If you’re after some good Chinese food when you’re pregnant, you’ll want to know which dishes are safe, which are not, and if there are any particular ingredients to be aware of that might be best to avoid. What can you eat safely?
Most Chinese food is fine to eat while you’re pregnant as long as the dish is served hot. However, just as with other types of cuisines, there are some ingredients that are safer than others during pregnancy.
Chinese food can have hidden sources of salt or sugar, depending on the dish, so we’ll break down some common ones here.
What about MSG? And can I have Chinese food in the first trimester? These (and many other) questions are answered below!
Is Chinese Food Bad During Pregnancy? Should I Avoid It?
First off, when we say “Chinese food” we’re talking about Chinese-American food, or the kind of Chinese food that is available at restaurants and takeaways in the USA, UK, Europe, Australia, and so on.
It’s the food commonly found outside China and adjusted to suit the local palate. If you eat authentic Chinese food then some of these principles will still apply.
Contrary to what some people think, Chinese food isn’t particularly “bad” during pregnancy. Most Chinese food is safe, although a lot of it is not particularly healthy.
Chinese food has a bit of a reputation for not being safe while pregnant, mostly due to possible reactions from MSG (which we will discuss below) rather than all Chinese food.
You can still enjoy Chinese food if you know what ingredients to be aware of. Here are the main things you need to know:
Salt (and Sodium) Levels in Chinese Food
Chinese food is often high in salt, with some dishes having five times more salt than a McDonald’s Big Mac (source: Newsweek).
Whether from supermarkets or from restaurants, more than half of the dishes tested contained over 3g of salt per dish which is half the recommended daily intake according to the World Health Organization, which recommends 5g of salt maximum per day.
The dish at the top of the list for salt? Beef in black bean sauce (Source: Zmescience).
Unlike in many other countries, 80% of the salt in Chinese dishes is added during cooking rather than being present in prepackaged foods.
Initiatives are now being taken to reduce the level of salt in many dishes (Source: JMIR).
In pregnancy, your salt requirements are the same as non-pregnant women, though too much salt can affect your blood pressure, or contribute towards unwanted swelling (edema) during pregnancy (source: Aptaclub).
Therefore keeping your sodium and salt intake in check is a good idea during pregnancy.
To combat salt levels, look for dishes that have steamed vegetables, and avoid adding soy sauce to your meals.
One tablespoon of soy sauce has 1,300mg of sodium which is just over half of the average daily value for adult consumption (Source: USDA).
Sugar in Chinese Food
Some Chinese dishes are high in sugar, depending on the sauce used.
Staples like orange chicken, any sweet and sour dishes, and General Tso’s chicken are very high in sugar.
To give you an idea, one order of sweet and sour pork in a restaurant can have 62.9g of sugar (not including the rice) (Source: USDA).
That’s almost three times the daily recommendation of sugar intake for women of no more than 25g of sugar per day (Source: AHA).
Eating too much sugar in pregnancy can cause problems, including a higher risk of gestational diabetes and a negative impact on your baby’s brain development (source: Cleveland Clinic).
There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself now and again, but because many Chinese dishes are savory, be mindful of the ‘hidden’ sugar content too.
Calories and Fat in Chinese Foods
Some deep-fried Chinese foods are oily and high in fat. Just as with other types of cuisine, deep-fried foods are best eaten in moderation, as they add unnecessary calories and saturated fat.
Some examples in Chinese cooking are won tons, prawn crackers, spring rolls, or banana or apple beignets.
Later in this article, we’ve broken down some popular Chinese dishes and whether they’re a good choice during pregnancy.
Can I Eat Chinese Food in Early Pregnancy (The First Trimester)?
You can safely eat Chinese food in early pregnancy, and there are no particular ingredients that are any more dangerous in early pregnancy than they are in later trimesters.
The one ingredient people have been concerned about is MSG, although if you’re not allergic, you shouldn’t have problems eating small amounts that are in food. More on MSG is covered below.
