March 22, 2007

Don't take out Chinese food

Chinese food can be very healthy for you.

Many times at restaurants, it isn't.

For example, monosodium glutamate, or more commonly known as MSG, is added to almost every fast food and take-out meal we eat, including Chinese. The majority of people pay no attention to it simply because they are either unaware of its presence in food or are unsure of what MSG really is. MSG may have more detrimental effects on the human body than simply being a food additive. So what exactly is MSG? Why is it added to foods? What are its effects on the human body? Is it harmful even though it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

The Science Creative Quarterly reports, MSG has various detrimental effects, which include triggering asthma attacks and exacerbating migraine headaches. Studies have shown that oral ingestion of MSG can provoke asthma attacks in patients diagnosed with asthma, and bring about symptoms of the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). The CRS is a collection of symptoms that include sweating, headache, flushing, and in more serious cases, swelling of the throat and chest pain.

Not only is MSG found to induce asthma and migraine attacks, but is also linked to diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

If the MSG doesn't get you, then the Associated Press reports the rest of the food will.

The typical Chinese restaurant menu is a sea of nutritional no-nos, a consumer group has found.

A plate of General Tso’s chicken, for example, is loaded with about 40 percent more sodium and more than half the calories an average adult needs for an entire day.

The battered, fried chicken dish with vegetables has 1,300 calories, 3,200 milligrams of sodium and 11 grams of saturated fat.

That’s before the rice (200 calories a cup). And after the egg rolls (200 calories and 400 milligrams of sodium).

“I don’t want to put all the blame on Chinese food,” said Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which did a report released Tuesday.

“Across the board, American restaurants need to cut back on calories and salt, and in the meantime, people should think of each meal as not one, but two, and bring home half for tomorrow,” Liebman said.

The average adult needs around 2,000 calories a day and 2,300 milligrams of salt, which is about one teaspoon of salt, according to government guidelines.

Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association, said that restaurants around the country were already making efforts to offer customers healthier choices. In particular, Chinese restaurants typically offer plenty of options for customers looking to steer clear of fried foods and heavy sauces, she noted.

"Restaurants have a responsibility to provide options and they do," said Weiss, but "customers also have a responsibility to understand their own dietary needs and know how to make special requests."

In some ways, CSPI's Liebman said, Italian and Mexican restaurants are worse for your health, because their food is higher in saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease.

While Chinese restaurant food is bad for your waistline and blood pressure — sodium contributes to hypertension — it does offer vegetable-rich dishes and the kind of fat that’s not bad for the heart.

However — and this is a big however — the veggies aren’t off the hook. A plate of stir-fried greens has 900 calories and 2,200 milligrams of sodium. And eggplant in garlic sauce has 1,000 calories and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.

“We were shocked. We assumed the vegetables were all low in calories,” Liebman said.

Also surprising were some appetizers: An order of six steamed pork dumplings has 500 calories, and there’s not much difference, about 10 calories per dumpling, if they’re pan-fried.

The solution many critics argue is for consumers to eat at home, or to "understand your own dietary needs." That's code for "don't blame me, I can feed you all of the unhealthy food in the world and I'm off the hook." That's not responsible either.

Our responsibility is to stop restaurants from serving any of us unhealthy portions of calories, fats, and salt.

Let your restaurant and Congress person know.

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