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The best low calorie Chinese food

31st July 19 - 7 minute read

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

Our expert:

James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport. James played Premiership Rugby for Gloucester, as well as lining up for London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and England Saxons. He has a degree and masters in biochemistry from the University of Bath and has completed the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition. He is currently working towards a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University.

What’s in this article …

  • Healthy options when ordering Chinese takeaway
  • Healthy Chinese ingredients
  • How to make healthy Chinese food at home

Chinese food is a flavour sensation. Textures, colours and spices to make your taste buds sing – it’s no wonder so many of us have a soft spot for a delicious sweet and sour chicken or Szechuan prawns.

But with UK takeaways often serving up dishes that are high-fat and high-sugar, it feels like a healthy Chinese meal could be out of the question – especially when you’re watching what you eat or in full workout mode.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. Discover how you can incorporate your love of Chinese food – including home cooking and takeaways - into a healthy lifestyle with our guide to the healthiest Chinese foods.

At a glance

  • Authentic Chinese food is loaded full of health benefits
  • Avoid fried foods in favour of steamed and stir-fried dishes
  • Choose lean meats like chicken and fish
  • Increase the vegetable levels

Healthy options when ordering Chinese takeaway

Sometimes a Chinese takeaway can hit the spot after you’ve finished a hard day at work or a jam-packed weekend. The good news is, you can make healthier choices when ordering in - and still stick to your health goals.

James says: “If you’re making a concerted effort to reduce your energy intake, limiting takeaways is a positive thing.

“But if you’re not having them often then the occasional treat or reward meal won’t hurt. It’s more about making conscious choices about when you have one and what you eat.”

These are the golden rules for ordering a healthy Chinese takeaway.

Avoid fried dishes

Cut down on crispy dishes like prawn crackers and spring rolls – ideally, avoiding them altogether.

Deep-fried dishes have been cooked in oil, which means they’re high in fat and loaded with extra calories. For example, a 100g portion of prawn crackers – that are often thrown in for free – can contain 400 calories and 13% (or 2.5g) of your daily saturated fat intake.¹

Avoiding fried options for all side dishes is also a good start.

“Go for steamed rice or all-in-one noodles with lots of vegetables in, instead of egg fried rice,” says James.

A 100g portion of egg fried rice contains around 186 calories, compared to 131 in boiled rice².

Choose steamed dishes and stir-fries

The good news is, there are plenty of Chinese dishes that are prepared in healthier ways.

“Go for alternatives like steamed dishes – dumplings and dim sum are good choices,” says James.

There’s no oil involved in this cooking process. The dumplings are cooked in a steamer basket by the rising hot water vapour. That means no extra fat and no extra calories.

Vegetable-rich stir fries, which are prepared with minimal oil in a traditional wok, are healthier than those with fatty meats³.

The difference between dishes can be huge. For example, a Szechuan prawn and boiled rice dish could have around 651 calories, while a sweet and sour pork dish with egg fried rich could hit 1122 calories – nearly twice as much.

Choose low-fat protein

Popular Chinese takeaway meats like pork and duck are quite fatty. For this reason, James recommends choosing prawn or chicken for your protein fix.

Choosing seafood, fish or white meat is an instant way to bring the fat-content of your dish down – without losing any of the flavour or protein.

King prawns are a healthy, high protein choice. King prawn satay gives you 30g of protein per 500g portion while being relatively low in calories (601) and fat (28g). Meanwhile, sweet and sour chicken gives you 46g of protein but has over 1100 calories and a massive 41g of fat.

Load up on veggies

Vegetables are another big tick for healthier takeaway orders. In China, they play a central role in daily meals, so vegetable-rich choices are actually more authentic – even in a UK-based takeaway.

“When you’re picking main dishes, go for stir fries with a good protein source and fibrous vegetables like chicken and black bean or chicken and cashew nuts,” says James.

“Look for things with broccoli, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, peppers – these are all good options if you must have a takeaway.”


Don’t eat it all

Portion control is vital for a healthy diet – and when you’re ordering in, you can lose that control. Sometimes a single dish is actually large enough for two people, so don’t feel you have to eat everything you’ve ordered.

