Traditional Thai food is one of the most loved cuisines in America. For the most part, it’s considered a pretty healthy restaurant meal – if you select carefully. Some people even think that Thai food is what keeps most Thai people slim. There’s some truth in this, but then again Thai people like to walk. Seriously, though, if you look at what the Thai diet features (think colorful vegetables, seafood, plenty of health-boosting herbs, served over a pile of rice), you can understand why it’s considered healthy. But like with many cuisines in restaurants, some calorie loaders may be hidden away if you’re not careful. So, in this post, we review the possible benefits and drawbacks of common ingredients used in Thai food and if it’s healthy.
Common Ingredients of Thai Food and Their Nutrition
Something that’s quite abundant in Thai food is herbs and spices, which studies show to have several health benefits to the body.
Below is a list of widely used ingredients in Thai foods and their nutritional information, along with possible health benefits:
The rich golden yellow color you see on curries comes from curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. The compound has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and promotes brain function and brain cell creation.
Some studies have shown turmeric to have the potential to protect against heart disease and diabetes, although more research is needed.
Turmeric is also known to:
- Improve heart conditions
- Help the body fight off infections
- Help those with arthritis
- Help with digestion
It’s typical to find coconut milk in Thai curries and soups. While it contains high levels of saturated fat, coconut milk has been shown to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL (good cholesterol).
Galangal (Thai ginger)
Galangal is a relative of ginger and is often used in curry pastes, sauces, and dishes like tom yum soup. It’s mainly used to aid digestion. Thai ginger is also medicinal and is used in Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
Some even say it’s more potent than ginger. Some of its known benefits include:
- Reduce abdominal pain and discomfort
- Reduce vomiting, seasickness, and motion sickness
- Treat diarrhea
- Cure hiccups
- Treat ulcers and inflammation of the stomach
As the name suggests, lemongrass is a herb that has a citrus fragrance. It’s used extensively in Thai cooking and is said to have several health benefits, such as:
- Alleviating abdominal pain
- Treating fever, flu, and colds
- Curing headaches, arthritis, and fungal conditions
Coriander, commonly known as cilantro or Chinese parsley in the West, it is part of Thai cooking. It can be used in seed form or as a fresh herb. Coriander seed has been used since ancient times by healers in Rome, Greece, China, India, and the UK to treat:
- Digestive complications
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating and other gastrointestinal problems
- Bacterial and fungal infections
Thai chilies are used to add flavor and heat to Thai foods. Out of all the chiles, cayenne pepper has been shown to be the most powerful health-wise. Chili peppers contain capsaicin which has been found to promote fat-burning and reduce appetite.
Other common Thai ingredients which pack impressive nutritional profiles and make Thai food healthy include:
- Thai holy basil
Why Thai Food Is Considered Healthy
Thai food is usually nutritious and generally healthy. Vegetables make the main part of every dish. For instance, if you order fried rice, you’ll almost always find peas, carrots, garlic, and green onions.
Pad Thai, one of the most popular Thai dishes, is made with cooked green shallots, bean sprouts, fresh ground peanuts in a tamarind sauce, and green onions. Tom Yum Soup comes loaded with vegetables, tomatoes, lemongrass, mushrooms, and green onions.
The best part about Thai food is that it usually contains a good balance of macronutrients – protein, carbs, and fats. The vegetables commonly used in Thai foods are non-starchy, including cabbage, carrots, onions, tomato, peppers, and broccoli.
These veggies are packed with vitamins, fiber, minerals, and other crucial components that promote good digestion and overall health. Additionally, most Thai food healthy, including fast food, are fresh, never frozen. Whenever you order from street vendors, they have everything prepared to make your dishes in minutes.
The Least Healthy Side of Thai Food
For the most part, Thai cuisine is healthy and nutritious. However, not all foods are healthy. Typically, the least healthy Thai foods are those that have been Westernized. Traditional Thai foods are quite healthy and mostly based on vegetables, lean proteins, and a load of herbs.
Pad Thais and fried rice contain large portions of white rice and rice noodles, which are refined carbs. Eating refined carbs can contribute to weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Unlike traditional Thai food, most Western Thai restaurants cook deep-fried foods, such as egg rolls, cheese wontons, and fried pumpkin. Fried foods can lead to various health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Moreover, they are high in sodium, which can increase the risk of high blood pressure and damaged blood vessels in the heart and kidneys.
Healthy Thai Cuisine to Order
To enjoy a healthy bowl of Thai dishes, here are some of the healthiest options you can order:
- Papaya salad: contains shredded papaya mixed with chilies, peanuts, green beans, and a fish sauce dressing
- Tom Yum Soup: contains lemongrass, broth, shrimp, chilies, galangal, among other ingredients
- Beef and broccoli: contains lean beef, broccoli, and a mix of other veggies
- Pad Thai: contains rice noodles, peanut sauce, veggies, bean sprouts, and lean protein
- Spring rolls: fresh vegetables rolled in rice paper
On top of ordering these healthy choices, it’s always advisable to watch your portions to limit your intake of sodium and calories. Likewise, limit your intake of refined carbs and opt for unrefined carbs like brown rice.