Pad Thai is wildly popular. Most people have never heard of Pad Pak.
Which of these easy Asian dishes is better for you?
Pad Pak—stir-fried vegetables with chicken, shrimp, or tofu and a small side of rice—wins, hands down. That’s because Pad Thai—with rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, egg, tofu, and crushed peanuts—is such bad news.
At Pick Up Stix, for example, the Chicken Pad Thai has 670 calories and 2,110 milligrams of sodium. At Pei Wei, the calories (even for the Vegetable & Tofu Pad Thai) hover around 1,500, and the sodium rounds to a hard-to-believe 6,000 mg—enough for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Somehow, Pad Thai still has a decent reputation. People who would never order an entrée of fried rice don’t flinch at a plate consisting largely of oil-soaked rice noodles. Yet Pei Wei’s and Pick Up Stix’s Pad Thais are worse than an entrée of their fried rice with chicken, shrimp, or beef.
We estimate that the Pad Pak at most Thai restaurants has 400 to 500 calories (plus another 300 for every 1½ cups of rice you eat). The sodium content is hard to estimate.
Tip: Beware of curry dishes at Thai restaurants. Their coconut can easily supply a day’s worth of saturated fat.
Going out to eat: which easy Asian dishes are the most healthy?
At Asian restaurants, order vegetables, not noodles. Get mixed vegetables with sautéed (not deep-fried and breaded) chicken, tofu, shrimp, or scallops. Skip higher-calorie Asian noodle dishes like lo mein and pad Thai, and deep-fried dishes like Orange or Crispy Beef, Sweet & Sour Pork, and General Tso’s, Lemon, Honey, or Sesame Chicken.
What about soy in Asian dishes?
Blogs and websites abound with warnings that soy is linked to the risk of breast cancer. In fact, soy foods don’t seem to increase (or decrease) the risk of breast cancer. Nor is soy a threat to thyroid glands, masculinity, fertility, memory, or anything else.
“When I started out in soy research 20 years ago, most researchers were convinced that soy was a great food for preventing cancer,” says Gertraud Maskarinec, a professor at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.
That’s because women in Japan, China, and Singapore, where soy is a diet staple, had (and still have) lower rates of breast cancer than U.S. women.
That belief was shaken in 1996, when a pilot study suggested that soy protein and soy isoflavones—compounds in soybeans that are similar to, but much weaker than, estrogen—stimulated the breast to produce more abnormal cells, which could boost cancer risk.
“The study did an incredible amount of harm to women, because it was interpreted out of proportion to what it was capable of showing,” says Maskarinec.
Her 2013 study contradicted the earlier results.
“In our study, 82 women consumed a diet containing either two servings of soy foods each day or less than three servings a week, and they ate each diet for six months,” she notes.
More soy made no difference. “We found no indication that they had more aberrant cells when they consumed lots of soy foods.”
Does soy have benefits?
“It’s clear that soy and its isoflavones protect against hot flashes in women during menopause,” says Christopher D’Adamo, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. In 13 studies, women taking isoflavones had 21 percent fewer hot flashes than those who took a placebo.
But the evidence that soy can protect women’s bones or reduce the risk of heart disease is weak. Eating soy-based veggieburgers or tofu in place of red meat, on the other hand, should help lower your cholesterol and your risk of colon cancer. But that’s probably because you’re eating less red meat and more of soy’s polyunsaturated fat.
Sources: Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 5: 785, 1996; Nutr. Cancer 65: 1116, 2013; Menopause 19: 776, 2012.
This article was originally posted in 2014 and is updated regularly.