As much as I strive toward a diverse assortment of meals, on Fridays, my tongue inevitably yearns for Thai food. It hoots for noodles, hollers for curry and shouts, “Bathe me in a milky bath of Thai iced tea immediately, you insolent fool!”
I generally oblige.
After weeks of the same old order — chicken pad see ew, vegetable spring rolls and a Thai iced tea — my body and mind have been demanding change. But if I do stray from my usual order, I want to be smart about it. So I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank an array of popular Thai takeout dishes by how healthy they are — from ultra healthy to ultra sugary.
As a general note, Hunnes says Thai food certainly has the potential to be healthy, in part because many Thai dishes can be made vegetarian, which means less heart-busting meat. However, she adds, “Many of the items listed are high in processed carbohydrates, including sugar, white-flour noodles and white rice. I have nothing against carbs, but sometimes these dishes can be carb-overload, as opposed to veggie-friendly.” While some carbs are fine, too many can contribute to rapid spikes in blood sugar, overeating and therefore an increased risk of various diseases (for a more balanced meal, I typically order my pad see ew with extra vegetables).
Now grab a fork as we make our way through the menu…
1) Green Papaya Salad: It should be no surprise that a salad sits atop our list. Green papaya salad is made primarily from shredded, unripe papaya and some combination of vegetables, usually including asparagus beans and chili peppers. It sometimes also includes brined crab, which is low in calories, high in protein and high in numerous vitamins and minerals. Papaya is especially healthy because it delivers hefty doses of antioxidants and a nutrient called beta-carotene, both of which contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
2) Larb: Larb is a meat salad that contains a wide assortment of healthy herbs and is usually served in lettuce cups. Unlike many Thai noodle dishes, larb is super low in carbs and is primarily just meat and healthy vegetables. Hunnes adds that it would be especially healthy if it “could be made plant-based.” So maybe see if your local Thai joint offers a tofu larb.
3) Tom Kha Kai: A soup made from coconut milk, mushrooms, an assortment of herbs and sometimes chicken, tom kha kai provides a decent dose of vegetables and nutrients without too many processed carbs, says Hunnes. As an added bonus, soups in general can be quite satiating without contributing too many extra calories to your diet. In fact, people who regularly consume soups tend to consume fewer calories overall than people who steer clear of the brothy stuff.
4) Thai Curry (Red, Yellow and Green): While Thai curries tend to be loaded with coconut milk, which delivers loads of saturated fat that can promote weight gain and cardiovascular disease in high amounts, Hunnes still gives them her healthy seal of approval. This is because they contain an assortment of healthy herbs and spices, some vegetables and can easily be made vegetarian if you opt for tofu instead of meat as the main protein.
5) Spring Rolls: Because deep-fried foods are high in calories and trans fats, which can wreck your heart, Hunnes says you should always opt for the chilled, non-fried, rice-paper-wrapped variation instead of fried spring rolls. Those ones — especially the vegetarian versions — are essentially just bundles of carrot, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber and maybe some herbs, which makes them low in calories and super high in nutrients.
6) Pad Thai, Pad See Ew and Drunken Noodles (tied): When it comes to Thai noodles dishes, Hunnes lumps them all together in terms of healthiness. The noodles, she says, are essentially empty calories, which means how much nutrition you receive from these dishes largely depends on how you order them. For instance, asking for more vegetables or opting for tofu as your protein, rather than pork or chicken, will generally leave you with a more nutritious meal. Hunnes adds, though, that the sauces in these dishes are “high in sodium, which isn’t particularly healthy in high doses.” More specifically, too much salt can contribute to heart disease and kidney disease.
9) Mango Sticky Rice: Mango sticky rice is “processed white rice, mango and sugar, basically,” Hunnes says. “But it’s delicious, I just might share it with a friend or family member.” Mango itself is packed with nutrients and antioxidants, all of which work to keep your body healthy and functional. But again, the rice might as well be empty calories, and sugar is just awful for you, contributing to basically every disease out there.
10) Thai Iced Tea: While the black tea used in Thai iced tea certainly has some potential health benefits, like a nice serving of antioxidants, what makes Thai iced tea so delicious is the gargantuan dose of sugar in the sweetened condensed milk they typically add to it. A single ounce (two tablespoons) of sweetened condensed milk contains just over 15 grams of sugar. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day, meaning a single Thai iced tea could easily get you there, depending on how heavy-handed whoever makes it is with the condensed milk.
On a final note, Hunnes says, “Overall, Thai foods tend to be healthier than many other foods; however, they also tend to be high in sodium, refined carbohydrates and calories.” But again, so long as you order with vegetables in mind, you should be just fine (unless your tongue starts shouting at you, in which case, I dunno, man).