The 8 Unhealthiest Menu Items at Panda Express – Founded in 1983 in Glendale, CA, Panda Express is the largest family-owned and operated Asian restaurant in America and boasts over 2,300 locations across the globe. From the sweet and savory Orange Chicken—which was developed by a Panda Express chef in 1987—to the timeless chow mein, Panda Express has woven Chinese-inspired dishes into the fabric of American fast food culture. However, these dishes often come with a steep nutritional cost, as many of its offerings are loaded with excessive amounts of sodium, fat, and sugar.
“Panda Express can be unhealthy due to the high amount of sodium found in their meals as well as added sugar,” says Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami, Florida. “Some meals can also be high in total fat, too.”
The Chinese food chain reaches sky-high levels of these nutrients for multiple reasons. One is due to their cooking methods, which often involve breading and frying their proteins in oil. Another is that they drench their dishes in high-sodium and high-sugar sauces. Soy sauce, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce commonly used in Chinese-American cuisine are high in sodium. Additionally, these sauces also contain sugar to create classic sweet dishes like sweet and sour chicken.
But fear not, Panda Express does have healthy options, like their Mixed Vegetables (which you can order for an entrée or side option) or a lean protein dish like the Mushroom Chicken.
“They also do have dishes that are 250 calories or less per serving, called Wok Smart, which makes it easier to choose healthier options,” says Ehsani. “Just keep in mind just because they are low in calories, doesn’t make them low in sodium. Some dishes are labeled with this icon, but still high in sodium.”
To guide you on how to navigate Panda Express’s menu to make choices that are not only delicious but also better for your health, we asked Ehsani to help us identify the very worst dishes for your health. Here are 8 of the unhealthiest menu items at Panda Express, according to a dietitian.
Nutrition: 520 calories, 16 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 850 mg sodium, 85 g carbs (1 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 11 g protein
Although the fried rice has veggies (peas, carrots, and green onions), it doesn’t make it healthy. The fried rice is the Panda Express menu item with the highest calories and the second-highest amount of sodium.
“The Fried Rice at Panda Express is packed with sodium and fat. Although it has some veggies peppered in there, it’s not a healthier choice compared to regular rice,” says Ehsani. “Stick to meals that have less than 500 milligrams of sodium per meal, this one is well above this recommendation hitting 850 milligrams per bowl. Stick to steamed rice, which has no fat or sodium.”
The daily recommended maximum of sodium is 2,300 milligrams a day, so eating this dish—which is often served as a side to other entree proteins—would help you hit 37% of your DV.
Nutrition: 480 calories, 27 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 600 mg sodium, 46 g carbs (2 g fiber, 21 g sugar), 14 g protein
“You might think it’s a healthy dish as there are bell peppers and onions, but [the Beijing Beef is] topped with a tangy sauce, which bumps up the total calories and sugar calories too,” says Ehsani.
Eating this dish is the equivalent of unwrapping eight Starbursts.
Nutrition: 510 calories, 20 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 860 mg sodium, 80 g carbs (6 g fiber, 9 g sugar), 13 g protein
This wheat noodle dish has some fiber thanks to onions, celery, and cabbage, but it’s super high in fat and contains the highest amount of sodium out of all Panda Express dishes.
“The Chow Mein, although a popular noodle dish you might want to dig into, packs 23 grams of fat and nearly half of a day’s worth of sodium in one dish,” says Ehsani. “It’s best to skip the noodles here, see if you can order plain noodles without all the sodium.”
Chicken Egg Roll
Nutrition: 200 calories, 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 20 g carbs (2 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 6 g protein
Although this egg roll is filled with seemingly healthy ingredients (cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, green onions, and chicken), it’s fried in a wonton wrapper and is thus high in carbs while being low in protein.
“In just one chicken egg roll, you are eating nearly a meal’s worth of sodium and 12 grams of fat. You also are likely eating more than just one egg roll, so when you add another meal and side to this meal, you might be well over your daily sodium for the day.
Nutrition: 490 calories, 23 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 820 mg sodium, 51 g carbs (2 g fiber, 19 g sugar), 25 g protein
It’s no surprise that this sweet chicken dish is made with tons of sugar and carbs thanks to the orange sauce and battered (and fried) chicken.
“Orange chicken is generally dipped in batter, deep-fried, then dipped in a sweet orange sauce,” says Ehsani. “For just chicken, without rice or noodles, it still packs 43 grams of carbs, and 18 grams come from added sugar, from the breading and sauce.”
Honey Walnut Shrimp
Nutrition: 360 calories, 24 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 590 mg sodium, 27 g carbs (1 g fiber, 8 g sugar), 11 g protein
These crispy shrimp are breaded and fried, upping the carb and fat content, and then sauteed with sweet walnuts for a one-two punch of carbs and sugar.
Eggplant & Tofu
Nutrition: 340 calories, 24 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 520 mg sodium, 23 g carbs (3 g fiber, 17 g sugar), 7 g protein
Just because a dish contains all veggies doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Although the Eggplant & Tofu order is meat-free, it is tied for the second-highest fat content of any dish on the Panda Express menu (24 grams) next to the Beijing Beef (27 grams). It also has the third-highest sugar content (17 grams).
“Although you might be thinking eggplant and tofu is a nutritious choice (it is pretty lean on calories, just packing 340 calories), it has one of the highest amounts of total fat on the menu,” says Ehsani. “It packs 24 grams of total fat in one dish, more than any other vegetarian dish on the menu.” To put that in perspective, a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese contains 26 grams of fat.
Sweet & Sour Chicken Breast
Nutrition: 300 calories, 12 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 260 mg sodium, 40 g carbs (1 g fiber, 24 g sugar), 10 g protein
This order has the highest sugar content of any order at Panda Express.
“This dish, although not too high in sodium, is quite high when it comes to carbs and sugar for just being a chicken dish,” says Ehsani. “It contains the highest amounts of added sugar in dishes, packing 24 grams of sugar, likely from the sweet and sour sauce plus the addition of pineapple chunks.” The American Heart Association recommends limiting your added sugar intake to 25 grams a day, so this one serving would make you hit nearly 100% of your daily limit.
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