I once professed my undying love for downing liquor and then eating enough Chinese takeout to feed the Pentagon. But a man can only handle so much, and I had to make some serious lifestyle changes.
So I stopped ordering crab rangoons — a huge loss, I know.
Despite this considerable sacrifice, there are still times when I feel like I could swap out even more of my usual order with healthier dishes. So I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank popular Chinese takeout items by how unhealthy they are — from okay to sodium-induced death bomb.
Before I get started, though, I should note that Hunnes mentions that each one of the following dishes tends to be remarkably high in sodium, and some of them are deep-fried, a cooking method that results in more calories and heartbreaking trans fats.
Now that I feel personally attacked, we can get to our ranking.
1) Hot and Sour Soup: Number one on our ranking, Hunnes says the biggest benefit of hot and sour soup is the relatively low number of calories. There are several variations, most of which are made with some kind of meat-based broth and a sprinkling of tofu. Hunnes again emphasizes that this soup is often high in sodium, which is obviously something to be careful about. But on the plus side, it might sport some button mushrooms that provide a whole bunch of essential vitamins and minerals.
2) Kung Pao Chicken: Hunnes explains that kung pao chicken is fried — with peanuts, vegetables and a brown (spicy) sauce — in scalding hot oil while being stirred in a wok. Again, she mentions that this dish contains too much salt, but that’s something we can assume about virtually every item in our ranking. Otherwise, Hunnes says the ingredients are mostly healthy. “You get healthy satiating fats from the peanuts and fiber from the vegetables,” she explains.
3) Steamed Dumplings: “Dumplings are typically a steamed white flour dough filled with vegetables, or more often, meat of some type,” Hunnes explains. “These are ‘healthier’ because they’re steamed — as opposed to fried — and often lower in sodium. However, depending on what they’re filled with, they might not be so healthy, because they’re white flour and meat, which as we know from my previous remarks, aren’t so great for us.” White flour is almost completely devoid of nutritional value, and meat can cause heart problems. “Also, if dipped into a lot of soy sauce or another salty sauce, that may negate the healthfulness of the item achieved from the steaming process,” Hunnes adds.
4) Chow Mein: Hunnes tells me she wishes she could put chow mein higher on this ranking, since it has the capacity to be a vegetarian dish. But the fact is, the noodles are made with white flour, and the brown sauce is high in sodium. “It does have some vegetables,” Hunnes says, before definitively stating that chow mein is still unhealthy and high in calories.
5) Egg Rolls and Crab Rangoons (tied): Hunnes creatively deems both of these items “deep-fried dough skins,” which means unhealthy trans fats. Still, I’ve never craved a crab rangoon more than I do in this moment. “An egg roll, if vegetarian and eaten as an appetizer — that means one egg roll — isn’t so bad as a small bite,” Hunnes explains. “But if several egg rolls or rangoons are eaten, these deep-fried white doughs are high in calories and low on the list.”
7) Beef and Broccoli: “I usually order tofu with broccoli, because I’m plant-based and prefer to eat vegetarian dishes,” Hunnes says (again, beef contributes to the development of heart disease). “That makes this a healthier dish. But at least the broccoli is a cancer-reducing food and full of fiber. This dish is still too salty, though.”
8) Shrimp Fried Rice: “There’s more [white rice] in this dish than vegetables or shrimp,” Hunnes says — similar to white flour, white rice is relatively low in nutrition. “I mean, it’s definitely not the worst item on the menu, but it’s also not the best. It might provide a little fiber from the few pieces of vegetables, but it’s mostly a carbohydrate-rich dish — simple carbohydrates from the white rice. It at least typically doesn’t go overboard on animal proteins, but it’s still heavy in salt.”
9) Sweet and Sour Pork: When I ask Hunnes about this dish, she first says, “I’ve seen worse.” Which… there is a 10th place on this list, hint, hint. But sweet and sour pork is still pretty unhealthy. “This is lightly fried with a light batter, and then has a salty-sweet sauce on it, which is both too high in salt and may be relatively high in calories overall,” Hunnes explains. “Pork is basically red meat, so I urge people to limit their intake of pork products.”
10) Orange Chicken: I just fainted, because I couldn’t handle one of my favorite items being on the bottom of this ranking. But let’s man up, Ian, c’mon. Hunnes says orange chicken is “deep-fried chicken bits in a sweet sauce. So you have two not-so-great things going for you: The deep frying, which makes this more dough than chicken, and the sweet sauce, which adds a lot of sugar to the dish, making for a relatively high calorie and salty dish.”
Welp, sounds like I’ll just have to settle for liquor and soup this time around. *takes tequila shot, calls Chinese restaurant and asks for 12 orders of rangoons*