The Best & Worst Menu Items at Panda Express, According to RDs
Panda Express is a popular on-the-go option for millions of Americans—it's sour, sweet, greasy, and soooo tasty. But you don't need us to tell you that when you're eating at Panda Express, you're not doing your body a service.
Still, as with any fast-food joint, there are going to be some options that are better for you than others. If you absolutely must, here are a handful of lighter items on the menu, followed by the absolute worst ones. And don't miss The Worst New Fast-Food Pizzas, According to a Dietitian.
The Best Menu Items at Panda Express
"Rice gets a bad reputation by being lumped in with carbs, but it is important to understand that quality matters and the range of carb quality is vast," says Trista Best, RD. Although not brown, white rice is better than fried rice. "The nutritional issues arise when it is cooked in oil and topped with sugar and fat-loaded sauces. But the steamed rice at Panda Express is simply cooked in water without any additives," she says. If you need a carby side, this is the one to choose.
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This veggie side at Panda Express is a nice option that has balanced macronutrients, as it provides a good ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, which is surprising for a vegetable-based side, says Best. Why? It features broccoli, cabbage, and kale, all of which are pretty high in protein, fiber, calcium, and iron. Plus, the sodium content is low. Just don't douse it in sauce!
While this main dish isn't the epitome of a healthy meal, it is actually one of the best options at Panda Express. You'll get a good amount of protein from the beef, as well as fiber and iron from the broccoli, which will fill you up for longer. "It's lower in calories, sodium, fat, and cholesterol compared to other mains," says dietitian Katie Blumhorst, RD.
Honey Walnut Shrimp
While this meal isn't totally clean, with "honey" in the name to signify its sugar content, it is relatively low in sodium, in comparison to other items on the menu. It offers 13 grams of satiating protein, so it's one of the winners here. Plus it contains unsaturated fats, explains Blumhorst, which protect your heart against various issues, like heart disease and stroke.
String Bean Chicken Breast
"There isn't too much sodium here compared to other menu items, and it's low in cholesterol," says Blumhorst, which means this dish is more heart-friendly. The string beans add fiber, vitamins, and minerals, while keeping the carb count down. In fact, this dish is pretty low carb, with 9 grams of net carbs per serving.
The Worst Menu Items at Panda Express
The Original Orange Chicken
"At first glance, this dish looks relatively low in calories. But when you dig into the sugar, sodium, and saturated fat content, red flags start popping up," says Best. Plus, it has 5 grams of saturated fat, which is unusual for a lean meat like chicken, as opposed to beef or pork. And fancy a side of sugar with your chicken? That's what you're getting here—19 grams of sugar from that sweet sauce that covers it.
Vegetable Spring Roll
Here's a shocker: the Vegetable Spring Rolls and the Chicken Egg Rolls are nearly the same in every aspect, but you'd think the veggie ones were healthier simply because they're, well, filled with veggies. "There is only a 10-calorie difference between the two and a 0.5 mg saturated fat difference," says Best. "The vegetable spring roll has more carbs and sodium than the option that is assumed to be less healthy," she explains. You're better off with the Chicken Egg Rolls, or no egg rolls at all.
Black Pepper Chicken
Black pepper chicken is often given a health halo as a leaner protein with a natural kick of spice. Yet, this chicken dish isn't simple or nutritious. "It has the highest sodium content on the whole menu," says Blumhorst. It'll leave you feeling bloated, lethargic, and thirsty, where you may find yourself nibbling on another snack shortly after out of confusion from dehydration. Shocked? I am.
Although tasty, there is sadly no nutritional value in a side of fried rice from Panda Express. Or really most restaurants, unless you make a clean recipe of your own at home. "It is high in calories compared to other side items as well as sodium and cholesterol," says Blumhorst. Go with white rice or, better yet, swap for a veggie side instead.
While it is slightly better than the fried rice, it's still not a healthy side by any means. It has a tad more protein and fiber, as well as fewer grams of both carbs and sodium than the fried rice, but the difference is pretty negligible when it comes down to it.
For more, check out the 108 Most Popular Sodas Ranked By How Toxic They Are.