Weight Loss 101: Eating Healthy with Ethnic Foods

Published on June 22, 2022 and last updated for accuracy on July 8, 2022
Weight Loss 101: Eating Healthy with Ethnic Foods

Most people love to experiment with food and try out different cuisines. In fact, enriching your diet with different foods and ingredients can be a positive experience and may actually help support your weight loss. Read on to find out how to eat delicious ethnic foods and still lose weight.

What does “ethnic food” mean?

At the very beginning, it’s important to clarify the meaning of “ethnic food” because we hear it all the time yet aren’t sure what it entails. The term “ethnic food” refers to cuisines originating from the heritage and culture of specific ethnic groups. We use this term to describe a food culture that aren’t our own. For example, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican cuisines are ethnic foods outside of their respective countries. Mexican food isn’t ethnic food in Mexico, but it is in Germany, for example (1). More and more Americans decide to explore what ethnic foods restaurants serve.

Popular ethnic cuisines

The US has more ethnic cuisines than any other place in the world, probably. These cuisines are unique in terms of ingredients they use and preparation methods they prefer. But what are the most popular ethnic cuisines in the United States? You can see them below (2):

  • Chinese food
  • Mexican food
  • Italian food
  • Thai food
  • Indian food
  • Japanese food
  • Korean food

All these cuisines are popular in different places. For example, Italian is widely prevalent in New Jersey, whereas Japanese cuisine is particularly popular in San Francisco. Big cities such as New York City are special in a way you can find any cuisine you like. Thai food restaurants, sushi places, you name it, have the most ethnic foods places.

Ethnic food places are incredibly popular fine dining spots among Americans thanks to a wide spectrum of flavors that “awaken” your taste buds. Many of them have professional chefs whose meals are like proper works of art.

How to eat healthy with ethnic foods

Nowadays, we have the option to eat any kind of food we want. Whether you’re in the mood for Chinese, Italian, or some other cuisine, it’s not that difficult to find a nice restaurant or get all the ingredients and follow the recipe to make a meal yourself. While it’s easy to assume delicious ethnic foods are fattening, they can help you slim down. Of course, it’s all about the choices you make. Below, you can see how to make any ethnic cuisine your weight-loss ally.

Chinese food

Chinese cuisine is well-known for the strong emphasis it places on colors, aromas, and taste. Compared to American food, Chinese food uses healthier preparation methods such as boiling, baking, steaming, and frying, among others.

The main ingredients of meals in Chinese cuisine are vegetables such as green onions. Undercooked foods are generally unacceptable in Chinese cooking; this cuisine prioritizes well-prepared food to facilitate absorption.

Keep in mind that Chinese cuisine in the US is a lot saltier and sweeter than traditional Chinese cuisine. That means you need to make wise choices in order to slim down. Here are a few healthy eating options that can help support your weight loss:

  • Steamed dumplings – pockets of dough filled with vegetables and meat such as cabbage and pork. While restaurants often fry dumplings, you can choose to have them steamed. This can promote satiety without increasing calorie intake. For example, one medium steamed dumpling has around 41 calories (3)
  • Egg drop soup or hot and sour soup – both options are low in calories
  • Moo goo gai pain – abundant in lean chicken and vegetables, this meal is low in calories but also delivers plenty of protein. Consumption of protein is important for both weight loss and weight maintenance (4). This nutrient suppresses your appetite and promotes a feeling of fullness
  • Beef and broccoli – a healthy dish that is high in protein but low in carbohydrates. To reduce the amount of fat in this meal, you can ask for steamed broccoli instead of stir-fried. Besides beef and broccoli, you can also opt for chicken and broccoli.
  • Chop suey – made from meat, eggs, and thinly sliced vegetables. This meal is a healthy option because it delivers protein and vegetables, but make sure to choose a light sauce to reduce the intake of salt and sugar.
  • Baked salmon – high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. Food studies confirm Omega-3 fatty acids can improve body composition and counteract obesity-related metabolic changes through lipid metabolism, anti-inflammatory properties, adipogenesis, and other mechanisms (5)
  • Moo shu vegetables – contain a lot of vegetables, which are abundant in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Kung pao chicken – high in protein and micronutrients such as selenium and niacin, but also a good source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats
  • Shrimp with lobster sauce – relatively low in calories, high in protein, abundant in vegetables

When eating in Chinese restaurants, make sure to look for terms such as zheng (steamed), Kao (roasted), jum (poached), Shao (barbecued). Use these terms as a sign of what to eat or avoid in a restaurant! Instead of fried, opt for steamed rice. Take it easy with soy sauce to reduce sodium intake.

