Healthy Options at Panda Express

June 28, 2010 12:05 pm
Posted in: Menu Mondays
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Eating Panda

With over 1,200 locations in the U.S., it’s hard to miss Panda Express.  They’re in strip malls, mall & airport food courts, countless stadiums and arenas, and even inside grocery stores.

Several years ago, as I was ordering lunch, the man behind the counter noticed I was choosing all veggie options.  He kindly asked if I was a vegetarian, and I affirmed.  He immediately started scraping the food back into the serving line, saying, “Well, you can’t eat here!”   He said that everything they make uses chicken stock.

Their website confirms that none of their food is “vegetarian certified.”

In an I-guess-it’s-better-than-nothing effort, their green Wok Smart label highlights menu items are 250 calories or less per single serving.

But most people get several servings, and they completely ignore fat and sodium content.  For example, one serving the Black Pepper Chicken is “Wok Smart” at 250 calories, but packs in 14 grams of fat and a whopping 980 milligrams of sodium.

Their three Wok-Smart Meal Suggestions, each of which includes a side of Mixed Veggies and two Entrée portions, contain anywhere from 1,640 to 2, 230 mg sodium.  (The daily recommended max.  for most people is about 2,300 mg.)

Take a look, too, at the Panda Express interactive nutrition calculator.  You can build your entire meal and see the totals; note that they don’t show sodium by default, so you’ll need to click the “full nutrition” link to see the totals.

I’m coming down on them pretty hard for sodium, since even if you order carefully, there’s not much you can do to get a reasonably low sodium meal.  At least they have plenty of lower-calorie, lower-fat, and lower-sugar options.

The best way to go?  Get a “Panda Bowl” with Mixed Veggies and one of the “Better Choice” Chicken dishes, Broccoli Beef, or Tangy Shrimp.

Rice & Noodles – Avoid

Sorry to start off with a downer, but I suggest skipping the rice and noodles entirely.

The Steamed White Rice has 420 “empty” calories.

The Fried Rice has 570 calories (the extra calories are from fat) and 900mg sodium.

The Chow Mein has fewer calories (400), but has way too much sodium (1,060mg!).

Veggies – Better Choice

Mixed Veggies OK Side Dish Portion (8.6 ounces)
70 cal, no sat fat, 0.5g total fat, 530mg sodium, 13g carbs, 4g sugars, 5g fiber, 4g protein

Mixed Veggies OK Entrée Portion (4.3 ounces)
35 cal, no sat fat, 0.25g total fat, 260mg sodium, 7g carbs, 2g sugars, 3g fiber, 2g protein

Veggies – Worst Choice

Eggplant & Tofu
310 cal, 3g sat fat, 24g total fat (!), 680mg sodium, 19g carbs, 13g sugars, 3g fiber, 7g protein
Sadly, most of the calories come from fat, and the rest is mostly sugar.

Chicken & Chicken Breast Entrées – Better Choices

Broccoli Chicken OK
180 cal, 2g sat fat, 9g total fat, 630mg sodium, 11g carbs, 2g sugars, 3g fiber, 13g protein

String Bean Chicken OK
190 cal, 2g sat fat, 10g total fat, 720mg sodium, 11g carbs, 4g sugars, 2g fiber, 12g protein

String Bean Chicken Breast OK
170 cal, 1.5g sat fat, 7g total fat, 720mg sodium, 13g carbs, 5g sugars, 2g fiber, 15g protein

Pineapple Chicken Breast
220 cal, 1.5g sat fat, 8g total fat, 640mg sodium, 20g carbs, 14g sugar, 1g fiber, 17g protein

Pineapple Chicken
240 cal, 2.5g sat fat, 12g total fat, 690mg sodium, 19g carbs, 14g sugars, 2g fiber, 17g protein

Potato Chicken
220 cal, 2g sat fat, 11g total fat, 760mg sodium, 18g carbs, 4g sugars, 3g fiber, 11g protein

Mushroom Chicken
220 cal, 3g sat fat, 13g total fat, 780mg sodium, 9g carbs, 3g sugars, 2g fiber, 17g protein

Chicken & Chicken Breast Entrées – Worst Choices

SweetFire Chicken Breast X
440 cal, 3.5g sat fat, 18g total fat, 370mg sodium, 53g carbs, 27g sugars, 1g fiber, 17g protein

Orange Chicken X
400 cal, 3.5g sat fat, 20g total fat(!), 640mg sodium, 42g carbs (!), 18g sugars, no fiber, 15g protein

Sweet & Sour Chicken X
400 cal, 3g sat fat, 17g total fat, 370mg sodium, 46g carbs, 23g sugars, 1g fiber, 15g protein

Black Pepper Chicken X
250 cal, 3g sat fat, 14g total fat, 980mg sodium (!), 12g carbs, 4g sugars, 2g fiber, 19g protein

Thai Cashew Chicken Breast X
280 cal, 3.5g sat fat, 19g total fat, 980mg sodum (!), 21g carbs, 6g sugars, 2g fiber, 23g protein

Kung Pao Chicken
300 cal, 3.5g sat fat, 19g total fat, 880mg sodium (!), 13g carbs, 4g sugars, 2g fiber, 19g protein

Mandarin Chicken
310 cal, 4g sat fat, 16g total fat, 740mg sodium, 8g carbs, 8g sugars, no fiber, 34g protein

