Q: A friend asked me to go with him “to eat some noodles” the other day. I went along although I didn’t know what I was going to eat. Are noodles healthy? — K.F., Greenville
A: Did your friend invite you over for “oodles of noodles”? Over the years I have counseled many budget-conscious students who filled their hunger with cheap products like “oodles of noodles” at home. They would get upward of 400 calories, 14 grams of fat, way too much sodium and 50 grams of carbohydrate with only a tiny bit of dietary fiber and 10 grams of protein.
What that noodle package needed to be really healthy was some added vegetables and maybe a bite of chicken or other meat. But I am guessing your friend was asking you to go to a restaurant that serves Asian food.
Noodles and rice are staple foods of Asian countries. The website TripAdvisor lists 19 Asian restaurants in our town. I think there was one Chinese restaurant when we moved to Greenville in 1983. I had a memorable experience when the owner claimed his food was fat free. He told me he only used oil in his cooking!
The type and amount of fats or oils used in Asian diets, just like the other ingredients, varies from country to country. But most Asian dishes, in addition to rice or noodles, have lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and nuts. There is frequent use of tofu and other soy products. In the countries that have access to the sea, there is seafood. And it’s common to use herbs and strong spices.
I remember Pat, my husband, talking about the food he ate in Thailand during his Navy years. He claimed the food was so hot “it melted my molars.”
If you are interested in learning more about traditional Asian food, the organization Oldways has updated its Asian Pyramid (https://oldwayspt.org). Oldways’ brochure includes eight steps to health through Asian traditions including: 1) eating mindfully; 2) making vegetables the star; 3) using meat as a garnish; 4) enjoying soy (we had to go to Raleigh to buy tofu when I needed it for a recipe in 1983); 5) filling up with hot soups (instead of fried wings as an appetizer for example); 6) drinking tea and water; 7) sharing meals with others; and 8) being physically active.
In my experience, the waitstaff at our local Asian restaurants have been very helpful in describing the foods and dishes as well as the amount of “heat” a dish will have. You may want to familiarize yourself with some of the foods before you go. There is a great Asian food glossary and some easy recipes at http://oldwayspt.org/traditional-diets/asian-diet/asian-foods-glossary. Unfortunately, though, the site does not provide nutrient information.
You might also find it helpful to go on the website of a national noodle chain (www.noodles.com). You can explore the menu and get a sense of which are higher- and lower-calorie dishes. Many of these restaurants offer regular and small portions. Start with the small one. At the website, you can learn the names of dishes and the ingredients and see what looks interesting and appetizing to you.
Since “bowl food” is very trendy today, you might want to make some at home. If you are interested, you start with a base. It can be noodles with broth or a grain with toppings. Or it might be 2 cups of salad greens. You’ll want to add fresh or cooked vegetables — lots of them (1-2 cups). Add some protein like cooked eggs or ½ cup of chicken, tuna, beans or tofu and a little healthy fat like avocado, nuts, crumbly feta cheese, seeds, yogurt or a dressing of your choice.
If you are leaning toward plant-based foods, then use tofu, tempeh or legumes. Make sure most of the bowl is filled with vegetables for the best nutrition in a reasonable amount of carbohydrates and calories. I found that MyFitnessPal has many entries for grain bowls to give you a sense of the calories.
If you have been told to limit your sodium intake, ask questions about the amount of soy sauce and pickled veggies added. Just as there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to enjoy the traditional foods of eastern Carolina, there are healthy and unhealthy Asian diets.
Why eat this out of a bowl rather than on a plate? Some of my younger friends tell me they have tried it off a plate. They say it just tastes better out of the bowl. Go figure.
Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at email@example.com.