Plate it up using your own serving spoons to give you a better idea as to how much you should eat. You could even go as far as to weigh your portions out.

Then, don’t leave the half full boxes lying around as you’ll end up eating them.

Need to know: By avoiding fried foods or meat like duck and pork, you can make your takeaway much healthier.

Tips for making healthy Chinese takeaway food at home

The best way to enjoy healthy Chinese food is by making it yourself: “It can be very healthy and athletic,” says James.

Follow his top three tips to whip up a delicious and nutritious storm in the kitchen.

1. Choose leaner meats

Just like when you’re choosing a healthier takeaway, leaner meats are a quick fix for leaner oriental dishes. Here are some protein-rich suggestions:

  • Chicken. Use lean breast meat
  • Fish. Whole baked fish with ginger and chilli is a great option
  • Prawns. Full of protein and low in fat

Of course, meat isn’t the only source of protein. Vegans, vegetarians or those looking to reduce meat in their diet can also get their fill from lentils, pulses, nuts, eggs and other protein-rich foods.

2. Add lots of raw vegetables

Eating vegetables raw is often the best way to get all the most valuable nutrients out of them. Try to incorporate some raw veggies into your Chinese dish – a handful of spinach, shavings of raw carrot, or chunks of juicy tomato.

Don’t hold back from adding quickly cooked veg either. Broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, cabbage, onions - these are all perfect additions to homecooked Chinese food.

When you boil vegetables, many of the most valuable vitamins get left behind in the water.

Finely sliced raw red peppers can be added last minute to stir fries to add some crunch. A 100g serving of raw peppers has 126mg of vitamin C, whereas the same portion size boiled has just 89mg.

3. Control the calories

Sauces are a common culprit for sky-rocketing the calories. When you’re cooking Chinese food at home, make sure you’re keeping it in check.

If you’re using shop-bought sauces, check out the nutritional information on the back. Some are high in salt, sugar and additives, which means pouring it all over your lean, vegetable-rich meal essentially negates any positive changes you’ve made.

You could get creative and make your own Chinese sauce at home. These ingredients are healthy, but still pack a flavour punch:

  • Garlic – low in calories and packed with flavour this will bring to life any sauce or stir fry
  • Chilli – give your home-cooked Chinese dishes a kick¹⁰
  • Rice vinegar – there’s no calories or sodium in this flavoursome ingredient
  • Ginger – this tasty native Chinese plant can help digestion¹¹
  • Sesame seeds – rich in natural oils, healthy fibre, and vitamins and minerals¹²


Need to know: Cooking Chinese food at home can be a healthy and tasty alternative to takeaways.


In summary

While we’d not recommend having a Chinese takeaway every night, fitting one every now and then into your meal plan is fine – as long as you actively make healthy choices when ordering. Alternatively, make your own at home.


[1] https://www.safefood.eu/SafeFood/media/SafeFoodLibrary/Documents/Publications/Research%20Reports/What-s-in-your-Chinese-Takeaway-FINAL.pdf

[2] https://www.nutracheck.co.uk/CaloriesIn/Product/29/Boiled+Rice,+Takeaway

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/healthier-takeaways/

[4] https://www.ntw.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2017/10/Takeaway-guidance.pdf

[5] https://www.safefood.eu/SafeFood/media/SafeFoodLibrary/Documents/Publications/Research%20Reports/What-s-in-your-Chinese-Takeaway-FINAL.pdf

[6] https://www.safefood.eu/SafeFood/media/SafeFoodLibrary/Documents/Publications/Research%20Reports/What-s-in-your-Chinese-Takeaway-FINAL.pdf

[7] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/167942/Nutrient_analysis_of_fruit_and_vegetables_-_Summary_Report.pdf

[8] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/167942/Nutrient_analysis_of_fruit_and_vegetables_-_Summary_Report.pdf

[9] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-health-benefits-of-garlic#section4

[10] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods/chili-peppers

[11] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/265990.php

[12] https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/seed-and-nut/sesame-seeds.html


Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

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