If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I lived in China for a time. And if you’re new here, well, welcome! And now you know I lived there!
Anyway, I got pregnant and gave birth to both of my daughters in China.
And I’m married to a Chinese man.
So, if you’re wondering if eating Chinese food while pregnant is okay, I will tell you all about that.
A Little Backstory…
While I lived in China with my husband, his mother would come over to help out. Being Chinese, she only knew how to make her type of cuisine. So, I ate Chinese food during both of my pregnancies.
Until I’d go nuts because I’d be craving something I couldn’t find as easily that I missed from back home. I cried tears of joy when a package full of Little Debbie’s Swiss Cake Rolls, butterscotch pudding, and all sorts of little goodies arrived.
My husband would also scout out other places to eat to give me a break from time to time. But for the most part, my meals were Chinese dishes.
Both of my children were born healthy and have grown up healthy. In fact, the doctor once marveled over my youngest when she was almost 3 years old because she spoke in full sentences using big words. Though I don’t think we can give Chinese food credit for that.
Is it okay to eat Chinese food while pregnant?
Yes! For starters, China is one of the world’s most populated countries. What do pregnant women eat there? Chinese food! I ate Chinese food during pregnancy in the first trimester, and all my metrics were fine.
And aside from Chinese food in pregnancy’s first trimester, I ate it throughout those pregnancies.
Then why do people think Chinese food is bad during pregnancy?
I’ll tell you why…it’s the MSG. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has so many rumors swirling around it. Yes, it can be in Chinese food, but it occurs naturally in a bunch of healthy foods you eat (I’ll get to those in a minute) and other types of cuisine.
For most people, though, MSG is completely safe. Even during pregnancy. All of it is sodium and amino acid glutamate, a natural component. You may see it listed on ingredient lists as sodium glutamate, monosodium glutamate monohydrate, monosodium salt, and flavor enhancer E621. It’s even sold under big brand names (Sazón comes to mind, but there are others) or generically as “umami seasoning.”
Can you eat MSG while pregnant?
Yes, you can. The FDA labels it as safe. Studies have found that large doses of pure MSG can give you symptoms, but this was done without food. Whatever you order from the Chinese takeout place up the street, you will never even put close to the amount of MSG in your food as the amount used in this study.
Even if you were to gobble up everything at a Chinese buffet, you’d never be able to consume the amounts of MSG that would harm you. Not that I recommend testing that theory, but you’d seriously become full long before you could ingest too much MSG.
The real thing to watch out for is that MSG foods tend to be high in sodium too. And THAT is one metric you really want to keep an eye on. Too much salt anytime is bad, but during pregnancy, you should keep it under 2,300mg per day.
During my second pregnancy, my mother-in-law insisted on doting on me with food. Some of it I liked, like her dumplings and when she’d make steamed fish, but other foods I could taste too much salt in there.
My doctor lectured my husband after one of my checkups for baby #2 because she said I was getting too much sodium. It was making my blood pressure skyrocket. She sent a note home for his mother so she would know it was from the doctor herself.
So, be it MSG or plain old salt, you want to limit your interaction. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have Chinese food while pregnant.
Which foods naturally contain MSG?
A little further above, I mentioned that some foods naturally have MSG. If you’re concerned about MSG in your Chinese food, or any food, you will want to avoid eating mushrooms, tomatoes, walnuts, sardines, anchovies, aged cheeses, cured ham, and broths.
MSG is often added to Chinese dishes and other Asian fares, but you’ll find it in canned soups, salty snacks (like chips!), fast food, frozen meals, and seasoning blends.
If you’re truly craving Chinese food and are concerned about MSG and sodium, I have a list below of popular Chinese dishes that you’ll find here. Some of the authentic Chinese dishes people in China eat are on here too, but I’m only adding the ones I know you’ll find on restaurant menus here.
What Chinese food can I eat?
If you’re craving it, I say go for it. This might be your only baby or your last baby to complete your family. However, take that with a grain of salt, quite literally! If you eat salty foods all the time, that’s just not healthy. Balance is always the key during pregnancy and beyond.
I’m listing some of your favorites (mine too!), so you’ll know which Chinese foods are a better choice during pregnancy and which ones you should eat sparingly.
Before I do, though, if you don’t see something you want to order from your favorite Chinese restaurant below, these general rules will help you make wise decisions for your health during pregnancy…
Smart Choices for Chinese Food
- Stir-fried chicken or vegetable dishes
- Chop suey (with chicken, vegetables, or shrimp)
- Steamed fish
- Steamed veggies
- Steamed rice
- Steamed tofu dishes
Chinese Foods to Avoid
- Anything battered or fried
- Sweet and sour styles
- Spring rolls and fried wontons
- Fried rice
- Noodle dishes (these are fried)
Now, let’s go on to your favorite Chinese dishes!