Is MSG (Ajinomoto) in Chinese Food Safe When Pregnant?
MSG, known as Ajinomoto, or monosodium glutamate, occurs naturally in a lot of foods, such as cheeses and tomatoes. It’s the sodium salt of a common amino acid called glutamic acid.
We carry this acid in our bodies, and it is sometimes added to food as a flavor enhancer. It’s particularly common in Chinese food.
MSG is generally recognized as safe to be added to foods, according to the FDA (Source: FDA). This includes its use in Chinese cooking.
For this reason, MSG is also considered safe during pregnancy, and unless you’re particularly sensitive to it, you don’t have to avoid it.
Some people have strong reactions to MSG, though scientists have not yet been able to pinpoint exactly why that is.
In an independent scientific study, people who reacted to MSG with symptoms such as headaches, palpitations, numbness, flushing or tingling experienced these symptoms when consuming 3 grams or more of MSG without food.
However, food servings with MSG typically contain no more than 0.5 grams (Source: FDA), so it is unlikely that you would react negatively to MSG unless you are particularly sensitive. If MSG doesn’t agree with you, it’s best to avoid it.
Many restaurants have dishes that do not contain MSG, and some ready meals are labeled MSG-free as well.
The most recent studies on MSG have shown that when pregnant rats were fed MSG, they had higher instances of hypertension (Source: Egyptian Journals).
However, concerning MSG’s effects upon human health and fetal development, MSG is considered to be safe to consume as humans do not ingest high quantities as the mice did in previous studies.
The current science says that more studies are needed to determine if MSG has any ill effects during pregnancy (Source: WileyLibrary).
There are some who say that high doses of MSG can contribute to autism, but there is no science to back this up.
This story most likely got started due to one study that showed brain changes in the fetuses of pregnant mice who were fed very high quantities of MSG – much higher than anyone could eat in one meal.
The most prevalent concern of MSG when it was first added to foods in the US was its possible impact on obesity and its effects on the brains of rats (Source: IJFP).
Once again, the FDA considers MSG to be safe to consume. You can avoid it if you wish, but it isn’t necessary.
Is Soy Sauce OK When Pregnant?
Soy sauce is safe to eat when you’re pregnant, provided you are enjoying it as part of a balanced diet (Source: NHS).
The main thing to take into account with soy sauce is its sodium content. Although it is low in calories – 8.5 calories per tablespoon – it has 879mg of sodium which is 37% of the daily value of a 2000 calorie diet (Source: Nutritionix), so you’ll want to use it sparingly.
Chinese Appetizers and Sides During Pregnancy
Here are some guidelines for popular Chinese appetizers and sides in pregnancy:
Egg rolls are safe to eat, though because they are fried, they are high in fat, with 223 calories per egg roll – 96 of which come from the fat alone (Source: Nutritionix).
You could try making your own at home and baking them for a healthier version, or just eat them in moderation. Be aware that some of the dips they come with, like sweet chili, can contain a lot of sugar, too.
Chinese spring rolls are another popular fried food, with veggies and sometimes meat wrapped in fried wonton wrappers.
If you are at a restaurant and they offer Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, those are made with softened rice paper and are not fried, and while they are not Chinese, they are a healthier choice.
Despite the name, crispy seaweed is actually deep-fried greens such as kale.
The greens are sprinkled with salt and sometimes also a bit of sugar after frying.
Crispy seaweed is often served on the side of other appetizers, although you can also find it served on its own with a sweet dipping sauce. You can read more about genuine seaweed in our guide here.
Wonton soup is a delicious soup and is a healthy choice. Wonton wrappers are filled with ground pork or chicken (a bit like ravioli) and are served in a delicious broth, often with bits of seaweed and shitake mushrooms.
Because the wontons contain meat, you want to make sure your soup is served to you piping hot.
Egg Drop Soup
Egg Drop Soup is safe to eat in pregnancy since the eggs have been cooked in the broth.
