plate that every dietitian dreams of.”
Dumplings: RDN Amy Gorin suggested vegetable dumplings as a great option for vegan and vegetarian eaters.
“Overall, dumpling ingredients are relatively healthy,” Frankeny said. “Each bite is often a mix of protein, fiber, fat, possibly some vegetables and grains. You can also dip them in chili sauce instead of soy, and you’ll cut back on sodium.”
Hot-and-sour soup: “I grew up on hot-and-sour soup, and it’s still one of the things I reach for when I want a comforting meal or when I’m feeling under the weather,” Gorin said.
“Broth-based soups like this one go down easy, provide some nutrients, hydration and a feeling of fullness,” Frankeny said.
Scallion pancakes: “They’re a source of carbohydrates, which are energy-giving,” Frankeny said. “Balance them with a meal packed with vegetables and protein.”
“These were one of my favorite dishes growing up,” Gorin said. “They’re typically paired with a soy dipping sauce, so I like to keep reduced-sodium soy sauce at home and use that when I order takeout.”
Wonton soup: “This broth-based soup is low in fat and calories, but can be high in sodium,” Retelny warned. “Order a small bowl before the meal and share the wontons with your table.”
Nutritionists Share Their Personal Favorites
What do professional healthy eaters order for themselves at Chinese restaurants? Their answers may surprise you.
“It depends on my mood,” Gorin said. “Often, I’ll order steamed tofu and broccoli, with the sauce on the side. But I also love anything with rice noodles, and I almost always order a side of steamed or sauteed greens or veggies. I’m also a sucker for really good hot-and-sour soup.”
“I order items that I can’t easily make at home,” Valdez said. “So my top picks are egg rolls, because I love the crispy skin and cabbage or pork filling; ho fun, a stir-fried rice noodle dish that’s very comforting; and cashew chicken, because I like the sweet-savory combo.”
“I love ordering vegetarian mapo tofu, because it reminds me of my family,” Chou said. “It’s a traditional Sichuan dish, and that’s where my grandparents are from. The numbing Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil are what make the dish unique. I can eat it with rice every day.”
“I love to order steamed chicken and vegetables with brown rice and sauce on the side, or moo shu chicken with plum sauce on the side,” Retelny said.
Killeen’s order “depends on how many people are at the table,” she said. But she added that her family typically gets pan-fried pork dumplings, spareribs, stir-fried Chinese vegetables like choy sum, mapo tofu, black bean clams, salt-and-pepper shrimp, beef chow fun and Singapore noodles.
What About MSG?
While many still villainize MSG, which is commonly used in Chinese food, recent years have seen significant pushback against this impulse. Some people report short-term reactions like flushing, sweating and headaches after consuming the flavor enhancer, but researchers question the supposed link to MSG.
Valdez pointed to one major reason behind some people’s fear: “It’s racist,” she said, directing curious readers to a 2021 journal article titled “MSG Is A-OK: Exploring the Xenophobic History of and Best Practices for Consuming Monosodium Glutamate.”
“The science is pretty clear,” Killeen said. “Research fails to support the link between MSG and the side effects reported as ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome.’”
“The reason why the MSG controversy persists is solely because of xenophobia,” Lin said, “and a society that would rather blame and pinpoint a marginalized group for its problems or ailments, rather than look at updated facts.”
Chou agreed. “Nutrition information is shared through a Western lens, which often demonizes cultural foods,” she said.
“MSG is not demonized as an ingredient when used in common ‘American’ foods, but when you pair it with Chinese food, it becomes a dirty additive. It’s easy to demonize a people and culture when these narratives are associated. When we focus on just the ingredient and take out the racism, it’s a flavor enhancer that provides umami that many brands and companies use to build flavor.”