With a few careful tweaks, it’s possible to enjoy a healthy meal from your favourite restaurants.
By Annie Hayes
If you’re aiming to be healthy or stick to a weight loss plan, is it possible to still eat fast food? Given that most takeaway dishes contain considerably more than your recommended daily intake for salt, added sugar, and fat, the idea of a healthy takeaway sounds like a contradiction. And while the occasional fast food binge won’t hurt, frequently gorging on junk food can do a serious number on your health.
But the good news is while most fast foods are packed with fatty ingredients, many takeaway restaurants now offer healthier alternatives and eating well doesn’t mean you have to give up your weekend treat. So before you resign yourself to cooking from scratch, take a fresh look at the menu. With a few careful tweaks, it’s possible to enjoy a nutritious meal from your favourite restaurants without sabotaging your health or weight loss goals.
We spoke to Signe Svanfeldt, nutritionist at Lifesum, about the healthiest takeaway options – including foods to avoid and what to choose instead – so you can order with confidence:
Fish and chips
If you’re heading to the chippy for dinner, skip the sausages and pies and put mushy peas on the menu instead to hit one of your five-a-day. Peas are one of the best plant-based sources of protein, and are rich in fibre and polyphenol antioxidants.
When foods are fried in oil, they lose water and absorb fat, which cranks up their calorie content. While the batter may be one of the tastiest parts of the meal, breadcrumbed fish is a far healthier option. If that’s not available, try to leave some of the batter.
When it comes to chips, ask for a smaller portion or share one between two. Avoid soggy chips – this means they’ve soaked up excess oil from the fryer – and ask for them without salt, so you’re in control of how much is added.
Thai is a lighter option than other takeaway options, typically placing vegetables, chicken and seafood centre stage. However, it’s best to opt for stir-fried and steamed dishes over Thai curries – they’re made with coconut milk, which is rich in saturated fat.
Choose a clear soup to start, like tom yum, or a salad, like green papaya salad. Both are filling, healthy and will prevent you from over-indulging on rice later on. When it comes to rice varieties, pick steamed over egg-fried. Where possible, ask for sauces on the side – chicken satay and peanut sauce, for example – as they tend to be rich in sugar and salt.
From creamy Carbonara to garlic bread and pizza, Italian cuisine is known for its rich, hearty dishes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be healthy. As a general rule, ‘avoid highly processed meats and choose options with a lot of vegetables,’ suggests Svanfeldt.
Try swapping creamy pasta for tomato-based sauce, or switching meat-based pizzas for vegetable and seafood toppings, like prawn, squash, or aubergine. While they’re not traditionally Italian, deep-pan and stuffed-crust pizzas can contain up to twice as many calories per slice, so stick to thin-crust.
You could also ditch the garlic bread for bruschetta, or tear a baton of ciabatta with heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. At its heart, Italian food is all about sharing, so why not share several dishes to enjoy a wider range of flavours?
The words ‘fried’ and ‘crispy’ tend to feature heavily on Chinese takeaway menus in the UK, but there are usually plenty of steamed or stir-fried dishes to choose from. Make use of the chopsticks – they’ll force you to take smaller mouthfuls and eat slower, so you’re less likely to overeat.
Skip anything obviously deep-fried – crispy shredded beef, spring rolls and prawn crackers – as well as sticky, sugar-rich sauces like sweet ‘n’ sour. Instead, opt for a stomach-filling soup starter, followed by lighter options like Szechuan prawns, boiled rice, and egg foo yung.
Kebabs and burgers
Swerve the spinning rotisserie meat and ditch your doner for a shish kebab, which is usually grilled. ‘Choose salad instead of chips, and have less of the white sauce, as it tends to be high in fat and energy-rich,’ says Svanfeldt. ‘For an even healthier option, go for the falafel.’
It’s possible to enjoy a burger as a healthy takeaway, but make some sensible swaps first. Extra cheese, breaded chicken, double patties and high-fat sauces are best avoided. ‘Choose the options with less meat, and preferably no bacon,’ she says, ‘and have potato wedges or salad as a side, instead of chips.’
For a healthy takeaway, Mexican cuisine has plenty of options. Traditional Mexican food is fresh and bright, with ingredients like coriander, lime and peppers – although in the UK, there’s a tendency towards deep-fried dishes topped with cheese and sour cream: loaded nachos, chimichangas and taquitos.
When you’re ordering, opt for a burrito bowl or tacos filled with lean meats, poultry, fish or beans. Choose brown rice over white, fresh beans instead of refried, and soft tortillas over fried shells. ‘The best options are those with a lot of beans, tomato-based salsas and vegetables,’ says Svanfeldt.
Largely fresh and unprocessed, the traditional Japanese diet contains limited amounts of saturated fat, sugar and refined foods – instead you’ll find fish, tofu, rice, and cooked and pickled vegetables on every menu. Little wonder Japan’s life expectancy is among the highest in the world.
Sushi is particularly nutrient-dense, containing avocados, seaweed and plenty of fish. ‘The fish in sushi is great as it contributes to healthy fat and protein,’ says Svanfeldt. However, you should avoid ordering tempura, she says, ‘and try not to over-consume soy sauce, as it’s rich in sodium.’
With its oily naan bread and velvety curries, Indian might not be your first choice for a healthy takeaway – but with some careful selection, it’s one of the healthiest options going. Steer clear of anything containing ghee or heavy cream, such as tikka masala, korma, and saag paneer, as well as deep-fried sides like bhajis, samosas, pakoras and poppadoms.
Instead, plump for curries with tomato-based sauces, such as jalfrezi and madras – or forgo the sauce entirely with tandoori or shashlik dishes, which are cooked in a traditional clay oven. Keep rice plain, and opt for legume-based side dishes, such as lentil dhal and chana masala (made with chickpeas) for a filling fibre fix. Aloo Gobi, made with potatoes and cauliflower, is also a flavourful and healthy takeaway dish.