Have diabetes and love Chinese food? You're not alone, of course! Going far beyond popular rice and noodle dishes, a registered dietitian shares how to include beloved Chinese foods as part of a healthy eating pattern when you have diabetes.
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Sautéed Bok Choy & Hakurei Turnips
Credit: Eva Kolenko

It is crucial to learn more about healthy eating when you live with diabetes and try to maintain consistent blood sugar levels every day. Being able to Identify which foods include carbohydrates and which do not is especially important because carbohydrates can contribute to fluctuations in blood sugar. Many people count carbs, but it can be difficult to keep track of your count when you're faced with foods that, while delicious, are unfamiliar in terms of the carb count.

However, a diagnosis of diabetes doesn't need to stop you from exploring foods from other cultures or enjoying foods from your own culture that you may have been avoiding because carbohydrate counting can be overwhelming, or at the least, a nuisance. There are several ways to diversify your diabetes-friendly diet. Read on to find out the carb-containing Chinese foods commonly eaten in America and delicious recipes to help you enjoy them.

Higher-Carb Ingredients

Rice

You could say rice is ingrained in Chinese cuisine, and for good reason. The grain's versatility is practically endless. Cooked rice is commonly served plain to accompany and enhance countless savory dishes. It's also often offered mixed into stir-fried dishes with ingredients such as meat and vegetables, as with Cantonese Chicken & Bok Choy Fried Rice. Brown rice is a popular whole grain beloved for its high fiber content. But refined white rice can have a place in a healthy eating pattern as well. One 1/2-cup serving of white rice has about 22 grams of carbs, which is slightly less than brown rice. There is no need to avoid rice if you have diabetes, just be mindful about portion size and enjoy both brown and white rice in dishes were you prefer them.

Noodles

Like rice, noodles are a staple of Chinese cuisine. If you're not familiar with the mind-blowing variety of noodles, take a walk through the noodle section of your local Chinese grocery store. Chinese noodles are commonly made from wheat flour, rice flour, potato starch or mung bean starch. They also come in different thicknesses and textures that provide different eating experiences. From chewy, thick laces to slippery thin strands, there is no doubt a type of noodle that suits your palate. Here is the amount of carbohydrates per half cup serving of a few popular noodle types:

While you may prefer a specific type, noodles are just as versatile as rice, if not more so. They can be served in soups, in stir-fries with proteins and vegetables, or in braised dishes.

Buns (Bao)

Soft and fluffy baos come in several variations. Some are plain while others include filling. Some are savory, others are sweet. Some baos are round and some are folded over similarly to a taco. These yeast-leavened buns are made with wheat flour and are enjoyed in many regions in China. One sweet bao has around 36 grams of carbs.

Wonton, dumpling and potsticker wrappers

Wontons, dumplings and potstickers might be less-obvious sources of carbs, since we tend to focus on their fillings. While they usually hold a protein or vegetable filling, the wrappers are made with wheat flour. Depending on the cooking method, they could be boiled and eaten in broth-based soups, steamed, pan-fried or deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce.

Taro

Taro is a root vegetable that offers a subtle yet distinctive texture. When cooked, it has a soft outer surface and a firm and dry interior. While it is naturally bland, it is eaten as a starch similarly to potatoes and sweet potatoes. You can find it in braised meat and fish dishes and stews as well as in pan-fried cakes and puffs at Cantonese dim sum restaurants. One 1/2-cup serving of taro contains 22 grams of carbs.

Lotus root

Lotus root is another popular ingredient used in Chinese cooking. The tuber of the lotus plant is often added to stir-fries, soups, pastries and stews. Compared to taro, lotus root is crisper and has fewer calories and carbohydrates. One 1/2-cup serving of lotus root contains about 10 grams of carbs.

Nonstarchy Vegetables

The Diabetes Plate Method recommends including half a plate of nonstarchy vegetables as part of each meal. Nonstarchy vegetables are packed with nutrients and typically have fewer than 30 calories and 5 grams of carbs per half-cup serving. They're full of water and fiber to help you feel satisfied. You may find these nonstarchy vegetables in your local grocery stores.

Leafy greens

Bok choy, Chinese broccoli (aka kai lan or gai lan) and watercress are commonly eaten in Chinese cuisine. They are perfect for stir-frying, adding to soups or serving with a soupy bowl of noodles.

Bitter melon

The bumpy and wavy outer layer and earthy alkaline flavor are two distinctive characteristics of bitter melon. In Chinese culture, it is also known as an older adults' food for its acquired taste, but it pairs well with beef slices when they are stir-fried together.

Shiitake mushrooms

Mushrooms are low in fat, carbohydrates and sodium. One 1/2-cup serving of cooked shiitake mushrooms provides 40 calories, 1 gram protein, 0 grams fat, 10 grams carbs and 2 milligrams sodium. Chinese cooking often uses dried shiitake mushrooms, particularly in braised Chinese dishes. They provide earthy, meaty and umami flavor to dishes.

