Low-Carb Eating in a Chinese Restaurant

Best Choices for Chinese Food and Dishes to Avoid

low-carb chinese food
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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.

Planning Ahead for Your Chinese Restaurant 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 carbohydrate. 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.

High-Carb Foods to Avoid

When you see these items on the menu, you will know they are the ones higher in carbohydrates.

Avoid these dishes:

  • 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

Identifying Sweet Sauces to Avoid

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. Avoid dishes that list them as a sauce and also steer clear of them as a dipping sauce or condiment. The amount you eat will govern the carb level, so if your meal just isn't the same without one of them, you'll have to choose how much to enjoy.

  • 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 – Hidden Carbs

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Cornstarch is also often used to “velvet” meats before stir-frying. Meats prepared in this way don’t necessarily look breaded, as it is a very thin coat of starch. You may want to ask that the meat in your stir-fry be prepared without the cornstarch.
  • 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 half cup of slices has about 7 grams.

    The Safest Choices at a Chinese Restaurant

    • Clear thin soups like egg drop, are better choices than other appetizers or thick soups.
    • Steamed food, including whole steamed fish or steamed tofu with vegetables, are a good substitute for those that are deep-fried.
    • Meat and vegetable combinations 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.
    • Stir-fried dishes 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.
    • Black bean sauce 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.
    • Mu shu can be enjoyed without the wrappers as a low-carb choice.
    • Walnut chicken is usually not made with starch or sugar.
    • Egg foo yung (without gravy) is another good choice.
    • 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.

    Asking for Low-Carb Preparation at a Chinese Restaurant

    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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