Pad thai is a traditional Thai dish available in restaurants worldwide. Locally in Thailand, though, pad thai is a stir-fry dish of flat rice noodles with various ingredients as part of the street food fare.
Many people love eating this dish for its blend of pleasant flavors, textures, and aroma, and for many, it’s a comfort food.
Let’s take a deep dive into what pad thai is, its nutritional composition, the benefits and downsides of eating pad thai, how you can make pad thai healthier, and some other healthy Thai food options.
Pad thai is a traditional street dish in Thailand. Its ingredients offer unique flavors, textures, and aromas.
Generally speaking, traditional pad thai is a stir-fry that includes:
- Flat rice noodles: They are the main ingredient of the dish. Rice noodles are gluten-free and are made from rice flour and water.
- Chicken: Cut into small pieces, it provides added texture and protein to the dish.
- Dried shrimp: These tiny shrimp are soaked in saltwater and sun-dried. While they shrink in size, dried shrimps still provide protein and give off the seafood, umami aroma and flavor.
- Eggs: They are rich in protein, add savoriness, and generally go well with starchy staples.
- Chives: They contribute to the garlicky and vegetal flavors and add color to the dish.
- Mung bean sprouts: They add crispiness and tenderness to the dish.
Pad thai also includes several condiments to enhance the flavor, color, texture, and aroma, including:
- Tamarind paste: Unlike some westernized pad thai that uses ketchup for flavor and added color, traditional pad thai relies upon tamarind paste. This brownish paste contributes to the distinctive sweetness, tanginess, and color of the noodles.
- Soy sauce: This common, dark-colored condiment used in Asian cooking also provides umami flavor and contributes to the color of the dish.
- Fish sauce: This condiment is readily used in Thai cuisine that contributes to the dish’s savoriness.
- Peanuts: A tablespoon or two can provide extra crunch.
The nutrients in pad thai may vary, depending on the portion size and the ingredients used.
Prepackaged pad thai with white chicken meat (311 g) provides the following nutrients (
- Calories: 429 calories
- Carbohydrate: 82 g (29% of the Daily Value)
- Fiber: 4.04 g
- Sugars: 26 g
- Protein: 20 g (38% DV)
- Total fat: 2.46 g (6% DV)
- Saturated fat: 0.995 g (5% DV)
- Cholesterol: 40.4 mg (13% DV)
- Calcium: 71.5 mg (4% DV)
- Iron: 1.21 mg (6% DV)
- Sodium: 659 mg (31% DV)
Calories in pad thai
Your daily caloric requirement is dependent on factors like your age, sex, and activity level.
In general, prepackaged pad thai is considered low to moderate in calories.
Keep in mind, though, that pad thai can vary in calories and nutritional composition, depending on how it’s prepared, the ingredients used, and what your portion size looks like.
While keeping calorie estimates in mind may support weight management if that’s your goal, it’s not necessary to count calories to eat a healthful diet. It’s most important to enjoy a well-rounded diet with plenty of foods that nourish your body and spirit.
Pad thai is a nutrient-dense dish offering many nutrients and health benefits, primarily from:
- Flat rice noodles: They are rich in carbs, which serve as an energy source to fuel our bodies, and selenium, an essential mineral that supports the immune system.
- Chicken: Chicken is an excellent source of protein, which is vital for building and repairing muscles and plays a role in bone health and calcium metabolism (
- Dried shrimp: Shrimp is a rich source of protein and one of the best sources of iodine. Iodine is essential for thyroid function and supporting a healthy brain (
- Eggs: They are considered one of the most nutritious foods, offering protein, plenty of vitamin A, and antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin. Vitamin A and antioxidants may reduce your risk of cataracts and macular degeneration (4, 5).
- Chives: Every tablespoon offers 5% of the daily value of vitamin K. Like eggs, chives also contain lutein and zeaxanthin (
- Mung bean sprouts: They are low in calories and are a good source of vitamin C and folate. Research also suggests that mung beans may reduce your risk of certain cancers (
8, 9, 10, 11).
While pad thai may offer nutrition and health benefits, there are two points you may want to consider if you eat this dish frequently.
High in sodium
While pad thai offers a wide range of essential nutrients, it’s high in sodium. The three main high sodium ingredients in pad thai are fish sauce, soy sauce, and dried shrimp.
