Thai food is commonly enjoyed in the United States, but you may wonder whether this cuisine is healthy.
The traditional diet of Thailand features colorful vegetables, seafood, and meats that are served with rice or noodles and seasoned with herbs and spices like turmeric, galangal, Thai basil, and lemongrass.
Food served at Western Thai restaurants shares many aspects of authentic Thai cuisine, although it has some notable differences. Thai menus in America may have larger portions, more fried foods, and recipes that are higher in salt and sugar.
This article reviews the possible benefits and downsides of common ingredients and dishes served at Western Thai restaurants.
Nutrition of common Thai ingredients
Thai food is known for its emphasis on herbs and spices, many of which have been studied for their benefits.
Other common ingredients in Thai dishes, such as tofu, seafood, and bean sprouts, also boast impressive nutritional profiles.
Here are some of the most widely used Thai ingredients and information about their nutrition and possible health benefits.
- Galangal (Thai ginger). Similar in appearance and flavor to ginger and turmeric roots, galangal is often used in sauces, curry pastes, and dishes like tom yum soup. Test-tube studies show that this root contains compounds that may kill cancer cells. Human studies also suggest that galangal may help fight inflammation and relieve pain. (
1, 2, 3).
- Thai holy basil. This herb tastes like other basil varieties but with a licorice-like undertone. It’s used in curries, fried rice, and stir-fries. Research shows that holy basil oils and extracts may aid stress management, protect against high blood sugar in those with diabetes, and exert other therapeutic effects (
4, 5, 6).
- Turmeric. Turmeric gives curries their color and may provide health benefits related to its main active compound curcumin. Specifically, curcumin may have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and enhance brain function and brain cell creation. Other compounds in turmeric show potential to protect against diabetes and heart disease, but more human studies are needed (
- Lemongrass. Lemongrass adds a fresh, citrus flavor to Thai soups and may boost your health at the same time. Rodent studies suggest that lemongrass essential oil may help protect against stomach ulcers and decrease high blood cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease (
- Coconut milk. Coconut milk can be found in Thai curries and soups. While the health effects of coconut are widely debated due to its high level of saturated fat, coconut milk may have benefits. A study in 60 healthy Asian adults found that consuming porridge made with coconut milk 5 days a week over 8 weeks significantly lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased HDL (good) cholesterol, compared to their baseline. Yet, these effects might not apply to Western cultures (
- Bean sprouts. Mung bean sprouts are used in soups, stir-fries, and pad Thais. They’re rich in several vitamins and minerals, providing over 30% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin K and 15% of the DV for vitamin C in 1 cup (104 grams). Vitamin K is a vital nutrient for proper blood clotting, while vitamin C is necessary for collagen production, a healthy immune system, and healthy skin (
12, 13, 14).
- Chili peppers (Thai chilies). Fresh and dried chilies are added to many Thai dishes for heat and flavor. Chili peppers contain a variety of plant compounds that may have health benefits, including capsaicin, which gives them their spice, as well as the pigment capsanthin, which is responsible for the color of red peppers. Some studies suggest that consuming spicy foods with capsaicin promotes fat-burning and decreases appetite, but research is mixed (
15, 16, 17).
- Papaya. Green papaya salad is a popular Thai dish. Papaya is rich in antioxidants, such as lycopene, that can fight reactive cell-damaging molecules called free radicals. Lycopene may exert anticancer effects and protect skin from aging and damage (
18, 19, 20).
- Tofu. Tofu, which often appears in pad Thai and other dishes, contains compounds called isoflavones, which act similarly to the hormone estrogen in the body. Isoflavones may improve blood sugar control and reduce the risk of diabetes. A large study in over 40,000 Chinese adults found that eating unsweetened soy foods at least once a month over 5 years was associated with a decrease in type 2 diabetes risk (
- Seafood. Many Thai dishes feature shrimp, prawns, white fish, and other shellfish. Seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and provides vitamins, minerals, and healthy omega-3 fats. Research has linked regular consumption of seafood to a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes (
Thai food is made with regional herbs and spices that may provide health benefits, such as lemongrass, Thai basil, and turmeric. Other healthy ingredients, including seafood, tofu, and chilies, are also common.
