From unlimited deep-fried crab rangoons to endless chicken lo mein, a Chinese buffet can provide an opportunity for excess. The smorgasbord of Asian cuisine -- with a few American staples such as mac and cheese often mixed in as well -- might be a good value for your wallet, but it can be a disaster for your diet. Sidestep potential pitfalls by limiting your visits to the buffet serving line and choosing your favorite Chinese foods carefully.
With limitless food piled high at the buffet, your calorie consumption can quickly get out of bounds. Even served a la carte, Americanized Chinese food can be high in calories. According to a 2012 study in “Safefood,” the average number of calories in a typical Chinese meal tops 2,000. When you add in return trips to a buffet line, that number can rise even higher. Certain Chinese foods might seem healthy, but their high caloric content means that you should avoid them. For example, vegetable lo mein, despite being meat free, contains 200 calories per cup, according to “Shape” magazine.
A significant nutritional drawback of a buffet is the inability to special order food. Therefore, you’re subject to the whims of the cook, particularly when it comes to the amount of oil used in a dish. Items such as string beans marked as “dry sauteed” have actually been fried twice, according to WeightWatchers.com. Eggplant dishes are also troublesome because the often-healthy veggie soaks up oil. When you don’t know what the food is cooked in, you can have difficulty avoiding fat altogether, but you can make some educated guesses. Shrimp in lobster sauce and chicken with snow peas, for example, typically contain less fat than deep-fried proteins, such as sweet and sour chicken and orange chicken.
Soy sauce, a standard seasoning in Chinese food, packs approximately 1,000 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, according to the USDA Nutrient Database. This amount is nearly half of your daily allowance of 2,300 milligrams. You may add soy sauce at the table and it may already be part of the sauce of an entree. For example, a plate of General Tso’s chicken contains approximately 3,200 milligrams of sodium, according to CBS News. To avoid sodium overconsumption, look for dishes made without sauces, such as hibachi chicken or stir-fried vegetables.
Making Healthier Choices
You can dine at a Chinese buffet and leave without veering completely away from a healthy diet. Start by surveying your choices before loading your plate. A 2008 study published in “Obesity” found that 71 percent of normal-weight customers at a Chinese buffet browsed the buffet before making their selections, whereas just 33 percent of obese customers assessed their choices first. Begin your meal with broth-based won ton soup, which has just 100 calories per cup; soup before a meal can reduce your food intake by approximately 20 percent, notes Penn State psychologist Barbara Rolls. When you bring your food to the table, use chopsticks to eat it. The study from “Obesity” found that compared with diners who were obese, normal-weight customers were three times more likely to use chopsticks. The coordination required to eat with chopsticks will make you eat more slowly.
- Obesity: Eating Behavior and Obesity at Chinese Buffets
- WeightWatchers: Chinese Buffet
- Time Magazine: The Forgotten Health Benefits of Chinese Food
- Shape: 5 Low-Calorie Chinese Dishes and 5 to Skip
- CBS News: "Food Police" Slams Chinese Food
- USDA Nutrient Database: Soy Sauce
- Safefood: What is in Your Chinese Takeaway?
Kelsey Casselbury has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Penn State-University Park. She has a long career in print and web media, including serving as a managing editor for a monthly nutrition magazine and food editor for a Maryland lifestyle publication. She also owns an Etsy shop selling custom invitations and prints.