If you want to make this soup healthier, you can make it at home and skip any unnecessary additives.
Overall, though, Chinese soups are the healthiest choices on the menu compared to fried dishes. If you’re partial to egg drop soup, we have a complete guide to it during pregnancy.
Fried dumplings and Wontons
Deep-fried Chinese dumplings and wontons both have high amounts of fat so you’ll want to eat them sparingly.
Dumplings and fried wontons can be filled not only with vegetables but also with meat, fish, or cheese, so eat them as soon as possible after they’ve been fried.
Sometimes dumplings can have the ingredients mixed together with the dough rather than as a filling, but they’re still calorific if they’re fried!
Steamed dumplings are one of the healthiest choices you can make when eating in a Chinese restaurant, and they are every bit as delicious!
They can be filled with meat, veggies or fish. Make sure you eat them freshly made and that they are still piping hot when brought to your table.
For your dipping sauce, choose chili sauce rather than soy sauce to cut back on your sodium intake.
Fried rice (Including Egg Fried Rice)
Fried rice is usually white rice with peas and diced veggies, along with lots of soy sauce which is high in sodium.
The rice is fried in oil, so it is high in fat. The eggs in egg fried rice are fine to eat as they have been thoroughly cooked with the rice, but if you are watching your sodium and fat intake, steamed rice is a healthier choice.
Shrimp are fine to eat while pregnant, provided that they are fully cooked.
Fried shrimp are higher in fat and therefore are not as healthy as some other dishes, but you can eat them in moderation.
If you’re a fan of shrimp, you’ll probably want to read our pregnancy shrimp guide here.
Chinese spare ribs are cooked in a sweet barbecue sauce which is high in both sugar and sodium.
The meat that is used is also high in fat, so if you love spare ribs, they are fine to eat occasionally. For more on BBQ and smoked meat, you might want to read our guide here.
Chicken Soup (Including Chicken and Sweetcorn)
As with other Chinese soups, chicken soup is a relatively healthy choice, particularly when it is made fresh.
Go for soups that are made with canned or fresh sweetcorn rather than creamed corn, which is high in sugar and fat.
Avoid freeze-dried soups such as Cup a Soup which are high in sodium.
Main Chinese Dishes When Pregnant
For your main Chinese dishes when pregnant, here are some tips to consider:
Sweet and sour dishes
As we mentioned before, Chinese sweet and sour dishes contain high amounts of sugar and salt to give them their salty-sweet flavor.
In addition, the meat is often deep-fried, as in sweet and sour pork. You are therefore eating deep-fried meat in sugar and salt (which is probably why it’s delicious, but not great for you).
Another dish to watch out for is Orange Beef – that orange sauce is packed with sugar.
While these dishes are safe to eat, they are definitely not healthy and should be eaten in moderation where possible.
Chow mein – Chinese stir-fried noodle dishes – can be relatively healthy if it is stir-fried in light oil and prepared with lots of vegetables and lean protein such as chicken breasts.
Fresh is definitely preferable, and homemade is even better because you can control the amount of fat you are using.
Just be aware that chow mein sauce typically contains soy sauce and brown sugar, so use the sauce sparingly.
Chop Suey is a classic and is one of the best choices you can make. Made with lots of veggies like cabbage, water chestnuts and bean sprouts, as well as lean meat and steamed rice, you can pack in the vitamins while enjoying Chinese flavors.
If you’re in a restaurant, order this dish with shrimp or chicken and brown rice for maximum health and taste benefits!
General Tso’s Chicken
General Tso’s Chicken, while one of the most popular Chinese mains, is also one of the unhealthiest dishes.
Pieces of chicken are breaded, deep-fried, and then served in a sugary sauce. One order has as many as 1578 calories!
It also has 2327mg of sodium, which is 97% of the daily values based on a 2000 calorie diet (Source: Nutritionix).