Healthy Eating Tips for Diabetes

Keeping your carb intake consistent is important for maintaining stable blood sugar levels. But there are other important aspects of eating healthfully and managing your diabetes. Here are some tips for healthy eating when you have diabetes.

1. Choose lean proteins

Protein is an essential part of a healthy eating pattern. The Diabetes Plate Method recommends filling one-quarter of your plate with a lean source of protein. By choosing lean proteins, you are also lowering your intake of saturated fats and, thus, lowering your risk for heart disease. Some lean protein choices include chicken, lean ground pork and fish. These proteins are often used in Chinese main dishes such as Kung Pao Chicken with Bell Peppers and Spicy Pork & Green Bean Stir-Fry.

Plant-based proteins, such as tofu, are also found in Chinese dishes. Tofu may be used as a meat alternative, providing protein from soybeans. It's low in saturated fats and carbohydrates as well as sodium- and cholesterol-free. Extra-firm tofu, which holds the least amount of moisture, is excellent for stir-frying. Firm tofu holds slightly more moisture and is commonly used for braised dishes because it crumbles more easily than the extra-firm tofu. Soft or silken tofu has a custardy texture due to the substantial amount of moisture it contains. It's perfect for tofu main courses such as Ma Po Tofu.

2. Choose healthier fats

Choosing healthy unsaturated fats, like vegetable oils and those in fatty fish and nuts, can be helpful in managing diabetes and reducing risk of heart disease and some cancers. How the food is prepared also matters. Deep-frying, which involves submerging the food into melted fat or hot oil, is generally higher in fat because the food absorbs fat from the oils. That said, food such as deep-fried wontons, dumplings, spring rolls, sweet-and-sour pork and crispy egg noodles may offer crispiness, crunch and a full-bodied mouthfeel. You may want to enjoy them in moderation for the sake of your health.

The type of oil used in cooking is equally important as the amount of oil used. Stir-frying, which involves using a small amount of cooking oil as the heat conductor, is one commonly used cooking method in Chinese cuisine. Choosing high smoke-point oils, such as peanut oil and canola oil (sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), is preferred over palm and coconut oils, lard and butter. The latter choices contain saturated fats which may increase your cholesterol level and risk of heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. Saturated fat can be found in animal and dairy products such as ground beef, poultry skin, lard, butter, whole milk and cream.

3. Watch out for sodium

Soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, black bean sauce, shrimp paste, bouillon cubes ... These flavor enhancers undoubtedly make dishes taste more delectable. While sodium is an essential nutrient—the body needs some for proper functioning—most Americans eat nearly three times more than necessary. For this reason, it's important to be mindful of your sodium intake. Including no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day in your diet is recommended, the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt.

To lower the amount of sodium in your diet, you can:

  • Prepare your meals at home to control the amount of salt and sodium-rich condiments you add to your meals.
  • Choose condiments with lower sodium content, such as low-sodium soy sauce.
  • Use naturally sodium-free herbs and spices to flavor your dishes, such as chile flakes, fennel, five-spice, star anise and white pepper.
  • Fortify your dishes with natural flavor enhancers. Aromatics such as ginger, garlic, onions, shallots, green onions, chives and chile peppers are excellent, flavorful foundations for many dishes,
  • Make your own broth or use no-salt-added broths instead of using packaged soups and bouillon cubes

4. Use nonstarchy vegetables as starch alternatives

Some nonstarchy vegetables may be eaten as alternatives to rice and noodles. If you're looking to lower the number of carbs in your meals but still crave the texture of rice and noodles, try our Cauliflower Chicken Fried "Rice" and Spaghetti Squash Lo Mein. Swapping in nonstarchy vegetables can also help you boost your fiber and nutrient intake.

5. Enjoy desserts in moderation

Prepackaged sweets and desserts such as egg tarts, tofu pudding and mango pudding, can be an occasional treat if you have diabetes. Be sure to read the Nutrition Facts label to determine how many carbohydrates are included in one serving. If you plan to make these from scratch, you can choose how much sugar you want to add and whether you wish to use a sugar substitute to sweeten your treat.

Bottom line

Chinese cuisine is vast. It not only differs greatly from region to region and city to city in China, but has different expressions throughout the globe as the food has spread with the diaspora. Much of Chinese cuisine is healthy, balanced and vegetable- and grain-focused. In America, many of the most popular and widely familiar forms of Chinese food may not be the healthiest for those living with diabetes. But many of those foods can still be a part of a healthy meal pattern. Being aware of your daily carb intake and knowing which foods contain carbohydrates, how many and how they're prepared is important. Being mindful of your fat and sodium intake is also key to managing your diabetes.