One of the components of Chinese medicine is food therapy. This means that I frequently talk with my patients about their food choices. Occasionally, a patient will ask me, “Exactly what should I be eating?”, and my answer is to eat lots of veggies, a little protein, and whole grains. However, more and more frequently my answer is to eat like you’re in a Chinese restaurant.
You may not think that the deep fried sesame shrimp from your local Chinese restaurant is the healthiest, and you’d be right. However, there are many traditions that are still in place in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant that are, in fact, healthy.
Your typical stir fry 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 common fare among the regular folks like you and me. Many Chinese restaurants now offer you a choice between white or steamed brown rice, and for the purpose of the Chinese Restaurant Diet, choose the brown rice.
Other traditions that make the Chinese Restaurant Diet a healthy way to eat include:
- The food is fresh! 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, etc.—they didn’t come out of a can or the freezer section of the grocery store. They’re fresh, and most likely came from the farmers’ market that very morning.
- You usually don’t get 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 your body’s energy to warm your stomach 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.
- In a similar vein, you’re unlikely to get much raw in a Chinese restaurant, also for a good reason. Food that is cooked, even slightly, is easier to digest than a plate full of raw food. Hence, the stir fry—cooked slightly, but still crunchy vegetables.
- Your meal in a Chinese restaurant is frequently served family style, in which everyone shares. This is a good thing in that you will get a wide variety of foods, which translates into a wide variety of nutrients.
- Dessert is minimal. You get a fortune cookie—no chocolate turtle walnut berry cheesecake for you. A little sweetness helps you digest your food—a lot is a just a gut bomb.
- What you won’t get is also important. 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 are lactose intolerant, and in Chinese medicine, lots of dairy just creates phlegm. In fact, when I have a patient who has problems with phlegmmy lungs or sinuses, the first thing I tell them is to dial back on the dairy. (Don’t get me wrong, a little dairy is probably fine, but huge amounts of milk and cheese can create problems.)
- Also, good luck trying to order a filet mignon at your local Chinese restaurant. You might get a filet of whatever fish is available, though, served up on a bed of vegetables.
If you steer clear of the deep fried food and the white rice, the Chinese Restaurant way of eating might just be pretty healthy, and can be put into practice at home—you don’t need to eat out at the Jade Garden every night.