As with all high sugar and salt dishes, go easy on it – or perhaps have a half serving with a side of stir-fried veggies.
Sesame chicken is often prepared with deep-fried pieces of chicken and served with a sweet and sour sauce.
While not the healthiest choice, it is better than General Tso’s Chicken as one serving has 581 calories (Source: Nutritionix).
You can make a healthier version of this dish by using stir-fried chicken rather than deep-fried, and making a lighter sauce.
Black bean sauce dishes
Black bean sauce dishes get their flavor from chili rather than sodium, so overall they are a healthier choice than sweet and sour dishes.
Ma-Po Tofu is a good choice – tofu in black bean sauce. Other black bean dishes with lean protein such as chicken or fish, or stir-fried vegetables, are good choices.
Get these dishes freshly made if you can, as canned or prepackaged versions will contain more sodium and other additives.
Oyster sauce dishes
Many brands of oyster sauce may not contain any oysters, but oyster sauce is safe to consume while pregnant.
Oyster sauce adds flavor while being relatively low in calories, at 9 calories per tablespoon.
Dishes like Oyster Sauce Chicken or Chinese Broccoli are popular choices.
You can read more about eating oysters (and oyster sauce) during pregnancy right here.
Spicy dishes, e.g. Szechuan Style
If you crave spicy food, you’ll be glad to know that spicy food is safe to eat while you’re pregnant. Some Szechuan dishes can be incredibly hot.
Just be aware that spicy foods can cause a bit of indigestion while pregnant, particularly in the third trimester.
You can read more about the safety and effects of spicy food whilst pregnant here.
Foo Young is an omelet dish, and there are many variations.
The main ingredients are eggs and Chinese vegetables, with sometimes the addition of shrimp, roast pork, chicken, beef or lobster.
Although the patties are fried, Foo Young is a fairly healthy choice given that it is high in nutrition with the egg and vegetable content. So long as the eggs are cooked all the way through (including the yolk), you can safely eat it when you’re pregnant.
Foo Young is often, however, served with gravy which you may want to skip as gravy is high in fat and sodium.
Homemade vs Takeout and Chinese Restaurant Food
If you find yourself craving Chinese food while pregnant, you are not alone!
This is a very common craving among pregnant women. While some people think it is the MSG content that causes these cravings, the fact is that researchers still don’t know the true cause.
What they do know is that even though cravings differ between individuals, rice and Chinese noodles were high on the list of the most craved foods (Source: MDPI).
The good news is that you can indulge your cravings in a healthy way.
As with many other types of cuisine, homemade Chinese food can be much healthier than dishes you’d get for takeout, at a restaurant, or even in the supermarket.
Here are some ideas to make healthier yet still satisfying Chinese dishes:
- Use oyster sauce or chili sauce as a flavoring or dip rather than soy sauce (to cut down on sodium)
- Use light oils for stir frying, and avoid deep-fried foods (to lower the fat content)
- Choose steamed, brown rice which is low in fat and packed full of nutrients, as opposed to white rice which is low in fiber and vitamins
- For fried dishes such as dumplings, wontons and egg rolls, make your own baked versions
- Add lots of deliciously crispy Chinese vegetables to your dishes: water chestnuts, mung bean sprouts, cabbage (all kinds), mushrooms, leeks, spring onions, Chinese or standard broccoli, Bok Choy, fresh or canned corn – the list is endless!
Now you know that Chinese food, while safe to eat while pregnant, carries some important considerations such as fat, sodium and sugar content.
If you find that you’re craving Chinese food often, there are plenty of options to make healthier versions of your favorite Chinese dishes so that you can indulge your cravings and enjoy your food!
Want to eat out or get takeout safely? Check out:
- Our guide to eating Mexican food during pregnancy
- Whether or not it’s OK to eat some Mcdonald’s items when pregnant
- A guide to eating at Subway when you’re pregnant
This article has been reviewed and approved for publication in line with our editorial policy.