Other benefits of Thai food
Several of the most common Thai ingredients are nutritious on their own, but there are other healthy aspects of Thai food in general.
For one, Thai meals often feature a good balance of macronutrients — protein, fats, and carbs.
Curries, stir-fries, and soups are made with a variety of vegetables, include a protein source like tofu, lean meat, or seafood, and contain coconut milk, peanut sauces, or other fat.
The most commonly used veggies in Thai meals are non-starchy, such as peppers, tomato, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and onions. These veggies are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and a variety of compounds that contribute to good digestion and overall health (
Eating meals that largely comprise non-starchy veggies and also contain protein and fat can help you maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. This, in turn, leads to sustained energy and may aid weight loss (
Thai meals often contain a healthy balance of proteins, fats, and carbs. They also tend to feature a variety of non-starchy vegetables that provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Possible downsides of Thai food
While several Thai dishes include a good balance of nutrients and health-promoting ingredients, there are some downsides to Thai cuisine.
Fried rice and pad Thais are often made with larger proportions of white rice and rice noodles, compared with other ingredients.
Furthermore, many Western Thai restaurants offer deep-fried foods, such as cream cheese wontons, egg rolls, and fried pumpkin, that aren’t necessarily based on traditional Thai foods.
Fried foods also tend to be high in sodium, a nutrient that when consumed in excess may contribute to high blood pressure and damage blood vessels in the heart and kidneys. Depending on their ingredients, Thai curries and soups can also be loaded with salt (
Finally, some Thai foods contain added sugar, especially desserts and Thai iced tea made with sweetened condensed milk and black tea. Eating too much added sugar may lead to weight gain, cavities, and other adverse health effects (
Keep in mind that less healthy Thai dishes are mostly those that have been Westernized. Traditional Thai cuisine is quite healthy and largely based on vegetables, lean proteins, and fresh herbs and spices.
Certain Thai dishes are high in refined carbs and may contain deep-fried foods, added sugar, or high amounts of salt.
Healthy Thai dishes
Healthy Thai meals are veggie-centric, low in calories, and made with lean proteins and Thai herbs and spices. Here are some nutritious options.
- Spring rolls: fresh veggies wrapped in rice paper
- Papaya salad: shredded papaya mixed with chilies, green beans, peanuts, and a fish sauce dressing
- Tom yum soup (hot and sour soup): shrimp, broth, lemongrass, galangal, chilies, and other ingredients
- Chicken larb: stir-fried ground chicken, vegetables, herbs, and spices
- Steamed fish and veggies: often made with white fish steamed with aromatic spices
- Beef and broccoli: lean beef, broccoli, and several veggies
- Red, green, or massaman curry: a mix of curry paste, veggies, coconut milk, herbs, and spices
- Pad Thai: rice noodles, veggies, peanut sauce, bean sprouts, and a choice of lean protein
Many Thai dishes are served with rice. Fried rice and pad Thai, in particular, often contain large amounts of refined carbs from white rice or noodles.
To boost the nutrition of these dishes, opt for brown rice, which has more fiber and nutrients than white rice, if it’s an option. What’s more, you can mix in extra veggies to increase the volume and split the dish into multiple portions.
It’s also important to watch your portions of curries, soups, and sauces that may be high in sodium and calories. Ask for heavy sauces or dressings on the side so that you can decide how much you use.
Healthy Thai dishes are loaded with veggies and other plant foods, seasoned with herbs and spices, and served with seafood, tofu, and other lean proteins.
Thai dishes to limit
The following Thai dishes are less healthy and should be limited to occasional consumption. These include fried foods and meals that are high in sugar and sodium.
- egg rolls
- cream cheese wontons
- fried pumpkin
- fried tofu
- chicken wings
- Thai iced tea
Thai menus also include some less healthy options, like fried appetizers and drinks made with added sugars.
The bottom line
Overall, traditional Thai cuisine is made with healthful ingredients that may provide a variety of benefits.
Thai cuisine is known for incorporating regional herbs and spices, fresh vegetables, and lean proteins that add both flavor and nutrition to meals. However, some Westernized Thai dishes are deep fried, served in large portions, or contain excessive amounts of added sugar and salt.
To choose a healthy Thai meal, opt for a dish that’s loaded with plant foods, contains a protein source, and features a variety of herbs and spices.