Dear whoever concocted food delivery and takeout: You are my God, my Lord and Savior. Your existence, whoever and wherever you may be, will live on forever in my deeply nourished heart.
Seriously, now more than ever, being able to enjoy professionally made, healthy takeout meals from the comfort and safety of our homes is a godsend, especially for anyone who typically relies on restaurants that are now closed, except for delivery and takeout.
However, seeing as many of us, stuck inside and possibly without work, are suddenly spending a lot more time on our couches, being prudent about what we order — and maybe not just ordering 40 pizzas — can help ensure that, when the coronavirus has finally passed, we can make an epic departure from our homes, looking fresh and healthy, as opposed to looking like Pizza the Hutt. As such, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank some frequently ordered takeout fare by how healthy they are — from potentially ultra balanced to almost always unhealthy as heck.
Before we jump into the ranking, I need to emphasize that, within just about every one of these options, you can find healthy dishes and unhealthy dishes — hell, you can order a salad from just about anywhere. Accordingly, this ranking is based upon how likely you are to end up with something healthy if you order like a normal person, and not someone who orders freaking salad for takeout. And even then, Hunnes notes, “All restaurant foods will have more salt than what you might make at home, thereby potentially decreasing their healthfulness.” Good to know!
Now come quickly, so I can figure out what to order for tonight before I get hangry.
1) Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese Takeout (tied): If you tend to order orange chicken and deep-fried wontons, these being at the top of our list may come as a surprise. But as Hunnes explains, “Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, aside from their salt, have the highest likelihood of being most healthful due to lots of steaming, lots of soups and them being low in animal protein.” To explain her thinking further, steaming is one of the healthiest methods of cooking, because it requires very little added fats, such as those in cooking oils, and typically preserves nutrients better than other, high-heat cooking methods.
Soups, like pho, meanwhile, are often the staple of any healthy diet, as they tend to be balanced with an array of vitamins and minerals, and they can be quite satiating without contributing too many extra calories. As a result, people who regularly consume soups tend to consume fewer calories overall than people who steer clear of the brothy stuff.
Likewise, these Asian cuisines being lower in animal proteins translates broadly to fewer unhealthy fats, fewer calories and a wider assortment of nutritious vegetables. Therefore, Asian cuisines in general are known for being high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, while low in unhealthy saturated and total fats. This is one of the main reasons why many health professionals believe Asian people are able to dodge chronic diseases and live longer than people of many other origins.
4) Sushi Takeout: “Sushi can be healthy,” Hunnes says. “I still like to recommend brown rice and vegetarian options wherever possible, but fish oil can be anti-inflammatory. They just come with a risk of possible plastic residues and them not being sustainable.” More specifically, fish contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and less artery-clogging saturated fat than other meats. But unless you make an effort, sushi can be lacking in vegetables, the heartbeat of every healthy diet, so just make sure to include greens wherever possible.
5) Indian Takeout: Hunnes says Indian food leaves tons of room for vegetable-based options and boasts “lots of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices,” most notably turmeric, which is often regarded as one of the most powerful healing spices out there. Because Indian food can be so flavorful, however, Hunnes warns that it can be especially “high in salt,” too much of which can be bad for your heart. Nonetheless, there are loads of good, healthy Indian takeout options.
6) Mediterranean Takeout: Hunnes says Mediterranean food tends to consist of healthy whole grains, is low in fatty dairy products, is “low-ish” in animal products and contains lots of healthy beans and hummus. During MEL‘s ranking of meat alternatives, Hunnes waxed poetic about beans, saying, “These, of course, are all-natural, full of healthy protein and fiber and contain no added salt. One hundred grams of beans have around 21 grams of protein (some have more, some have slightly less), whereas 100 grams of chicken has 30 grams. So for anyone concerned about protein content, beans and legumes (pulses, as they’re called in other countries) are great.”
So really, anything with lots of beans is a good bet. And as many of us know, Mediterranean food has long been an example of a truly healthy diet, with loads of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with small portions of meat and fish.
7) Mexican Takeout: Hunnes puts Mexican takeout here, but notes that its place on our ranking is questionable, in part because Mexican food, perhaps more than any other, can come in so many shapes and forms, ranging from fast food to street vendors to upscale restaurants, all of which clock in at vastly different levels of healthiness. Still, in many cases, Mexican meals come laden with added sodium and saturated fat, largely because of the fried tortillas, sour cream, cheese (in Tex-Mex, at least) and the frequently zealous use of lard. As such, Hunnes recommends sticking with bean-heavy and vegetarian options when you order Mexican takeout (and I recommend getting margaritas, too, because takeout booze is a thing now).
8) Italian Takeout: Because we have pizza living in a category of its own, this section is largely devoted to pasta, and Hunnes says, “There can be several healthy, plant-based options, but pastas tend to be made of white flour.” White flour is essentially straight carbohydrates without any nutritional value, which means all calories, no nutrition. So even if you do go for, say, a veg-heavy ratatouille pasta, the noodles themselves will still be largely unhealthy. On the plus side, pastas often come in large quantities, so if you have more willpower than I do, you might be able to pack some away for later.
9) Pizza and Burger Takeout (tied): “I lump these together because meat and dairy are not so healthy,” Hunnes says (red meat in particular is a heart destroyer). Now, pizza certainly has the potential to be healthy, much healthier than burgers do. In fact, several dietitians have taught me how to make a pizza healthy enough to eat every single day. But the day I order a takeout pizza made of cauliflower and egg whites is the day that my mind has officially entered some alternate reality where all sense has been lost.
So there you have it. Again, before I get any death threats for ranking your favorite takeout low on this list, remember that this ranking is based on generalizations and assumptions of what you may or may not order, and takes into account that there are healthy and unhealthy options within just about every cuisine. And again, as I just explained, even the lowest foods on our list have the potential to be somewhat healthy if you order in a certain way.
Nonetheless, order what you want, and even if that means a massive burger, hell, you certainly deserve it for having to live in a cruddy time like this.