Keto Chinese Food: 6 Rock-Solid Hacks to Staying Low-Carb
Some dishes are tougher to make keto-friendly than others. And it’s usually because of hidden carbs. But with Chinese food, they’re not only hidden, they’re also straight up in most dishes. The sheer volume of carbs and sugars make keto Chinese food a challenge. But don’t worry, it can be done… albeit, with a little extra work.
In short, yes, you can eat Chinese food while on the keto diet. But you need to follow some crucial steps to avoid sabotaging your progress and getting knocked out of ketosis.
Sugar and Starches in Chinese Food
There’s no denying that Chinese food, like many Asian cuisines, is incredibly delicious and carb-heavy. Some of the worst offenders include:
- Wonton and dumpling wrappers
You can catch (and avoid) the obvious offenders, but steering clear of carbs hidden in sauces and crispy coatings is tricky. That’s because carbs are all over ordinarily keto-friendly foods like meat and green veggies.
We crave sugar and starch, two things that Chinese food is smothered in (and for obvious reasons—taste and texture). Make sure you double-check the secondary ingredients of these dishes for hidden starches or sugars (or just stay away altogether):
- Roast duck—sauce is usually sugar-heavy.
- Brown sauce—hidden sugar and corn starch that’s used for texture and flavor.
- Soups—corn starch is added at the end to create a thicker consistency.
- Meat—meat served in small pieces is often coated in corn starch prior to cooking (a technique known as “velveting”). Sugar is often used as a glaze.
- Sauces—corn starch is often added to thicken and sugar is added for flavor.
With sugar and starch found in just about everything from beef and broccoli to roast duck, it’s difficult to keep the carbs low even if you’re omitting the rice, battered meat, or delicious scallion pancakes. For this reason alone, most keto’ers avoid Chinese restaurants altogether. But if you’re willing to persevere, read on.
Top Picks for Keto Chinese Food
The amount of sugar and starches in every Chinese dish varies greatly across each type of restaurant and even with the exact cuisine served. For example, a Chinese takeout chain might use a lot more sugar than a mom-and-pop restaurant that serves more traditional fare.
Likewise, different regions of China specialize in different styles of cooking, each using varying amounts of sugar and starch. With this in mind, Szechuan-style Chinese dishes are a favorite on the keto diet as they tend to use the least. Consider ordering these Szechuan specialties:
- Egg drop soup
- Beef and broccoli
- Egg foo yung
- Pork belly
- Steamed meat and greens
- Mu shu pork
- Garlic sauce, soy sauce, and vinegar
Hot pots and buffets are also ideal options for keto, as you can usually choose lower carb sides or specific ingredients to add to your plate. But before you tuck into that egg foo yung with a side of pork belly, there are some basic tips and guidelines you should follow to stay in ketosis.
Hacks for Ordering Keto Chinese Food
You’re not being difficult, you’re being thorough. Keep this mantra in your mind as you get ready to order. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for more information on certain dished or request changes to your meal. You just need the right information to protect your health and stay keto. Here we go…
1. Avoid the Worst Offenders
That means no sweet and sour pork, breaded lemon chicken, or what have you. It’s loaded with sugar and corn starch coating. Next, no prawn crackers, no roast duck, and certainly no orange chicken. If you want those, you’re going to have to make keto versions at home
2. Ask for Sauces on the Side
Many sauces are super sweet and often thickened using corn starch. So ask for the best keto-friendly sauces on the side so you can control the portion you end up eating. A tablespoon of soy sauce has anywhere from 1 – 4g of carbs, but it’s hard to eyeball a tablespoon of sauce when it’s drizzled all over your meal. Lettuce cups could also be a suitable option, but try to construct your own rather than ordering it from the menu. Opt for something like steamed fish and veggies so you can avoid a dish with velveted meat and high-sugar sauce.
3. Ask for the Nutritional Information
Ok, so you know what you’re not eating. The next step is to ask for the nutrition information of whatever it is you decided on. The nutrition panel is your best friend. The net carbs are right there so there’s no guesswork.
That’s one huge advantage of ordering from chain restaurants: The exact nutritional information is usually on hand so you can make an informed decision with your meal. But, even with this information, a slight difference in serving sizes can make a big difference to the actual carb count on your plate. So take any nutritional information with a grain of salt if you decide to go that route..
4. Don’t Rely on Gluten-Free Options
Gluten-free options aren’t always keto, and this certainly isn’t the case with keto Chinese food. You know what’s gluten-free? Sugar and corn starch. You get the point.
5. BYO Fat
This tip’s a little sneaky, so use it at your own discretion. Ordering keto-friendly Chinese food often means sticking with steamed meat and greens. While this is low carb, it’s also low in fat and might leave you feeling unsatisfied. So bring your own keto sauce. Or bring a fat bomb to eat for dessert.
This is a much healthier option than ordering dishes with extra oil since restaurants usually use inflammatory vegetable oils rather than high-quality olive or nut oils. Avoid requesting extra oil from the restaurant, it’s just not worth it.
