Dining in ethnic restaurants can be tricky. Many dishes have so many ingredients that it’s hard to figure out how many calories you’re eating.

Some people eat in restaurants a few times a week or more. If that group includes you, then you should know that’s often enough to wreck your diet if you’re not careful.

That’s one reason I’ve written about smart ordering in restaurants and how to order what you really want. But choosing food in ethnic restaurants deserves some special attention, because the dishes are often a lot more complicated.

So, it’s not only harder to know what to choose, it’s also tough to figure out exactly what you’re eating. It’s relatively easy to “guesstimate” the calories in a piece of grilled fish and a pile of veggies. But trying to estimate the calories in mixed dishes—like lasagna or Thai green curry—is even harder, since there are so many ingredients.

Read the calorie road signs

It would be nice if more restaurants posted the calorie counts for their dishes, but most don’t. Large chain restaurants are more likely to have that information, but if you like to seek out less common dishes at your neighborhood independent restaurants, you’re on your own.

Here in the US, new Federal guidelines—soon to be in effect—require that any restaurant chain with 20 or more locations will need to post the calorie content of their menu items (similar rules are already in effect in some states). But about half of all US restaurants are independent, so they won’t have to comply. This means we’ll probably never know exactly how much we’re eating when we visit our neighborhood “hole in the wall.”

A study led by Susan Roberts did attempt to shed a little light on the subject. The researchers reported that a typical meal purchased from a ‘mom and pop’ restaurant (an array of the most popular items from Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Thai, Indian, Greek, Vietnamese and American restaurants in Boston) averaged more than 1300 calories.

That’s about two-thirds of an average adult’s calorie needs for the whole day. And, interestingly, the meals averaged 18% more calories than equivalent dishes from chain restaurants that are required to post their calorie information.

Whether the same holds true world-wide is yet to be seen, but the tips below may at least help you to make the best choices. Take some time to get familiar with popular offerings in ethnic restaurants so you know what ingredients they might contain. Keep in mind, though, that portion control is key, even if you choose wisely, because yes, you can eat too much of a good thing.

Tips for making the best choices in ethnic restaurants

Here are some pointers for the best choices from some of the most popular ethnic cuisines:

Mexican Food

Say yes to: grilled seafood and poultry, soft tacos, salads, salsas.
Have less of: chips, quesadillas, chorizo, sour cream, cheese.

Chinese Food

Say yes to: veggies, tofu, seafood, poultry, stir-fried, steamed, simmered, braised dishes, oyster, black bean, lobster sauce, soups, green tea.
Have less of: white rice, noodles, fried appetizers or meats, sweet and sour sauce.

Italian Food

Say yes to: green salads, broth-based soups, grilled meats and fish, marinara, wine or clam sauce.
Have less of: fatty meats, cheese, cheese-filled pasta; cream sauces.

Japanese Food

Say yes to: miso soup, yakitori, sukiyaki, sushi, sashimi, vinegar, teriyaki, soy sauces, green tea.
Have less of: white rice, katsu (fried dishes), tempura, udon.

Thai and Vietnamese Food:

Say yes to: fresh spring rolls, broth-based soups, stir-fried or grilled dishes.
Have less of: fried appetizers, heavy coconut curries, peanut sauces, mee-krob, sweet sauces.

Indian Food

Say yes to: most bean and lentil dishes, tandoori, tikka, paneer, yogurt sauces, chutney, pickles, raita.
Have less of: fried appetizers or entrees, korma, creamy curries.

Middle-Eastern Food

Say yes to: salads, grilled fish and poultry, dolmas, hummus, baba ghanoush.
Have less of: falafel, spanakopita, baklava.

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