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Is Dim Sum Actually Healthy?

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Nothing fills out a big night like a thousand tiny dim sums – it may just be the ultimate Asian comfort food. And with its bite-sized portions, high protein, low-carb ingredients and reliance on steam cooking, dim sum certainly seems healthier than other comfort foods like fried chicken and ramen. But are you really making a healthier choice if you opt for a night at your favourite dim sum joint over Pizza Hut or KFC?

First off, the question, “Is dim sum healthy?” is too broad, as dim sum isn’t a single dish but a style that includes hundreds of ingredient combinations. On the other hand, some styles do tend to be healthier than others. After all, few people would argue that fried food is as healthy as “sushi”.

Unfortunately, dim sum is not really that healthy, broadly speaking. Here are some of the main reasons why.

Dim sum has a lot of calories

When it comes to dim sum, we can only speak in nutritional broad strokes. Some websites, such as Myfitnesspal and Livestrong, have attempted an exact nutritional breakdown of various dim sums, but it’s difficult because recipes and sizes vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant.

With these rough estimates, the calories of a single dim sum item (e.g. dumpling, roll, meatball, etc.) max out at around 300 calories for the sugariest, fattiest ones, but most range between 50 and 100 calories. Taking a ballpark average of 75 calories, it takes 9-12 items to fill out a meal, depending on your calorie needs.

Unfortunately, most of us will eat more than that, because…

You’ll probably stuff yourself at a dim sum restaurant, and it’s your body’s fault

Most meals will be served once, and what’s on your plate is what you get. But one of the hallmarks of dim sum is that it comes in a steady stream of new dishes served in tiny quantities. This is great for a fun night but bad for your diet because once you start eating, your body plays all sorts of little tricks on you to keep eating, going to far as to numb you from stomach pain until the food supply runs out. And usually, with dim sum, it doesn’t run out.

Fat, salt and carbs

Let’s think about some of the most common sorts of dim sum items: dumplings, rolls, buns and meatballs. These include a carbohydrate wrapper (except for meatballs) filled with some sort of meat filling (at least, for savoury types). While these are usually steamed and not fried, they don’t need to be: they are already loaded with oil and fat, not only in the meat itself but in the bindings and casings used to help those delicious fish balls and minced pork stick together. They’re also usually loaded with salt. Nutritionally speaking, these are basically tiny hotdogs in buns (sometimes literally).

Even whole meat dim sum items, like pork ribs and chicken feet, tend to be rather fatty and glazed with salty, sugary sauces. We won’t even go into why sweet cakes and custard-filled buns are bad for your waistline…

Is there a healthy version of dim sum?

Dim sum will never be a health food, but there are some tricks you can do to minimise the dent it will put in your diet.

The obvious one is to resist your bodily urges, count your dumplings and simply stop eating at a certain point. If you do, though, you’ll probably feel unsatisfied and find yourself finished by the time your friends are barely getting started. Lame! Here are a few more reasonable suggestions:

  • Take breaks. Wait a full 10 minutes between every three items you consume to give your body a chance to let itself feel satisfied.
  • Avoid dessert items. One or two are great to balance out the bombardment of savouriness, but these are at the top of the caloric scale, so don’t overindulge.
  • Favour low-carb options. Only go for seconds on dough-free options like meatballs and ribs.
  • Only eat one type at a time. Resist the urge to plop all three shrimp har gow onto your little plate.
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