Italian food

Probably the main characteristic of Italian cuisine is its simplicity. Many dishes contain a few ingredients only. The star of Italian cuisine, the classic example of the Mediterranean diet, is olive oil. At the same time, Italian food is also abundant in seafood and vegetables.

The actual characteristics of Italian cuisine vary from one area to another. For example, Southern Italian cuisine focuses on seafood, whereas Northern Italian cuisine reflects the richness of this mountainous region with foods such as white truffles with eggs, creamy polenta with rich butter, among others. Central Italian cuisine involves handmade pasta, T-bone steak, white beans, and garlic. Of course, cuisine in the Italian islands is all about seafood (6).

A study from Nutrition and Diabetes found high adherence to a traditional Italian Mediterranean diet was associated with a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese and a smaller five-year change in waist circumference. This eating pattern is also linked to reduced abdominal obesity (7). In other words, the Italian Mediterranean diet can not only help you slim down but may prevent weight gain as well.

Italian food is delicious, so it’s impossible not to wonder how to eat like an Italian and lose weight. These tips will help you out:

  • Use olive oil – as one of the healthiest types of fat in the world; olive oil has a wide range of health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health. Consumption of olive oil can reduce body fat and improve blood pressure (8). In other words, it’s useful to add olive oil to the meals you cook or prepare if you’re trying to slim down
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables – they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and enzymes that you need for good health and weight loss. Go one step further and eat fruits and vegetables that are in season.
  • Eat fish and seafood at least twice a week – they are healthy, relatively low in calories, abundant in Omega-3 fatty acids, and important nutrients.
  • Opt for healthier cooking methods – instead of frying your foods in deep oil, you can opt for cooking, baking, and grilling.
  • Use tomato sauce – not only is it delicious, but tomato sauce can also support cardiovascular health, improve digestion, and promote gut health. When it comes to tomatoes, you can also have them sun-dried or crushed.

Mexican food

Mexican cuisine is widely popular but also a subject of various misconceptions. Many people think Mexican cuisine is spicy and heavy. The truth is, Mexican food is deep in flavor, and many meals have fresh lightness thanks to all the vegetables, herbs, and citrus.

What makes Mexican cuisine so unique is a special blend of different cultures. You see, many traditional dishes represent their pre-hispanic origins.

Compared to the standard eating pattern in the US, the Mexican diet is more effective at improving insulin sensitivity and weight stability (9).

Below, you can see valuable tips to lose weight with Mexican food:

  • Burrito bowl – lower in calories than a wrapped burrito. To make the burrito bowl even healthier, opt for brown rice, pinto or black beans, and lean steak or grilled chicken. Top everything with salsa and lettuce. This dish is both delicious and healthy, and it can support your weight loss.
  • Tacos – allow you to control calorie intake since it’s easier to stick to a specific portion. Get the most from tacos by ordering lean steak, grilled chicken, or grilled fish. Make sure the tortilla is from baked corn because it’s higher in fiber content.
  • Black or pinto beans – abundant in protein, antioxidants, and fiber. A growing body of evidence confirms fiber intake supports weight loss (10)
  • Soup – many soups in Mexican cuisine are low in calories but abundant in various nutrients. Ideally, you should opt for a soup that is made with broth. Other useful ingredients include chicken tortillas, black beans, and shrimp.
  • Ceviche – made of raw fish marinated in lemon and lime juice, tomatoes, cilantro, and onions. The meal is low in calories but rich in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Fajitas – they’re versatile, and you can add healthy ingredients such as vegetables, and fish, shrimp, or chicken. Just make sure to choose corn instead of flour tortillas.
  • Enchiladas – although comfort food, they can be waistline-friendly, particularly if you order vegetable or a chicken version with red or green sauce (11)

In Mexican restaurants, it’s important to choose soft over hard tacos, go easy on the cheese, and limit chips (12).

