Thailand is a land of contrasts. It’s rich in both natural beauty and man-made wonders, with a unique culture and cuisine that has garnered worldwide attention. But while Thai food is often lauded for its health benefits, not all their dishes are created equal. Some Thai dishes are loaded with fresh ingredients and offer a variety of health benefits, while others are saturated in unhealthy fats and highly processed ingredients. With that in mind, if you’re looking to eat healthy Thai food, it’s important to know which dishes to order… and which to avoid.
Here are some of the best and worst Thai dishes for your health:
What Thai Food Is Healthy?
The healthiest Thai dishes are typically those that are steamed, grilled, or stir-fried. These cooking methods help to preserve the nutrients in fresh ingredients, without adding excessive unhealthy fats or ultra processed ingredients.
Some of the healthiest Thai dishes include:
Tom Yum Soup (14)
This popular soup is made with a fragrant broth of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and fish sauce. It’s typically made with shrimp, but can also be made with chicken or tofu.
This hot and sour soup is healthy because (13):
- It’s lower in calories than other creamy soups made with coconut milk.
- It contains immune-boosting ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves.
- The broth is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Pad Thai (8)
This popular street food dish is made with rice noodles, shrimp, tofu, eggs, bean sprouts, and a variety of spices. Pad thai is often served with a side of fresh vegetables, making it a healthy option.
This dish is healthy because:
- It’s a good source of protein, thanks to the shrimp, tofu, and eggs.
- It contains plenty of fiber-rich ingredients like bean sprouts, and vegetables.
- It’s typically made with healthy oils like peanut oil or vegetable oil.
Green Papaya Salad (6)
Shredded green papaya, green beans, and tomatoes come together to create this popular Thai salad. It’s often tossed with a spicy dressing made of fish sauce, lime juice, and chilies.
Green papaya salad is healthy because (3):
- It’s a good source of vitamins A and C.
- It contains fiber-rich ingredients like green papaya and green beans. These fill you up without adding a lot of calories. They also promote healthy digestion.
- The dressing is low in calories and rich in antioxidants.
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Whole Steamed Fish (Pla Nueng Manao) (9)
This Thai dish is made by steaming a whole fish (usually snapper or sea bass) with garlic, ginger, and lime juice. It’s typically served with a side of vegetables.
This dish is healthy because (7):
- Fish is an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to a host of health benefits.
- The steaming process helps to preserve the nutrients in the fish and doesn’t add any extra fat or calories.
- It’s low in calories and contains plenty of healthy ingredients like garlic, ginger, and lime juice.
Basil Tofu (Tao Hoo Makhua Yao) (10)
This dish is made with marinated tofu, vegetables, and Thai basil.
Basil tofu is healthy because (2):
- It’s a good source of protein and fiber.
- The tofu is low in calories but high in nutrients like iron and calcium.
- It contains healthy ingredients like Thai basil, which is rich in antioxidants.
Chicken/Salmon Laab (4)
Laab is the Thai word for “salad”, and this dish is made with minced chicken or salmon, lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, and a variety of herbs. It’s typically served with lettuce leaves and sticky rice.
This dish is healthy because:
- It’s a good source of protein.
- The lean protein is low in calories but high in nutrients.
- It’s rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Yum Tua Pu (Thai Bean Sprout Salad) (12)
This simple salad is made with bean sprouts, chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, and peanuts. It’s a light but filling dish that’s perfect for a healthy meal.
This dish is healthy because:
- It’s a good source of fiber and protein.
- Bean sprouts are low in calories but high in nutrients like iron and calcium.
- It contains healthy ingredients like lime juice, fish sauce, and peanuts.
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Stir-fries are a healthy option when dining out at a Thai restaurant. They’re typically made with lean protein, vegetables, and healthy oils. Some good options include:
- Chicken or shrimp with broccoli and peppers
- Tofu with eggplant and Thai basil
- Pork with cabbage and carrots
These dishes are healthy because:
- They’re typically made with lean protein, which is low in calories but high in nutrients.
- They contain plenty of fiber-rich vegetables.
- They’re usually stir-fried in healthy oils like peanut oil or vegetable oil.
When ordering a stir-fry at a Thai restaurant, be sure to ask for it to be made with healthy oils and lean protein. You can also request that it be served with steamed rice instead of fried rice, or even whole grain brown rice at some restaurants.
You can ask for the sauce to be served on the side so you can control how much you’re eating.
Jungle Curry (11)
Whereas most Thai curries are made with coconut milk, jungle curry is made with a water-based broth. It’s typically made with chicken, vegetables, and a variety of herbs and spices.
This dish is healthy because:
- It’s lower in calories than other curries because it’s not made with coconut milk.
- It contains plenty of protein and vegetables.
- The herbs and spices used in this dish may have powerful medicinal properties.
Summer Rolls (5)
Summer rolls are a refreshing and healthy option when dining out at a Thai restaurant. They’re made with rice paper wrappers, which are filled with vegetables, herbs, and sometimes protein.
These rolls are then dipped in a light sauce.
This dish is healthy because:
- The rice paper wrappers are low in calories and gluten-free.
