The Forgotten Health Benefits of Chinese Food

The Lunar New Year celebrations may be over, but cooking and eating authentic Chinese food can help keep your healthy resolutions on track

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The dragons have retreated back into their basement storage, and the crowds in your local Chinese restaurant have finally died down — sure signs that the two-week-long Asian party known as the Lunar New Year has come to a close.

But don’t put those chopsticks away. In fact, why don’t you invest in a rice cooker and wok too? It’s time to make good on that flailing New Year’s resolution to eat healthy — and Chinese food, cooked and eaten authentically, can effortlessly get you back on track.

Japanese cuisine has dominated the health headlines for many years. And experts point out that Korean food is quite healthy too. But do you know how obscenely expensive sushi-grade fish is? Can you really count on your local Stop & Shop to carry Korean chili-pepper paste and dried anchovies? Chinese food, in contrast, isn’t precious. Its staples are available anywhere and make for a healthy, diet-conscious, portion-controlled meal. Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of many Chinese cookbooks, including Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, points out that as little as three-quarter pounds of chicken cut into strips, stir-fried with a few cups of broccoli and served with steamed rice will serve four to six people. Try divvying up that same amount of grilled chicken breast Western style and chances are your guests will scoff, even if you’ve fixed up a couple of side dishes.

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Chopsticks — which place far smaller bites in your mouth than a fork or spoon — may help keep portions down too. A 2008 Cornell University paper reported that healthy-weight guests at a Chinese buffet were three times likelier to eat with chopsticks than obese guests. Brian Wansink, the study’s lead author, has also observed that chopsticks users go back to the buffet table fewer times. “Chopsticks help people slow down,” he says. And when you slow down, your body’s satiety signals are given time to do their job.

Soup — a mainstay of any authentic Chinese family dinner — is also a satiety promoter. As Barbara Rolls, a Penn State psychologist and author, most recently of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet, points out, eating a broth-based soup before a meal can reduce food intake by about 20%. Last fall, a European Journal of Clinical Nutrition paper suggested that this is because soups — particularly the smooth sort — take longer to leave the stomach than solids.

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“But what about the white rice?” you might ask. True, the bowls are brimming. “But they’re also miniscule!” says Wansink, who, of course, is exaggerating, but only a little. The bowls I stole from my childhood home are utterly dwarfed by my Crate and Barrel purchases. No more than 100 or so calories of rice fit into them. And even if you go back for seconds, you probably won’t eat as much as if you started out with a larger bowl. “We tend to let exterior cues dictate how much we eat,” says Wansink, who later this year will be publishing Slim by Design, a follow-up to his successful first consumer book, Mindless Eating. (He also points out that plates in Chinese restaurants are about 9.5 in. to 10.25 in., as opposed to the standard 12-in. plate in most Western restaurants.)

If you can go with brown rice, more power to you. But it’s nice to know that with Chinese food, you’re eating loads of vegetables, ginger and possibly mushrooms with your carbs. More importantly, the meat will lower your glycemic load, and the fibers in your greens will keep your blood-sugar levels balanced. This means a more sustained feeling of fullness and energy, says Kantha Shelke, A food scientist at Corvus Blue, a nutritional-technology think tank in Chicago.

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If you cook and eat Chinese food authentically, you will also see why past reports about the mind-blowing salt and calorie content of Chinese takeout dishes misunderstand the cuisine. Yes, orange crispy beef has 1,500 calories — but it’s an atypical dish. The vast majority are steamed or lightly stir-fried, points out Farina Kingsley, the half-Chinese author of several Asian-themed Williams-Sonoma cookbooks who recently developed a Chinese-cooking app. Chinese recipes rarely call for more than two tablespoons of oil and soy sauce, and the oil is usually heart-healthy peanut oil.

According to Shelke’s calculations, if you cooked chicken breast authentic-Chinese style five days a week instead of American style, that would reduce your dinner each night by about 125 calories just through portion control alone. That’s 32,500 calories in a year — or almost 10 lb. by the time the Lunar New Year festivities roll around again. Now that’s something worth dragon dancing about.

PHOTOS: Year of the Snake: Scenes of Chinese Lunar New Year