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Chinese food is definitely a popular cuisine in Canada. However, while many traditional options are based on healthy ingredients—vegetables, fish, poultry, and tofu—the amount of fat and sodium in many dishes can be sky-high.

Healthy eating (and a healthy lifestyle) is important for everyone, especially people of Chinese descent, since they are one of the groups at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Not only can what you eat affect your blood glucose (sugar) levels, but it can also affect your cholesterol levels and cause weight gain, which can impact the health of your heart.

Cut the fat

One way to cut calories in traditional Chinese dishes (and help avoid weight gain) is to reduce the fat they contain, given that one gram of protein or carbohydrate equals four calories, while one gram of fat equals nine calories.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use lean and well-trimmed cuts of meat.
  • Remove the skin from poultry before cooking.
  • Rather than deep-frying meats such as chicken (especially those with a coating or batter), bake them in the oven.

Fats can supply a great deal of flavour, so when you decrease the amount in a dish, make up for it with other tasty ingredients. “Adding two to four drops of sesame oil will pump up the Asian flavour,” says Joanne Lewis, a registered dietitian and former healthcare provider education & engagement director at Diabetes Canada “Add it to sauce ingredients, but don’t use it as a cooking oil. It is too strong in flavour when used as more than just a flavouring.” Plus, sesame oil can burn very quickly and also loses much of its intense flavour when heated.

Sobia Khan, a registered dietitian, and food and nutrition professor at the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at George Brown College in Toronto, has another tip: “Instead of deep-frying many foods, cut the fat by lightly pan-frying them with only a small amount of oil.”

Slash the sodium

Khan points to sauces used in preparation of Chinese dishes as the sodium culprits. She says,

Hoisin, oyster, dark soy, and fish sauces are all high in sodium [with no reduced-sodium options available], but rather than eliminating them, it’s best to decrease the amounts used by quite a bit to keep the authenticity of a dish.

Khan is the author of the cookbook 150 Best Indian, Asian, Caribbean and More Diabetes Recipes (Robert Rose, Inc.), which was reviewed by expert dietitians from the Canadian Diabetes Association (now Diabetes Canada). In addition to the sauces mentioned above, she also singles out Chinese cooking wine as a sodium culprit. It is a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine, but a great deal of sodium is added to these products so that they can be sold in food stores rather than liquor stores in Canada—so use only small amounts.

Limit the starchy portions

Starches, such as rice and noodles, break down into glucose when eaten and can raise your blood sugar levels if the portion sizes are too large. How can you avoid this? Go for serving sizes that are the size of your fist. (For other portion size recommendations, view the Handy Portion Guide.) Also, substitute whole-grain rice and whole-wheat or soba noodles for refined versions such as white rice or noodles. Not only are whole-grain varieties more nutritious, they are likely to have a better effect on your blood sugar levels.

“I recommend using brown rice rather than white rice with Chinese foods. It is more flavourful, has more fibre, and has a good texture,” says Lewis.

Make the switch

  Popular Ingredients    Substitutions

Regular chicken or vegetable broth

Sodium-reduced or no-added-salt commercial, or homemade low-sodium broth

Regular soy sauce Sodium-reduced soy sauce
Regular tofu Low- or reduced-fat tofu
White rice  Brown rice
Fried wonton Boiled or steamed wonton
Dried salty daikon radish (a mild-flavoured winter radish) Dried sweet daikon radish


Here are three delicious recipes to get you started on healthy Chinese cooking.

Kung Pao Chicken with Vegetables

A quick and spicy stir-fry will put the zing back into dinner. This recipe was developed by Nadine Day, RD, and is reproduced with permission of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

  • 2 chicken breasts, each about 7 oz. (200 g)
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) sesame oil
  • 1 cup (250 mL) red pepper, cut in chunks
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1 cup (250 mL) snow peas, trimmed
  • 1 cup (250 mL) bean sprouts


  • 2 tsp (10 mL) each sodium-reduced soy sauce and rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) each sesame oil and cornstarch


  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) each sodium-reduced soy sauce, rice vinegar and water
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) sugar
  • 1 pinch chili pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped

Cut chicken into bite-size chunks. Mix together marinade ingredients; add chicken and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sauce ingredients, and set aside.

