You can argue that street food contains a lot of fresh and healthy ingredients, which in many cases is true. But street food is also full of fat, sugar, salt, and MSG. It’s also high in calories, and those calories can lead to unwanted weight gains.
The hard truth is that anything can make you fat and street food is no exception. But as with everything else, the poison is in the dosage.
The internet is full of information about diet and nutrition, but there is very little about street food. I offer advice on fitness and nutrition which is relevant to residents of Hanoi, which is why I put so much time into researching local specialties.
My view is that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy street food. Indeed, for many of us it’s one of the highlights of life in Vietnam. The most important thing is to consume it responsibly.
Here are the three biggest tips I can give you when it comes to eating street food:
1. Do Street Food. Don’t Snack
Do you sometimes eat street food for lunch and then find yourself hungry a few hours later? That’s because street food is calorie dense: Even a small amount of food can end up packed with calories.
The danger is when you eat street food and then snack later in the day, probably because you get hungry or consider street food a small meal. The problem is that this extra snack also contains calories.
A street food dish and a snack will easily be more calorific than a well-balanced meal with a lot of vegetables. So if you do have street food as a meal, treat it as a full meal and avoid snacking later.
2. Careful What You Order
The amount of calories in a dish can vary significantly based on your ordering decisions. For example, the calories in an average bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) ranges from 400-600 calories.
But the kind of meat you choose can make a big difference. There are many different types of beef to choose from, from lean cuts (tai) to fatty chunks (gau). The difference between these two types can be enormous; perhaps as much as 150 calories per portion. And do you like quay, those fried batter pieces? Be careful as each one is around 90 calories.
Your choices can be the difference between a 500-calorie bowl of pho (20-25% of your daily intake) and a 900-calorie bowl of pho (35-45% of your daily intake).
3. It’s Not Just About Fat
I hear a lot of people worrying about the fat in street food, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
Take that delicious bun cha,for example. You might only be concerned about the fatty grilled patties and pork belly, but unfortunately there is more to consider.
There is a fair amount of added calories due to the amount of sugar used to marinate the meat and flavour the broth. A lot of street food sauces, from bun chato bun bo nam bo, have a lot of sugar, loading on calories to the dish. Always be mindful of those sweet sauces.