Thai food

Thai food is famous for its exotic spices, sweet and sour, but also bitter and salty meals. Balance is the essence of Thai cuisine, just like Vietnamese food. All those different tastes create perfect harmony. Thai food restaurants are everywhere, and you have plenty of options in terms of meals you can order. The best Thai food meals for your weight loss include (13,14):

  • Tom yum soup – chicken or shrimp in the soup is low in fat and calories
  • Potatoes-thickened massaman curry – full of flavor, but always make sure the restaurant uses potatoes to thicken the curry instead of coconut cream
  • Summer rolls – rice noodles and veggies wrapped in rice paper. They aren’t fried but steamed. That way, you get the full flavor vegetables have to offer without fat
  • Papaya salad – abundant in fiber and vitamin C
  • Chicken satay – low-fat dish high in protein
  • Chicken larb – while considered a salad, chicken larb is a satisfying meal made with protein-rich chicken with mint, cilantro, onions, and chili peppers.
  • Pad Thai – menu staple of many Thai restaurants. Opt for pad Thai with tofu, chicken, or shrimp with extra vegetables

Making healthy choices

As seen throughout this post, every type of ethnic cuisine is unique in terms of ingredients and preparation methods. Restaurant menus show a wide spectrum of meals you can order. Plus, there are tons of recipes online too.

Making healthy choices can help you slim down while indulging in delicious ethnic foods. Below, you can see some useful recommendations:

  • Improve relationship with food – what we can learn from Chinese or Indian cuisine is that food can be medicine. Many ingredients are, actually, healthy for us and can help us slim down, maintain weight in a healthy range, and aid the management of various health problems. When you treat food as medicine, you will be automatically inclined to focus on healthier options.
  • It’s not just about counting calories – while calorie-counting can help us control food intake, it’s not the most important weight-loss measure. What you can learn from ethnic cuisines is that it is much more important to choose your foods wisely than to simply count calories.
  • Make your diet more plant-based – in cultures such as India, it’s perfectly normal to have several options of different plant-based foods such as beans. Each type of fruit and vegetable has a different nutritional profile. Increasing the intake of plants can also help you eat more fiber and lose weight.
  • Drink tea with your dessert – in many cultures, it’s practically a tradition to have dessert. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to be careful. Otherwise, you could jeopardize weight-loss efforts. The biggest problem with desserts is that you want more and more. A useful thing that people in China do is that desserts are served with unsweetened tea with dessert. Drink a sip after every bite. This will “kill” your urge to eat more sweets.
  • Make your plants versatile – versatility is good because it delivers different nutrients. Always make sure you have different ingredients, colors, and textures on your plate.
  • Add a touch of ginger to your soups or smoothies and more foods – ginger can improve cardiovascular health and promote weight loss by combating water retention and improving satiety (15)


America has always been the promised land that promises immigrants from other countries a better life. This country has become the place where different cultures and their respective cuisines coexist. In other words, society has become a melting pot that gives you the opportunity to eat all kinds of foods from a wide range of cultures. There are tons of ways to lose weight when eating ethnic foods. Of course, it all comes down to the choices you make. Always go for foods that are prepared with healthier cooking methods and contain plenty of protein, vegetables, and other healthy ingredients.


  1. https://ncceh.ca/environmental-health-in-canada/health-agency-projects/ethnic-and-specialty-foods
  2. https://www.chefspencil.com/most-popular-ethnic-cuisines-in-america/
  3. https://www.livestrong.com/article/315728-how-many-calories-are-in-steamed-dumplings-in-chinese-food/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25926512/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29621669/
  6. https://oureverydaylife.com/italian-cuisine-characteristics-12297057.html
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5916888/
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28808791/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4733259/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31174214/
  11. https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-mexican-food-health
  12. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/eating_healthy_at_ethnic_restaurants
  13. https://thaiginger.com/best-thai-foods-for-weight-loss/
  14. https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-thai-food-health
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22538118/
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