Heat a non-stick skillet to medium-high heat. Use a slotted spoon to remove chicken from the marinade and add to the skillet. Discard marinade. Cook chicken for about 10 minutes. Set aside. Add sesame oil to the same skillet. Heat to medium-high. Add chopped red pepper and sauté for 1 minute. Add sauce, chicken, green onion, and snow peas, and cook for 5 minutes. Add bean sprouts and cook for 1 minute. Serve immediately on brown rice.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 9 g carbohydrate, 21 g protein, 3 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 g fibre, 208 mg sodium, 150 calories

© Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

Stir-fried Bok Choy with Jumbo Prawns

Stir-fries containing plenty of vegetables make it easy to keep portions of starch at the appropriate amounts. This recipe was provided by

  • ½ lb. (250 g) jumbo prawns, fresh or frozen, thawed
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) cooking sherry
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch, divided
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) canola oil
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) freshly grated ginger root
  • ½ cup (125 mL) sodium-reduced chicken broth
  • ½ tsp (2 mL) granulated sugar
  • ½ tbsp (7 mL) low-sodium soy sauce
  • ½ lb. (250 g) bok choy, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces
  • 1 cup (250 mL) fresh mushrooms or 6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms*

In a large bowl, toss prawns with cooking sherry and ½ tbsp (7 mL) of the cornstarch.

In a wok or large saucepan, heat canola oil over medium-high. Add ginger and stir-fry for about 1 minute. Add prawns and stir-fry until pink. Remove from pan and keep warm.

In a small bowl or cup, mix together chicken broth, sugar, soy sauce, and remaining cornstarch.

If needed, add a little more canola oil to the pan. Add bok choy and mushrooms. Stir-fry for about 3 minutes. Add prawns and chicken broth mixture. Serve hot from pan over steamed rice or noodles, if desired.

*If using dried whole mushrooms (available in the ethnic aisle of grocery stores), place in a bowl and cover with boiling water, and allow to stand for at least 20 minutes. When rehydrated, chop in halves or quarters.

Makes 4 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 6 g carbohydrate, 12 g protein, 8 g total fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 1 g fibre, 500 mg sodium, 140 calories

Sichuan Vegetarian Hot-and-Sour Soup (Suan La Tang)

Whether they are the store-bought variety or those served in restaurants, soups are usually loaded with sodium. By making your own, you can control the amount of sodium. Here is a tasty offering adapted from 150 Best Indian, Asian, Caribbean and More Diabetes Recipes by Sobia Khan.

Sichuan cuisine is known for its use of the Sichuan pepper and fiery spices. This soup is a great mix of hot (from the chili oil) and sour (from the rice vinegar). Most Chinese chili oil is made from Sichuan peppers, but make sure to check, as that is what imparts the great flavour.

Soaking time: 30 minutes

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

  • ⅓ cup (75 mL) dried wood ear mushrooms (if you can’t find these, substitute shiitake mushrooms)
  • 5 cups (1.25 L) sodium-reduced vegetable broth
  • 1 cup (250 mL) finely julienned firm tofu
  • ½ cup (125 mL) each finely julienned, rinsed and drained canned bamboo shoots, finely julienned fresh water chestnuts, and finely julienned enoki mushrooms (if you can’t find these, substitute button mushrooms)
  • ⅓ cup (75 mL) finely julienned carrots
  • ¼ cup (50 mL) shredded Sichuan pickled cabbage
  • 2 tsp (10 mL) minced ginger root
  • ⅛ tsp (0.5 mL) freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) natural rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp (15 mL) chili oil
  • 1 tsp (5 mL) dark soy sauce
  • ¼ tsp (1 mL) toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp (25 mL) cornstarch
  • 1 large egg, well beaten


Place wood ear mushrooms in a small bowl with enough cold water to cover; let soak for 30 minutes. Drain and cut into strips.

In a pot, bring broth to a boil over medium heat. Stir in wood ear mushrooms, tofu, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, enoki mushrooms, carrots, and cabbage; increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Stir in ginger, pepper, vinegar, chili oil, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Reduce heat to medium.

In a small bowl, quickly stir together cornstarch and 2 tbsp (25 mL) of cold water to form a paste. Add to soup and cook, stirring, until thickened.

Using one hand to slowly stir the soup in a circular motion, gradually drizzle the egg in a circular motion in the opposite direction with the other hand; cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until all cooked egg floats to surface.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 12 g carbohydrate, 6 g protein, 2 g total fat, 0.4 g saturated fat, 3 g fibre, 241 mg sodium, 86 calories

© Robert Rose, Inc.

Did you know?

People of Asian descent have a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Nutrition and lifestyle choices can make a difference. If you’re looking for more cooking inspiration, Diabetes Canada offers a range of healthy meal-planning tools including various plant-forward, carbohydrate-balanced and culturally inspired recipes and meal plans. For another culturally relevant resource, check out the 7-Day Chinese Healthy Meal Plan

This adapted article originally appeared in Diabetes Dialogue.

Author: Rosie Schwartz, RD, FDC

Category Tags: Healthy Living;

Region: National

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