Sweet, salty, sour, spicy, grilled proteins, peanut sauce… these are a few things we think of when we hear “Thai food.” Though most homemade Thai food is extremely healthy and features many herbs and spices, it is not so much the case when it comes to eating out.
Okay, so eating out at your favorite Thai restaurant back home is easy enough when you get the option of putting in and leaving out what you want into your noodle dish. But what about when you are actually in Thailand? What are the best options to get and stay healthy while you’re traveling through a country being surrounded by delicious food everywhere?
Let’s start with a few phrases:
"Little bit": nid noy นิดหน่อย
"Oil": nam man น้ำมัน
"Little oil": nam man nid noy น้ำมันนิดหน่อย
"Don’t add/Don’t put in": Mai sai _____ ไม่ใส่
"Sugar": nam taan น้ำตาล
"Don’t add sugar": Mai sai nam tan ไม่ใส่น้ำตาล
If you are at a place that serves veggies, you can always ask them to put veggies into your dish, whether it’s an omelet, a noodle dish or a rice dish. Just say “sai pak” (ใส่ผัก) to up the volume and nutritional value of your dish for a small amount of calories
TIP: Add “ka” if you’re female and “kap” if you’re male at the end of the request to make it sound polite and not demanding, although if they know you’re a foreigner, they’ll be more forgiving about it.
Sticky rice (kow neow ข้าวเหนียว) vs. regular rice (kow suayข้าว)
Sticky rice, or glutinous rice (doesn’t actually have gluten in it despite its name), is a special kind of rice with extremely low amylose and high amylopectin content. Nothing is added to the rice to make it sticky, contrary to what many people think. It is a classic pairing with grilled meats and papaya/mango salads, and is cheap as well as widely available wherever you see grilled meats in Thailand. Which is just about everywhere!
It’s a staple food in the countryside because of its low-cost and high energy content, which helps the many farmers that reside there who work in the fields all day. It also takes a very long time to digest, which is probably not ideal to eat between training sessions in Thailand.
Unfortunately, sticky rice contains the least amount of fiber and other nutrients compared to any other type of rice. Its low fiber-to-carb content makes your insulin spike higher (due to its higher glycemic index of in the 90s) when its being digested (fiber helps to lower this spike), making you more susceptible to weight gain. White rice has more calories but more fiber per cup and scores less on the glycemic index (56 for long grain and 72 for short grain), making it the better choice for both your weight and your digestive system.
Pork (moo หมู)/beef (neuh-wua เนื้อวัว) vs. chicken (gai ไก่) vs seafood (ah-han ta-lay อาหารทะเล)
Beef and pork are considered similarly because it’s difficult to know which cut of meat you’re getting. It is not surprising for restaurants and food stalls to buy the cheapest (usually fattiest) cuts of meat to maximize profits. When it comes to chicken and seafood, it is easy to see which part of the source it comes from. One hundred grams of beef has around 330 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat! 100 grams of pork has around 380 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat. YIKES!
Chicken clocks in at 240 calories and 3.8 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams of meat. One hundred grams of mixed seafood (shrimp, clams, squid) has around 100 calories and just under 1 gram of saturated fat. In terms of both calories and unhealthy saturated fat, seafood is the obvious choice out of all of these choices, sans allergy.
Noodle soup (kuay tiao ก๋วยเตี๋ยว) vs. dry noodles
This is a true dilemma as soups are almost guaranteed to contain MSG, and dry noodles typically are cooked in a lot of oil. However, because you can request noodles to be made with little oil and you cannot request a new batch of soup to be made without MSG, dry noodles are the better choice. Whether it’s pad thai, pad see ew, or pad kee mao, request it with a little bit of oil.
Speaking of noodles, you will get a caddy that contains four condiments for you to season your dry or wet noodles with. The white one is sugar. Yup, plain white sugar to sweeten things up. The red powder is chilli powder, to make your food spicy. The one with the dark liquid and peppers in it is called nam prik, which is fish sauce and peppers to make things salty and spicy. The last one is peppers (that resemble jalapenos) in vinegar, to make things sour and slightly spicy. Except for the sugar, they’re all not bad choices to use to flavor up your food. But always taste your food first – you just might think it’s perfect the way it is.
When it comes to other sauces, such as the green sauce or red sauce that comes with your seafood, the black sauce that comes with your grilled meat, or that peanut sauce, they are all pretty healthy options. They contain a good amount of herbs and vegetables.
Western salad vs. green papaya salad (Som Tum ส้มตำ )/ greenmango salad (som tum mamuang ส้มตำมะม่วง)
Salads are food items that are supposed to be healthy but are ruined with creamy and oily salad dressings and croutons. Chicken Caesar salads have around 550-600 calories per serving, and cobb salads can have 1,130 calories!!! No thanks!
