Your Best Bets and Smart Swaps for Eating Ethnic Food

A guide for savvy dining

Your Best Bets and Smart Swaps for Eating Ethnic Food

Have you ever had a friendly argument with a spouse or friend about where to eat? It happens to me all the time. I’m feeling Thai, but my husband is dead set on Mexican. Who wins?

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Some ethnic eats are generally healthier than others. But you also can make smarter choices at almost any restaurant. Start with the guide below next time you crave something exotic. It starts with the best options overall, including Indian and Lebanese, but there are tips for making wise decisions across the board, too.

1. Indian

Indian cuisine comes with built-in anti-inflammatory properties from turmeric, ginger, red chilies, and garam masala. Plus dishes are filled with fresh vegetables, yogurt, lentils, fish and lean chicken and lamb.

Best bets:

  • Dal shorva, or lentil soup
  • Tandoori chicken or fish
  • Chicken tikka masala, made with yogurt, cayenne pepper, cumin and other spices and often served with a tomato cream sauce (get it on the side to save calories)

Smart swaps:

  • Choose roti (whole wheat flat bread) over refined breads like naan.
  • Ask for a vegetable base rather than a coconut cream base for curries.

Beware of:

  • Fried items (chicken, fish, deep-fried paneer cheese)
  • Butter chicken and other butter-based sauces and creams

2. Lebanese

Lebanese cuisine takes the best parts of the Mediterranean diet and fuses them into each dish.

Best bets:

  • Shish taouk (grilled chicken skewers)
  • Souvlaki (grilled and marinated meat and vegetables)
  • Mujadara (lentils and rice)
  • Garlicky spinach

Smart swaps:

  • Ask for veggies instead of pita with your hummus or baba ganoush to get nutrients without the refined grains.

Beware of:

  • Fried options such as falafel and fava bean balls
  • White rice, one of the worst offenders for raising blood sugar

3. Thai

If you like spice, Thai comes with plenty. Expect a lot of yellow, green, red and massaman curry, turmeric, fish sauce, dried chili flakes, sweet chili sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, coriander, cilantro, shallots and lemongrass.

Best bets:

  • Vegetable tofu soup
  • Vegetable medley with lean protein such as fish or chicken
  • Fresh spring rolls with vegetables (skip the sugary sauce)
  • Steamed protein meals such as a cashew chicken with brown rice and vegetables

Smart swaps:

  • Choose steamed options over fried version (dumplings, anyone?) to save on both calories and fat.

Beware of:

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  • Noodles, which are almost always refined and high in calories

“Some ethnic eats are generally healthier than others. But you also can make smarter choices at almost any restaurant.”

 

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Wellness Institute

4. Greek

Fragrant dishes with potatoes, lean meats, vegetables and yogurt are loaded with heart-healthy spices such as mint, thyme and oregano.

Best bets:

  • Horta vrasta, or boiled leafy greens
  • Fassolatha, or white bean soup
  • Greek salad, but go light on the cheese and dressing
  • Chicken souvlaki

Smart swaps:

  • Pick the skewer (think grilled chicken) over items wrapped in dough, like spanakopita.

Beware of:

  • Gyros and moussaka, loaded with calories and sodium

5. Chinese

Chinese food offers plenty of steamed options. Unfortunately, they’re often submerged in sauces loaded with sugar.

Best bets:

  • Steamed vegetable dishes
  • Steamed or lightly stir-fried chicken, seafood or tofu
  • Wonton soup to fill you up and help you control main entrée portions

Smart swaps:

  • Ask for brown rice to increase the fiber and decrease the drawbacks of white rice.
  • Try chili sauce instead of soy to decrease sodium.

Beware of:

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  • General Tso’s chicken, which is a fried calorie bomb

6. Japanese

Japanese cuisine offers much more than just sushi, with healthy additions such ginger, red pepper, pickled vegetables, fish and seaweed.

Best bets:

  • Seaweed salad
  • Sashimi
  • Simple vegetable rolls
  • Miso soup
  • Steamed vegetables or tofu with simple fragrant sauces

Smart swaps:

  • Choose low-sodium soy sauce over mayo-based sauces.
  • Try brown rice rolls or even no-rice sushi rolled in cucumber.

Beware of

  • Anything tempura-battered and fried

7. Mexican

A favorite option in most American cities, Mexican restaurants can fill you up right if you order well and avoid the worst temptations.

Best bets:

  • Fajitas with grilled chicken or fish
  • Ceviche, a fish dish mixed with lime juice, onions, tomatoes, cilantro and avocado
  • Black bean soup

Smart swaps:

  • Ask for sour cream and chips on the side and use sparingly.
  • Order half the cheese with burritos, enchiladas and fajitas.
  • Choose pinto or black beans instead of refried beans.
  • For fajitas, pick corn tortillas over flour.

Beware of:

  • The abundant queso — and items that come covered in it
  • Flautas, or crispy fried tortillas filled with meats, beans and cheese

8. Italian

Last but not least is the food option that screams comfort! But Italian food tends to be heavy, so choose your options carefully.

Best bets:

  • Soups such as pasta fagioli or minestrone, full of beans and vegetables
  • Seafood cooked in broth or olive oil
  • Whole-wheat pasta with pesto or tomato sauce
  • Pizza with whole-wheat crust and vegetable toppings (one slice at a time)
  • Grilled zucchini and eggplant

Smart swaps:

  • Swap the butter next to the Italian bread with olive oil — and go easy on the bread.
  • Switch any of the high-fat sauces for pesto or simple red tomato sauce.

Beware of:

  • White pasta with heavy cheese or cream sauces, such as Alfredo or lasagna dishes
  • Meatballs made with high-fat meats
  • Fried eggplant, veal or chicken for parmigiana dishes

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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and wellness manager for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.