Healthy Eating Around the World

 If you're trying to eat healthy, your favorite ethnic restaurant just may be your best friend.

Yesterday I met some friends for lunch at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. As the server set my steaming plate of bun down in front of me, it occurred to me that this meal, which I had eagerly anticipated as an indulgence, was actually quite healthy. That got me to thinking about other cuisines that I love... Italian, Mexican, Japanese, and how if you're trying to eat more nutritiously, there are some great options for you in all of these cuisines. After all, there's only so many rice cakes and reduced-fat Swiss cheese you can eat. And there's a reason why most other countries don't have the same obesity crisis that America is currently suffering. Sure, there's cheese-laden enchiladas in Mexican food and Chinese food has its fair share of deep-fried goodies, but so many of the dishes from other countries feature lean protein, healthy grains and lots of interesting spices and flavors to make these dishes satisfying.

If you've got lots of ethic options in your neighborhood (or, better yet, if you're an adventurous cook), here are some of the best choices you can make.

Chinese

Enjoy: Steamed dumplings and steamed vegetables with shrimp or tofu are both great choices. Chinese restaurants usually have a big vegetarian menu, all of which make decent choices.

Avoid: There's a lot to avoid in Chinese cuisine. Typically sesame chicken, sweet and sour dishes and General Tso's dishes are made with deep-fried chunks of protein. Moo shu is one of my favorites, but I order it rarely because it's usually stir-fried with lots of oil. And fried rice is a no-brainer no-no... after all, it does have the word "fried" in its name. Check out this Newsweek article for more tips on bad-for-you Chinese.

Japanese

Enjoy: Sushi is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Instead, choose salmon, shrimp and other healthy, environmentally responsible seafood (use the Sushi Selector from Environmental Defense Fund to pick wisely). Sashimi, which doesn't include rice, is even healthier. You can start your meal with steamed dumplings, miso soup or a salad. And be sure to drink plenty of antioxidant-rich green tea.

Avoid: While sushi is a great choice, just don't fill up on tuna, which is high in mercury. And check to see that the spicy rolls don't involve mayonnaise. Naturally, deep-fried tempura is verboten.

Ethiopian

Enjoy: Ethiopian food is typically eaten with injera, a spongy flatbread that is made with teff flour. Teff, a grain similar to wheat, is high in fiber and protein, making it a good nutritional choice (though it's easy to eat copious amounts of it as you're scooping up the stewlike dishes that Ethiopian food is known for. Opt for vegetarian dishes, especially those made with lentils or chickpeas. There's a great recipe on Cooking Light's Web site for Lentil Edamame Stew, which has a companion recipe for Injera. Turns out the special bread is not much harder to make than a pancake!

Avoid: While most Ethiopian food is pretty healthy, there are a number of dishes made with meat (except for pork, which Ethiopians don't eat), and these are often cooked with butter.

Mexican

Enjoy: Vegetable or shrimp fajitas, which are cooked on a griddle with very little oil, are great choices. Top them with cilantro, salsa and a little guacamole instead of sour cream, and order soft corn tortillas instead of flour ones, which are higher in fat. Other good choices are grilled fish tacos, black bean burritos (hold the rice and sour cream and go easy on the cheese), and posole (a hominy stew).

Avoid: Go easy on anything that includes cheese (which, admittedly, is most of the menu in most Mexican restaurants in the U.S.). And don't fill up on greasy chips.

Vietnamese

Enjoy: Many of the salads on Vietnamese menus are based on crisp, shredded cabbage, mango and other healthy ingredients, perhaps with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and a drizzle of a spicy, tangy, rice vinegar-based dressing. Pho, a noodle soup to which you can add bean sprouts, basil and hot sauces, is another good choice, as is bun, another noodle dish. These dishes can often contain pieces of beef or other protein, but meat is almost used as a condiment, so the small portions won't be cause for concern.

Avoid: Some Vietnamese rolls or dumplings can be deep-fried. Plus, you should be sure to practice portion control when slurping down a huge bowl of pho or bun...those carb-heavy noodles can really add up.

What are your favorite healthy choices when it comes to ethnic foods?

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