6. Be a 5-Star Customer
As a paying customer, you have every right to ask for modifications to your meal. But that doesn’t mean you have to be demanding. Simply explain to your server that you have to avoid certain ingredients due to dietary restrictions (don’t lie about having an allergy—food allergies are serious business and not to be faked), and then show your appreciation for them by leaving a nice tip.
Homemade Keto Chinese Food
Can’t find any authentic Chinese cuisine? Don’t trust the server? Embarrassed to be that customer? Cooking at home is a great way to ensure your Chinese food is keto.
Here are the most common ingredients and our top substitutions:
- Noodles—shirataki noodles, zucchini noodles, or cabbage cut into ribbons
- Rice—cauliflower rice, broccoli rice, or shirataki rice
- Wonton wrappers—cabbage leaves or shredded mozzarella cheese
- Sauces—make your own without sugar or using keto-friendly sweeteners
- Battered meat—crushed pork rinds, flax meal, almond meal, or grated Parmesan cheese
Keto Alternatives to Chinese Food
Still can’t make Chinese food work on a keto diet? Sometimes you have to give some things up in the pursuit of health. And we applaud you for that. Here are some other Asian cuisines that might be easier to stomach:
- Japanese cuisine is a great choice for keto. Order sashimi with avocado and miso soup on the side. Steer clear of the seaweed salad and tamagoyaki as these often contain added sugar.
- Korean barbecue is another great option for keto. You can pick and choose your own meats and vegetables to cook up. Steer clear of the sauces and you’ll have no problem avoiding starch and sugar. You might even be able to indulge in kimchi so long as it doesn’t have a lot of added sugar!
- Vietnamese food can be modified to be keto-friendly. Order pho without the rice noodles and add extra bean sprouts, or choose a beef dish without sauce.
As with all Asian cuisine on keto, be extra wary of added sugar, sauces, battered items, and carb-heavy bases, such as noodles and rice. You might not be able to enjoy the same sweet, crispy honey chicken that you did in your pre-keto days, but it’s still totally possible to enjoy Chinese food or any Asian cuisine while staying in ketosis.
Keto Friendly & Low Carb Chinese Food Options
Rice is a staple of all Chinese cuisines, and while there are exceptions, most Chinese dishes use meat as an addition rather than the main ingredient. In many dishes, minimally cooked fresh vegetables form the bulk of the preparation, with various sauces. A huge country with great geographical diversity, China is blessed with multiple regional cuisines, several of which have taken root in the United States. All of them offer potential low carb options for you to enjoy.
Four regional cuisines dominate, three of which are well known in the United States:
- Cantonese: Until a few decades ago, when you said “Chinese,” you meant Cantonese. It was the first cuisine to be adapted to American tastes and agriculture, and it’s still very popular. Light delicate sauces, roasted meats and steamed and stir-fried vegetables typify Cantonese food.
- Szechwan: This cuisine is best known for its extremely hot dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and Double-Cooked Spicy Pork. It comes from the landlocked, mountainous part of Central China, and gets most of its heat from tiny but very potent chilies— usually in the form of an incendiary chili paste—aided and abetted by garlic and ginger. There are other, more subtle and complex dishes from this region, but it’s the fiery ones that get all the attention.
- Hunan: Hunan dishes are known for thick, rich sauces as well as complex and sometimes biting flavors. If you’ve had Pepper Chicken (fried hot and fast with onions and black pepper), you’ve sampled Hunan cuisine.
- Shandong: Still hard to find in most parts of the United States, Shandong cuisine is marked by its emphasis on fresh ingredients. Flavors are generally delicate, sometimes brightened by the addition of garlic and scallions. The light, clear soups are good choices for carb-conscious diners; thick, pungent soups may derive some of their texture from cornstarch.
Approach the Buffet Table with Caution
The sheer variety at a Chinese buffet is staggering, but most of the dishes rely on a sauce—generally thickened with cornstarch—to help keep the ingredients hot on a steam table. If possible, request that any dish be prepared with the sauce on the side, so you can choose how much you eat. Woo Shu Duck, for example, is usually dusted with almond flour, fried and served with a dark brown sauce. The sauce is sweetened, but happily, the duck itself is delicious without it. Certainly you’ll want to avoid any of the sweet and sour dishes, as well as breaded dishes or those battered with starchy flours. Also, watch out for noodle dishes. Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork are perfectly fine, as long as you don’t eat the pancakes and plum sauce on the side.
Finding Low Carb and Keto Friendly Chinese Food Options
- These low carb and keto friendly Chinese food substitutions still allow you to enjoy the cooking styles and essential flavors that give this food its unique characteristics, while avoiding sugars and other empty carbs:
- For an appetizer, try Egg Drop Soup instead of Fried Wontons or an egg roll. The soup should be clear and thin, rather than thickened with cornstarch.
- Instead of Shrimp-, Pork-, Beef- or Chicken-Fried Rice, have a Sizzling Shrimp Platter. You may never go back to fried rice again.
- Substitute Steamed Tofu With Vegetables, or Beef With Chinese Mushrooms, for any of the noodle-based dishes. If it comes with a sauce, request it be served on the side.
- Rather than any of the sweet and sour dishes, try Stir-Fried Pork With Garlic Sauce (sauce on the side, of course)