Every Chinese place in the US that I’ve ever been to has egg rolls. In China, my husband always used the term spring rolls, though. I’m still hard-pressed to explain the difference. I surely don’t know, but egg rolls and spring rolls are delicious. They’re safe, of course, and have tons of veggies in them, but they are fried. And that means you should limit them.
If you must have your fix, order one or split one with someone. As for spring rolls, if you go to a restaurant that serves all sorts of Asian cuisine, you may find fresh Vietnamese-style spring rolls made with soft rice paper. These aren’t fried, and you have my full blessing to dig into these. However, watch those sauces. Soy sauce has tons of sodium (choose the low-sodium kind), and that sweet chili sauce is full of sugar.
- Wonton Soup
This is a personal favorite of mine. My mother-in-law would always make this to the point that I grew tired of eating it. You can enjoy this as long as the broth isn’t too salty. I recommend eating more wontons out of the soup than drinking the broth. Also, be sure your soup is super-hot in temperature. This ensures the meat in the wontons (usually pork) is fully cooked and safe.
- Egg Drop Soup
The eggs in this soup are safe because they’re cooked. It’s one of the healthiest Chinese soups of all. It’s easy to make at home, so that you can do so without any unnecessary additives.
- Fried Dumplings
No! Ok, you can have one or two to taste. But if you want to watch your fat content and not come out of this pregnancy with scale shock because you gained so much, limit those fried dumplings. A better choice is to go with the steamed ones.
And honestly, steamed is the way they do it in China. My husband and his parents would fry up leftover steamed dumplings the next day. So good, but makes you wonder if your Chinese place near you takes their leftover steamed dumplings and fries them. Hmmm…
- Fried Rice
You’re not going to like my answer here, but too bad. In China, fried rice is made a bit differently than it is here. You take cold cooked rice and fry it in the wok with egg, veggies, and leftovers.
Here, they throw in LOTS of soy sauce which is how it gets that caramel color. They use lots of oil too. So you may think you’re eating eggs, peas, carrots, pork, and other nutritious items, but it’s the frying and excess soy sauce doing you in. Stick to the steamed rice.
- Spare Ribs
I never saw anything like the spare ribs Chinese restaurants here have, except in the southern part of the mainland. And it only slightly resembled what we get here. I am a huge fan of those spare ribs slathered in hoisin for a sweet and sticky taste. But this appetizer is loaded with sugar and sodium. I’d make this a very rare indulgence if I were you.
- Sweet and Sour
The closest thing they have to sweet and sour in China is something called you xiang rou si, a sweet and sour pork dish. It’s not deep-fried like we see here, either. It’s so much better. Sweet and sour, anything, though, is going to come with heaps of sugar and salt to create that flavor. This is one to avoid due to the deep-fry, sugar, and salt, though if you want to snag a few pieces of your husband’s plate, go for it in moderation.
- Orange Beef
Yeah, sorry, but no to this one too. It’s safe, and it’s just something you should avoid eating all the time.
- Chow Mein
Chow mein itself isn’t a bad idea if you know how it’s being prepared. It would be fine if YOU made it and used less oil, more veggies, and lean proteins. Chow mein has soy sauce and brown sugar, so it’s one to limit yourself on when the craving strikes. Try asking for a half portion, splitting it if you can’t shake the craving, or make it yourself!
- Chop Suey
I’m about to drop a bomb on you…this is NOT a Chinese dish. This is our recreation of what we think a Chinese dish should be. That said, you will find it on many Chinese menus because it’s so popular here. It has lots of vegetables in it and lean meats. Pairing it with steamed rice is an excellent option to get that Chinese flavor you’re salivating without taking in too much fat, sugar, or sodium.
- General Tso’s Chicken
This isn’t a dish I have ever found anywhere in China. I kept asking for it, too, and my husband thought I was nuts until we came to the US. Anyway, sometimes listed as General Tso’s or General Tao’s, whatever you want to call it, it’s one of the most unhealthy Chinese dishes. Eating the whole portion would almost put you at your entire calorie count for the day.
I’d avoid this one, though again, a little bit isn’t going to hurt things. However, I know how I get when I have this dish, so I don’t order it. I can’t stop myself!
- Mapo Tofu
Now mapo tofu has to be one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Oddly, I never looked its way in the states before going to China. It is an authentic Chinese dish. It’s flavorful with the tofu in a spicy black bean sauce. This is a great choice if you don’t want something that’s just steamed.
Final thoughts on Chinese food while pregnant…
That list above should help steer you to healthier options. Overall, MSG isn’t something to worry about. If you’re so concerned about it, you’d better not eat those foods that naturally contain it, like tomatoes and mushrooms.
If your Chinese restaurant makes things fresh, they will usually post a sign or something on the menu saying you can request no MSG. That’s also an option for you. But overall, to eat Chinese food healthfully while pregnant, avoid having too many salty, fatty, sugary, and fried things, and you’ll be just fine!
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California, where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs.
She loves eating too much sushi, exercising, and jamming out on her Fender. Read more about Leslie here.