Beef – Better Choice

Broccoli Beef OK
150 cal, 1.5g sat fat, 6g total fat, 720mg sodium, 12g carbs, 2g sugars, 3g fiber, 11g protein

Beef – Worst Choices

Beijing Beef X X
850 cal (!!!!), 9g sat fat, 1g trans fat, 50g total fat (!!!!), 1,120mg sodium (!!!), 67g carbs, 29g sugars, 4g fiber, 31g protein

Mongolian Beef X
230 cal, 2.5g sat fat, 11g total fat, 1,040mg sodium (!!), 17g carbs, 6g sugars, 3g fiber, 17g protein

Pork – Better Choice

Sweet & Sour Pork
400 cal (!), 4.5g sat fat, 23g total fat, 360mg sodium, 36g carbs, 15g sugars, 2g fiber, 13g protein

Pork – Worst Choice

BBQ Pork X
360 cal, 8g sat fat (!), 19g total fat, 1,310mg sodium (!!!!), 13g carbs, 12g sugars, 1g fiber, 34g protein

Shrimp – Better Choice

Tangy Shrimp OK
190 cal, 1.5g sat fat, 7g total fat, 820mg sodium (!), 19g carbs, 14g sugars, 2g fiber, 13g protein

Shrimp – Worst Choices

Honey Walnut Shrimp
370 cal, 4g sat fat, 23g total fat, 470mg sodium, 27g carbs, 9g sugars, 2g fiber, 14g protein

Kung Pao Shrimp
250 cal, 2.5g sat fat, 15g total fat, 880mg sodium (!), 14g carbs, 4g sugars, 2g fiber, 14g protein

Crispy Shrimp (6 pieces)
260 cal, 2.5g sat fat, 13g total fat, 810mg sodium (!), 26g carbs, 2g sugars, 1g fiber, 9g protein

Appetizers & Soups

None of these are great…

Chicken Potstickers (3 pieces)
220 cal, 2.5g sat fat, 11g total fat, 280mg sodium, 23g carbs, 2g sugars, 1g fiber, 7g protein

Veggie Spring Roll (2 rolls)
160 cal, 1g sat fat, 7g total fat, 540mg sodium, 22g carbs, 2g sugars, 4g fiber, 4g protein

Chicken Egg Roll (1 roll)
200 cal, 4g sat fat, 12g total fat, 390mg sodium, 16g carbs, 2g sugars, 2g fiber, 8g protein

Cream Cheese Rangoon (3 pieces)
190 cal, 5g sat fat, 8g total fat, 180mg sodium, 24g carbs, 1g sugars, 2g fiber, 5g protein

Egg Flower Soup
90 cal, no sat fat, 2g total fat, 810mg sodium (!!), 15g carbs, 4g sugars, 1g fiber, 3g protein
I’d probably choose the Egg Flower over the Hot & Sour, since it’s a bit lower in sodium and fat.

Hot & Sour Soup
90 cal, 0.5g sat fat, 3.5g total fat, 970mg sodium (!!!), 12g carbs, 3g sugars, 1g fiber, 4g protein

Sauces – Better Choice

Sweet & Sour Sauce (1.8 ounces)
80 cal, no fat, 180mg sodium, 21g sugars

Sauces – Worst Choices

Mandarin Sauce (1.8 ounces)
160 cal, no fat, 340mg sodium, 40g sugars

Potsticker Sauce (1.9 ounces) X
45 cal, no fat, 1,030mg sodium, 8g sugars

Fortune Cookie

It’s the lowest-sodium item on the menu, so I figure it’s worth a mention.  :)

Fortune Cookie (One cookie)
32 cal, no fat, 8mg sodium, 7g carbs, 3g sugar, 1g fiber

Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.

indicates the “best-of-the-best,” and X indicates the “worst-of-the-worst,” more or less.

Panda Express Interactive Nutrition Calculator

Photo of a panda on a low-sodium diet by ajay77*.

4 Comments on "Healthy Options at Panda Express"
  1. Comment left on:
    January 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm
    Amanda Cowan says:

    I can’t imagine ever eating here. I used to love their food, but even trying to eat healthy there you’re drowning in sodium. Most places you can at least order a salad and not eat the dressing, but here it’s all pre-made. I’m pretty sure this is one of those places where you should just never eat. Well, it’s on my list for that anyhow.

  2. Comment left on:
    May 22, 2013 at 2:47 pm
    Cassi says:

    Thanks for the helpful info! I am pretty much being forced to go tonight, because my son’s school is having a fundraiser. I was curious how large the serving sizes are? For the chicken entrees, are your calculations for a half cup, a full cup, or another measurement? Specifically the string bean chicken. Thank you!

  3. Comment left on:
    January 22, 2014 at 1:14 pm
    Karina says:

    Thanks for this! I’m trying to lose weight, but I’d still like to go out with my friends and make better choices :D

  4. Comment left on:
    January 29, 2014 at 11:27 am
    Shawna says:

    Yeah, I just keep on making bad choices. A couple of weeks ago I switched from eating beijing beef and fried rice cuz after I looked at the nutrition I was floored at the fat grams and sodium so now im eating black pepper chicken and steamed brown rice which I thought was heathier and probably is compared to the beijing beef but according to this new info I made another bad choice so now back to the selection menu and I guess ill try the broccoli chicken with mixed veggies, if I don’t like it then I guess ill just stay away from Panda Express. Thanks for the info.

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