Eating Out with Diabetes: 7 Tips for Chinese Restaurants

We asked a dietitian what to order to keep blood sugar levels steady and carbs in check.

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Fried rice, lo mein, sweet and sour chicken, wonton soup: These beloved dishes at Chinese restaurants (at least those in America) are totally delicious, but they all scream “carb bomb,” which is far from good news for anyone diagnosed with diabetes.

But you can still eat well at Chinese restaurants if you have diabetes or are watching your carb or sugar intake, and not just by eating only steamed versions of everything. New York City-based nutritionist Sharon Richter, RD, reveals her favorite tips for making healthy choices at Chinese restaurants so you can enjoy these dishes while keeping blood sugar levels steady.

  1. Avoid sweet or fried dishes. Many dishes at Chinese restaurants come with fried meats covered in a sweet sauce. This is a double-whammy of saturated fat (from frying) and sugar (from the sauce), equaling one dish that’s very high in calories, low in nutrients, and a nightmare for blood sugar levels.

  2. Use chopsticks. If they’re awkward for you to use, that’s actually a good thing, says Richter. Here’s why: Chopsticks can help you eat more slowly than you would with a fork, even if you’re a pro at using them. They hold a smaller volume of food per bite, and it takes a little more concentration to pick up each morsel of food. The more slowly you eat, the more time you give your brain to register that your stomach is full.

  3. Choose your carbs wisely. Think about what you want your source of carbohydrates to come from and make everything else a protein or vegetable. It’s way too easy to end up with an all-carb meal (and this is true at almost any restaurant, not just Chinese).

  4. Pick a light appetizer. Look for clear broth soups, such as the classic egg drop soup or wonton soup. (Keep in mind that wontons are mostly carbohydrates, so you’ll need to limit carbs for the rest of the meal. Here are more tips for counting carbs with diabetes.) Another great appetizer on the lighter side is steamed dumplings. Keep them lean by choosing a veggie dumpling, and remember that these are also carb-heavy.

  5. Choose an entree that’s lower in carbs. Chinese food is known for dishes like chow mein, lo mein, and fried rice, but these dishes often end up being a plate full of rice or noodles and not much else. If you really want rice, just order a side of rice. FYI, a serving of rice looks like a large scoop of ice cream. Order brown rice to get those complex carbs.

  6. Make vegetables the bulk of your meal. If there are no veggie-centered entrees, order steamed vegetables. If you really prefer sauteed veggies, Richter recommends ordering both sauteed and steamed vegetables and mixing them together.

  7. Split your favorite entree among the table. If you just gotta have that General Tso’s chicken, order a plate for the table and eat it family-style. Make sure to fill up on veggies, but enjoy a piece or two of your favorite dish. This way, you can leave the restaurant not feeling deprived.

So what does a nutritionist order at a Chinese restaurant? Richter starts her meal with a tofu and spinach soup, which she requests with some pepper for added heat. Her go-to entree is steamed shrimp with eggplant, which is a veggie- and protein-packed dish. She requests the garlic sauce on the side, so she can drizzle on the amount she needs. And yes, she gives the okay for the fortune cookie: Each one is about 30 calories and is a perfect end-of-meal treat.