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Betsy Berthin R.D., L.D.
There probably isn't a city in United States that doesn't by now have the whole panoply of ethnic restaurants. And we're not just talking the old stand-by Chinese or Mexican place. Now it's not uncommon to find Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants in the most unlikely places.
Loaded with vegetables, legumes, tofu, and herbs and spices often absent from American restaurant food, ethnic cuisine can seem like a natural, "healthy" alternative. But beware: It often also comes with its share of unwanted fat and calories.
Here are some things to be on the lookout for when ordering ethnic food.
On the plus side, Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Korean food incorporates lots of vegetables and tofu (a great low-fat protein alternative). Moreover, peanut oil (a mostly unsaturated fat) is generally the oil of choice for stir-fries. On the negative side, however, East Asian cuisine is no stranger to fried food, high-calorie sauces and sodium -- all bad for the heart and your skinny jeans. Your best bet is to keep an eye out for these words on a menu: steamed, broiled, stir fried and "low sodium." Good choices are: steamed whole fish; stir-fried chicken or shrimp and vegetables; moo shu chicken or shrimp; satay (grilled meat on a skewer); steamed dumplings; and brown rice. Steer clear of fried foods (for example, egg fu yung is like a fried omelet), and sweet and sour (generally means it's fried first). If your not sure, ask. A little knowledge goes a long way.
Indian cuisine is healthy in terms of its use of complex carbohydrates (lentils, chickpeas, and basmati rice) and spices (which contain antioxidants), but not so healthy in terms of some of the sauces. Some of the most delicious ingredients can be some of the most unhealthy. Ghee, for example is clarified butter and no stranger to an Indian menu. Coconut oil, mostly saturated fat, is often used in sauteing and frying. Samosas are fried turnovers. Curries are often made with coconut milk and/or cream. Stick to Tandoori (Indian version of grilling) meats or vegetables, shish kabobs, and yogurt-based sauces.
Mexican food can be very healthy and low calorie if you choose grilled protein, salsa, ceviche, gazpacho, black beans, and enchiladas or fajitas. Calorie and fat hoarders are in the trimmings: cheese, nachos, and excess guacamole (although avocados have good fats, they still have a lot of fat and calories, so portions need to be closely monitored). The best way to enjoy Mexican food is to make it at home, which gives you total control of the ingredients.
Tapas are a dietitians dream in terms of portion sizing -- small plates designed for sharing. But if you can't read the menu, you may end up with plates of cheese, fried foods, and your squid swimming in oil -- not so good. Look out for the words "frita" (meaning fried) and "al aceite" (cooked in oil), and choose "asado" (roasted) and "a la plancha" (grilled). Cheese (mostly Manchego) and chorizo (Spanish sausage) are a must on a tapas menu, but watch your portions, the fat, calories and sodium can add up quickly.
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