- They’re usually filled with plenty of veggies, making them a good source of fiber.
- The dipping sauce is often made with healthy ingredients like lime juice and fish sauce.
When ordering summer rolls at a Thai restaurant, be sure to ask for the dipping sauce on the side so you can control how much you’re eating.
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What Thai Food Is Less Healthy?
While there are many healthy Thai dishes, there are also some that are best avoided if you’re watching your waistline. These dishes are usually high in calories, fat, and sodium, some with little nutritional value.
Some of the less healthy Thai dishes include:
While coconut curries can be healthy, they’re often loaded with a lot of fat and calories. This is because they’re made with a base of coconut milk, which is high in saturated fat. They can also be high in sugar, thanks to the addition of sweeteners like palm sugar.
Specifically, avoid the following curries that are higher in calories:
- Massaman curry: This coconut-based curry is made with potatoes, onions, and peanuts. It can be high in calories and fat.
- Red curry: This coconut-based curry is made with chili peppers, bamboo shoots, and bell peppers. It can be high in calories and fat.
- Panang curry: This coconut-based curry is made with chili peppers, kaffir lime leaves, and bell peppers. It can be high in calories and fat.
Many popular Thai dishes are deep-fried, which makes them high in unhealthy fats. These include dishes like spring rolls, fried wontons, and tempura. While you can occasionally enjoy these foods in moderation, it’s best to avoid them if you’re trying to eat healthy or lose weight.
While noodles can be part of a healthy diet, many Thai noodle dishes are loaded with calories and fat. This is because they’re often made with fatty meats, coconut milk, and deep-fried ingredients. If you’re watching your weight, it’s best to avoid the following noodle dishes:
- Khao soi: This dish is made with egg noodles, chicken, coconut milk, and deep-fried crispy noodles. The deep-fried noodles add a lot of calories and fat.
- Rad an: This dish is made with wide rice noodles, chicken, pork, and vegetables in a gravy sauce. It can be high in calories and fat.
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Sticky rice is a favorite ingredient in Thai cuisine, but it’s high in carbohydrates and calories. If you’re trying to eat healthy, swap sticky rice for steamed brown rice or quinoa if available.
Thai desserts are often made with coconut milk, palm sugar, and other sweeteners, which makes them high in sugar and calories. While it’s okay to enjoy these foods occasionally, they should be eaten in moderation. If you’re watching your weight, you may want to avoid the following desserts:
- Kanom krok: These coconut-based pancakes are high in fat and calories.
- Thai Flan: This custard dessert is made with eggs, milk, and sugar, making it high in calories.
- Bua loi: These rice flour balls are often fried, which makes them high in fat.
- Khao neow mamuang: This mango sticky rice dessert is high in sugar and calories.
Tips For Getting Healthy Takeout When You’re Craving Thai Food
Follow these tips to make sure your takeout is as healthy as possible:
- Choose dishes that are steamed, grilled, or baked instead of fried.
- Ask for sauce on the side so you can control how much you use.
- Avoid sugary drinks and opt for water, unsweetened tea, or sparkling water instead.
- Skip the fried rice and order steamed rice instead. Ask for whole grain brown rice if available.
- Ask for extra vegetables to boost the nutrient content of your meal.
- Avoid dishes that are high in sodium.
- Consider splitting a dish with a friend so you don’t overindulge.
- Make sure to get in some fruits and vegetables at other meals during the day.
Following these tips will help you make healthier choices when you’re craving Thai food. Keep in mind that it’s okay to indulge every once in a while. Balance is the key when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The Bottom Line
If you’re trying to eat healthy, it’s best to stick to the healthier Thai dishes on this list. While some of the unhealthiest dishes can be enjoyed occasionally, they should not be eaten on a regular basis.
When in doubt, always ask your server for healthier alternatives or order dishes that are steamed, grilled, or stir-fried. And remember to watch your portion sizes, as even healthy dishes can be high in calories if you eat too much of them.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A Guide to Thai Stir-Fries (2022, seriouseats.com)
- Basil Seeds as a Novel Food, Source of Nutrients and Functional Ingredients with Beneficial Properties: A Review (2021, nih.gov)
- Beneficial Role of Carica papaya Extracts and Phytochemicals on Oxidative Stress and Related Diseases: A Mini Review (2021, nih.gov)
- Chicken larb (n.d., taste.com)
- Easy Thai Summer Rolls (n.d., foodschmooze.org)
- Green Papaya Salad (n.d., nytimes.com)
- Health Benefits of Fish (n.d., doh.wa.gov)
- Pad Thai (2022, tastesbetterfromscratch.com)
- PLA KAPONG NEUNG MANAO (n.d., 196flavors.com)
- Thai Basil Tofu Stir Fry (2019, cookwithmanali.com)
- Thai Jungle Curry with Chicken (Gaeng Pa Gai) (2021, hot-thai-kitchen.com)
- THAI WINGED BEAN SALAD (YAM TUA PU) (2021, messyvegancook.com)
- The Chemistry of Tom Yum Soup ( n.d., mcgill.ca)
- Tom Yum Soup (Thai soup) (2019, recipetineats.com)