Fish sauce is a brine from salting and fermenting fish, such as anchovies or krill. In Thai cuisine, fish sauce is an everyday staple, and it’s sometimes even used instead of table salt.
Compared with fish sauce, soy sauce has less sodium per tablespoon (16 g). However, the amount of sodium present is still significant at 38% of the daily value (
Dried shrimp also offers a considerable amount of sodium, with one ounce (28 g) of dried shrimp providing 624 mg sodium, contributing to 27 percent of the daily value (
Another potential downside to pad thai is its substantial amount of starch — a carb — from the flat rice noodles. As such, we refer to the glycemic index to determine how carbs affect our blood sugar level.
Glycemic index refers to how quickly carb-based foods raise blood sugar levels, based on a value between 0–100. The higher the index value, the more quickly it appears to increase the blood sugar level.
Considering that rice noodles have a glycemic index of 61, people living with diabetes may need to be mindful of portion sizes (19).
It’s okay to eat pad thai in moderation as part of your regular diet. If you enjoy pad thai often, though, you may want to make some adjustments. Cooking at home can be an easy way to do that.
To avoid losing its authentic taste, you may consider cutting back its sodium content by simply using less fish sauce and soy sauce or choosing a low sodium soy sauce. You may also choose to reduce the amount of dried shrimp.
Since cooking pad thai requires oil, you may consider choosing a cooking oil that provides health benefits and is suitable for stir-frying, such as refined avocado oil, refined peanut oil and canola oil.
Check out Healthline’s guide to cooking oils for more information.
When making pad thai, you can also incorporate high quality protein options, such as white poultry meat or firm tofu pieces.
Tofu, specifically, would be a perfect option. It contains all the essential amino acids, is an excellent source of manganese and calcium, and is a good source of selenium and phosphorus. It’s also suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
For additional fiber, vitamins, and minerals, enjoy pad thai with pad pak (stir-fried vegetables). Substituting some or all of the noodles for pad pak is also a great choice for people with diabetes who want to reduce their glycemic load.
Pad pak uses many vegetables, including broccoli, baby bok choy, carrots, mushrooms, and water chestnuts, combined with common Thai ingredients, such as garlic, galangal, shallots, fresh Thai basil, and chili flakes.
Substitutions for a vegetarian pad thai
You can also create a vegetarian version of pad thai by substituting regular fish sauce with a vegan “fish sauce” made from kelp and the chicken with firm tofu.
Beyond pad thai, Thai cuisine offers many delicious and nutritious dishes to include as part of your meal pattern.
For instance, green papaya salad is beloved in Thai cuisine, much like raw cucumbers and green bell peppers are added to western-style salads.
Another Thai favorite among many food lovers is Thai fresh spring rolls. This roll is similar to the Vietnamese salad rolls, where both use thin rice wrappers, cooked rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, and shrimp. The Thai version also includes Thai holy basil and coriander.
A clear spicy soup, tom yum goong nam sai, is another well-known Thai dish. This hot and sour soup incorporates seafood, vegetables, lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, resulting in a blend of flavors and aroma.
Pad thai is a nutrient-dense, tasty dish that offers a combination of flavors, texture, and aroma, making it one of the most loved dishes on the local streets of Thailand and Thai restaurants worldwide. It can definitely be a part of a balanced, well-rounded diet.
While pad thai includes many nutritious ingredients, its sodium content is considerably high. You can reduce its sodium by requesting the eatery go easy on the sauce and salt-contributing condiments.
If you make your own, though, you can manage the amount of ingredients and seasonings used.
Finally, pad thai is a stir-fry noodle dish that includes a decent amount of carbs; you may wish to be mindful of your consumption if you live with diabetes, as rice noodles may raise your blood sugar levels.
Consider enjoying half a plate of thai-style stir fry of non-starchy vegetables and a quarter plate of lean protein along with a quarter-plate of pad thai to make the meal complete.
Just one thing
Try this today: Most of the ingredients in pad thai should be available in your local Asian market. Certain ingredients may be unavailable, such as dried shrimp. In this case, you may choose to use a tablespoon of oyster sauce to mimic the seafood, fishy flavor, and aroma. Alternatively, you may substitute it with small amounts of oyster sauce. If you’re a vegetarian, you can use a vegetarian version of the “oyster” sauce made from mushrooms.