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Want to eat a healthy Chinese meal? You have to know what to ask for

The question: I love Chinese food. How bad is it for me? What can I order that's healthy?

The answer: Many people think that Chinese food is healthier than other take-out meals because it's light on meat, contains plenty of vegetables and, unlike pizza, for instance, it's not dripping with cheese.

The Asian diet – which emphasizes minimally processed foods along with grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds – has been shown to guard against heart disease and certain cancers. But I'm afraid traditional Chinese cuisine is not what you'll find in most North American restaurants.

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In 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, analyzed popular dishes from typical Chinese restaurant menus and came up with some pretty hefty numbers, thanks to large portion sizes, liberal use of cooking oil and plenty of dipping sauce, soy sauce, hoisin and oyster sauce.

A dinner-size order of orange crispy beef (breaded and deep-fried) packed 1,500 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat and 3,100 milligrams of sodium, which is two days' worth of sodium. General Tso's chicken clocked in at 1,300 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat and 3,200 milligrams of sodium. Even the vegetable dishes were awash in sodium thanks to salty sauces (Szechuan string beans had 2,700 milligrams).

Chinese restaurants don't post the nutrient breakdown of dishes on menus, so it's up to you to figure out what's better for your waistline and arteries. To cut fat and calories, go easy on items that are deep-fried, crispy, batter-dipped and breaded such as lemon chicken, orange crispy beef, egg rolls and spring rolls.

Look for items that are steamed, boiled, braised, jum (poached), kow (roasted) and shu (barbecued). Ask for steamed rice instead of fried rice or noodles.

Menu items with seafood and tofu (not deep-fried) tend to be lighter than those made with meat or poultry. To reduce sodium, avoid adding soy sauce at the table, use only a little dipping sauce and ask that dishes be prepared without MSG (monosodium glutamate). Skipping the soup course can also cut 600 to 1,200 milligrams of sodium from your meal.

Keep in mind that most restaurants will let you customize a dish to make it healthier. Ask for steamed vegetables, dishes stir-fried in less oil and sauces served on the side. Request that extra vegetables be substituted for meat. Some restaurants also serve brown rice.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel'sDirect (www.lesliebeck.com).

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