Unlike their Western counterparts, thai salads are much healthier and lower in calories. Papaya salads have around 150-200 calories per serving and are chock full of nutrients from the papaya and veggies used in it. Coconut sugar is used in place of white sugar, which is more nutritious as well. Mango salads have even less calories, from 70-100!
Fried vs. grilled
I think the answer to this is pretty obvious – always choose grilled over fried! When foods are fried, they soak up oil anywhere they can, even more so if they are battered! Also, many street stalls fry their foods in the SAME oil all day (whether it’s meat, fish, bananas, root vegetables, spring rolls), making it an even unhealthier choice with a risk of food poisoning. Calorie counts won’t be provided here—just know you’ll save about half the calories when you choose grilled.
Broth-based (such as tom yum) vs. coconut milk -based soups
Both of these are good options. Tom yum is very low calorie because the broth is seafood-based, and is flavored with fragrant herbs…and usually spicy! Coconut milk based soups may have way more calories, but coconut milk is very good for you! They contain medium train triglycerides, which help to burn fat. Broths with coconut milk tend to be less spicy because the fats in the coconut milk help to take away the burn.
Fresh vs. fried spring rolls
Refer to the fried vs grilled above! Fresh is always better, and they will usually make it to order in front of you. You can typically choose fish, shrimp, pork, and sometimes you can get it vegetarian with tofu.
Pad thai (ผัดไทย) vs. seafood omelet (hoy tod หอยทอด)
At seafood pad thai stands, they will almost always also offer seafood omelets (usually mussels), which is typically ordered more often by the locals. At a glance, hoy tod seems like the better option since it is made without the carby noodles that pad thai has. Instead, the mussels are cooked in this egg slurry. The slurry recipe is up to the cook, but it often contains flour (wheat, rice, or both) and cornstarch. From here, it will be up to the consumer to decide which will be a better option for them – pad thai with more carbs but more wholesome ingredients you can see and recognize, or hoy tod with less carbs but with refined ingredients such as flour? The calorie count is similar—seafood pad thai clocks in at about 400-450 calories and hoy tod, after being slightly fried in oil, will contain 450-500 calories.
Thai desserts vs. cake
Many traditional Thai desserts do not contain egg, dairy, or wheat flour. A popular option is mango sticky rice (kow neow mamuang ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง). Yes, above it said to not pick the sticky rice compared to the white rice, but sticky rice with a fruit on top is still a much better option than cake, which contains loads of refined sugar. Use the coconut sauce sparingly as it is very sweet.
Another option is kanom krok (ขนมครก), which is a coconut pancake. Its main ingredients are coconut milk, rice, and coconut sugar, making it suitable for those who are gluten-free.
Pang ji (แป้งจี่) has similar ingredients but is in pancake form (think the size of a big coin) and does not contain the coconut filling that kanom krok does.
Thai iced tea vs. lemon iced tea (cha manao ชามะนาว)
Thai iced tea is made with a strong black tea that contains spices, giving it a distinctive flavor. It also is usually made with condensed milk, which contains a lot of sugar…and they’ll probably add more sugar on top of that! Lemon iced tea is a better option with freshly squeezed lemon/limes in the tea. Always request for little or no sugar!
Snacks vs. fruit
The snack game in Thailand is on point! You can find cookies, crackers, chips of almost any variety for 5-10 baht (that’s 14-29 cents) at any supermarket or convenience store. Snacking is a way of life in Thailand since most people eat small meals. However, the snacks usually contain a lot of sugar, oil, and additives such as MSG. Luckily for you, a huge selection of fruit is always readily available throughout Thailand, whether it’s mango, rambutan, mangosteen, dragonfruit, longan, custard apples, or the infamous durian!
Beer vs. whiskey
These are the default choices of alcohol when it comes to drinking locally. Popular brands in Thailand are Leo, Singha, and Chang for beer, and Mekhong, Sang Som, and Regency for whiskey/brandy. The way beer and whiskey are drank in Thailand are the same both volume-wise. Whiskey/brandy is usually mixed with soda/seltzer water and bottled water in the same size cup as beer is served in. The whiskey/brandy cocktail will have slightly less calories (around 70 calories from the 1 oz of alcohol) compared to beer (90-100 per serving).
This is merely a guide for the health-conscious. If you are training twice a day in a camp in Thailand, you can probably afford to eat a few more calories, but make sure those calories come from quality sources and not from foods that give you little nutritional value. The food in Thailand is amazing almost wherever you go. Try a bit of everything, have fun, and be safe!
Join our "Muay Thai Mondays" email newsletter for the latest updates on new videos, special events and everything Muay Thai!