We all try to eat as healthfully as possible, or at least we intend to eat as well as we can.
However, even with good intentions, sometimes it can be difficult to know how to make the best food choices.
One of the components of Chinese medicine is food therapy, which is based on the energetics, temperature and actions of specific foods.
Occasionally, I’m asked by a patient about guidelines for what they should be eating. My stock answer is to eat a lot of vegetables, a little protein, and whole grains.
Actually, a simpler answer would be to eat like you’re in a good Chinese restaurant.
You may not think that deep fried sesame chicken from your local Chinese restaurant is the healthiest choice, and you’d be right. There are, however, many traditions that are still in place at your neighborhood noodle house that are pretty healthy.
Fresh Food Anyone?
Some authentic Chinese restaurants have aquariums in which your dinner is still swimming until the moment you order.
And all those vegetables you see in your stir fry—broccoli, carrots, onions, scallions, cabbage, peppers, mushrooms, and sprouts—they didn’t come out of a can or the freezer section of the grocery store.
They are fresh, and most likely came from the farmers’ market that very morning.
How it’s Served
Your meal is frequently served family style, in which everyone shares. This is a good thing in that you will usually get a wide variety of foods, which translates into a wide variety of nutrients.
No Cold Drinks
You usually won’t be served iced drinks unless you ask for them.
In Chinese medicine, ice cold drinks can bring your digestive process to a halt. It takes a lot of energy for your body to warm back up after downing a glass of ice cold anything. That’s why you’re more likely to find room temperature water or tea with your meal—it helps the digestive process along.
No Raw Food
In a similar vein, you’re unlikely to get much raw in a Chinese restaurant. Food that’s cooked, even slightly, is easier to digest than a plate full of raw food.
Hence, the stir fry — cooked slightly, but still crunchy vegetables.
Dessert is a Non-Event
You get a fortune cookie — no chocolate turtle walnut berry cheesecake for you.
A little sweetness after a meal helps you digest your food—a lot of fat-laden sugar is just a gut bomb.
What you won’t get is also worth noting.
You’re unlikely to find any kind of dairy products in a Chinese restaurant.
The Chinese believe that milk is for babies and baby animals. In addition, something like three quarters of the world’s population is lactose intolerant, and in Chinese medicine, lots of diary products just create phlegm.
Where’s the Beef?
Also, good luck trying to order a filet mignon in a Chinese restaurant. You might get a filet of whatever fish is fresh and available though, served up on a bed of vegetables.
What your veggies are served over can sometimes present a challenge to the overall goodness of Chinese fare.
A typical stir fry dish will include a variety of vegetables with smaller amounts of protein, served over… um, white rice.
White rice is not a whole grain, and has been eaten in China only for a couple of hundred years. It was considered to be finer than brown rice, and was served to the emperor and the wealthiest Chinese. In the countryside, the healthier brown rice was still on the menu for regular folks like you and me.
Many Chinese restaurants now offer a choice between white or steamed brown rice, and if you want to make the healthier decision, ask for brown rice.
If you steer clear of the deep fried food and white rice, the Chinese restaurant way of eating is pretty darn healthy.
Also, it can be put into practice at home with a wok, some fresh vegetables, and seasonings — you won’t need to eat out at the Happy Dragon every night.