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Chinese Restaurants: Good News, Bad News

A typical meal at a Chinese restaurant is rich in vegetables and has little saturated fat. That's the good news.

But the Center For Science In The Public Interest has issued a new report finding popular Chinese restaurant meals can also contain an entire day's worth of sodium -- in some cases two days' worth.

In their report, Wok Carefully, CSPI nutritionists Bonnie Liebman and Jayne Hurley put the numbers in context, point out that people eating 2,000 calories a day should limit their daily intake to 20 grams or less of saturated fat and 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium. (2,300 mg is equivalent to one teaspoon of salt.)

African Americans, anyone middle-aged or older, and people with high blood pressure should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.

After analyzing typical menus, the nutritionists came up with the following analysis. The numbers do not include rice (200 calories per cup).

Appetizers An order of six steamed pork dumplings has 500 calories, so each one has about 80 calories. (Steaming, as opposed to pan-frying, saves surprisingly few calories, only about 10 per dumpling.) An Egg Roll has twice the calories of a Spring Roll (200 versus 100). An order of four BBQ Spare Ribs has 600 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat, and 900 mg of sodium, making it the unhealthiest Chinese appetizer CSPI analyzed.

Vegetables Eggplant in Garlic Sauce has 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium. Szechuan String Beans or Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables, sometimes called Buddha's Delight, cuts the calories roughly in half (600 and 500 calories, respectively).

Shrimp Shrimp dishes are among the healthiest choices on Chinese restaurant menus, according to CSPI. Szechuan Shrimp and Shrimp with Garlic Sauce each have about 700 calories; Shrimp with Lobster Sauce has only 400. But like almost everything else on the menu, these dishes have too much sodium, ranging from 2,300 mg to 3,000 mg.

Chicken Lemon Chicken, which is battered, deep-fried, and served with a sugary yellow sauce, has 1,400 calories and 13 grams of saturated fat. CSPI says that's like eating three fried McChicken sandwiches plus a 32-oz. Coke at McDonald's. Chicken with Black Bean Sauce has half the calories (700) but more sodium (3,800 mg) than any other dish CSPI analyzed.

Beef Orange (or Crispy) Beef has 1,500 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, and 3,100 mg of sodium. Unfry the beef and add a heaping portion of broccoli, and the dish loses more than a third of its calories. Beef with Broccoli has about a half-pound of broccoli, which helps cut the calories to 900.

Noodles and Fried Rice Most of these are "a load of greasy, refined carbs," says CSPI. The group's test of Chicken Chow Foon (also called Chicken Chow Fun) found that it was fairly similar to the Lo Mein and Fried Rice tested in years past. All weigh in at 1,100 to 1,500 calories and 2,700 to 3,600 mg of sodium.

"Many people recall the surprising things we reported in 1993 about Chinese dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and House Lo Mein, and those dishes certainly haven't gotten any better," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But let's also give credit where credit is due. Many Chinese entres are loaded with healthy vegetables and lean shrimp or chicken. However, when it comes to sodium, there's no real safe harbor on the Chinese restaurant menu."

"My basic advice to diners is this: Stick with the veggie-rich and stir-fried shrimp or chicken dishes, steer clear of the entres that are basically deep-fried meat or chicken in sauce, and don't waste your calories on greasy noodles and fried rice," said Liebman.

"Leaving some of the sauce behind on the platter and taking home a doggie bag can further help keep a lid on both the calories and the salt."

Other ways of limiting salt include skipping soups (which typically have about 1,000 mg per bowl), going easy on dipping sauces, and not adding extra soy sauce at the table, according to CSPI. Chinese restaurants are also used to accommodating special requests like serving sauces on the side, or lightly sauting as opposed to deep-frying chicken in popular items like General Tso's Chicken.

Getting brown rice instead of white rice adds extra nutrients.

"In addition to cutting back on sodium, I'd like to see Chinese restaurants more regularly offer brown rice as an alternative to white rice," said Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health. "Brown rice is a better source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals."

"Sodium is relatively high in some Chinese food, which increases the risk of hypertension and stroke," said Dr. Jiang He, chair of the department of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "I urge Chinese restaurants to cook with less salt and to offer reduced-sodium soy sauce."

Prominent D.C.-area restaurateur Larry La, whose Meiwah restaurant is a favorite of former President Bill Clinton, notes that he offers a selection of steamed or lightly sauted items served with sauces on the side for those patrons who want to curb calories and salt. La also offers brown rice.

"I want to give my customers what they want, and many tell me they are looking for healthy options for their families," said La. "Providing those options is not only good for my customers, it's good for my business."