Chicken tikka masala may be off the menu for many after last week's warnings that Britain's favourite dish can contain potentially dangerous levels of food dye. But being health-conscious needn't mean cutting out curries altogether. The nutritionist Ian Marber tells Clare Rudebeck how learning to make the right choices means we don't have to give up the fast foods we love

Fish and chips

Surprisingly, fish and chips is one of the healthiest choices. Clearly, this is not due to the batter. "You only have to pull open the batter to see how bad it is for you," says Ian Marber of the Food Doctor clinic, London. "The white fluffy stuff inside is what it looks like before the oil hits it: it's dough and fat." However, because the batter seals the fish when it is submerged in the frying fat, little nutritional value is lost. Fish contains B vitamins and important minerals. And cod and haddock are almost pure protein, containing only 0.1 per cent fat.

The fish is also likely to be fresh and will not be covered in food dye. And there's more good news as far as the fat, soggy chips are concerned. "They've got less fat on them than the thin chips," says Marber, "because the thin chips absorb a lot more fat [due to their increased surface area]."


According to Marber, burgers and deep-fried chicken are the worst takeaway options from a nutritional point of view because they often contain a lot of saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease and cancer. "Fried chicken is clearly very oily and the coleslaw that you get with it is very fatty. And then there's the chips to consider as well. So there's nothing particularly good there," he says.

By contrast, rotisserie chicken is one of healthiest takeaway options because the fat drips off it as it cooks. Outlets also frequently offer side orders of vegetables.

Burgers are also often a nutritional black hole. While it is better to order chicken than beef because lighter meats contain less saturated fat, neither could be described as a healthy option. Marber suggests going for the mixed salad options that are starting to appear on the menu of fast food outlets such as McDonald's instead.


You should watch your carbohydrate consumption when ordering an Indian meal. "People inhale poppadoms, then order naan bread and rice. They are having a carb-fest," Marber says. "You have got to get the balance right between protein and carbohydrates." His rule of thumb is: 40 per cent proteins and the rest carbohydrates, of which a large proportion should be vegetables.

When it comes to the levels of food dye in your curry, trust your instincts: if your chicken dish glows in the dark, you may be right to be concerned. However, it's not only the colourings that you should worry about. A 2001 Health Which? investigation found that, served with pilau rice, chicken tikka masala contains about 47g of fat, due to the oil, ghee (clarified butter) and added sugar used in its cooking.

"If you can get a non-lurid tandoori chicken, then that is a great thing to order because it doesn't have a thick creamy sauce on it so it will be lower in fat," says Marber. He also recommends a side order of vegetables, for example, sag paneer, which is cheese cooked with fresh spinach. "If you're going to have something piggy, make sure you balance it with a dish that has a vague degree of nutritional value," he says.


Pizzas often have very healthy ingredients, such as anchovies, fresh vegetables and mozzarella. Anchovies contain essential fats that reduce blood clotting and cholesterol levels, helping to prevent heart disease. And mozzarella, as long as it is good-quality buffalo mozzarella, doesn't contain high levels of saturated fat.

However, the amounts in which these toppings are served mean that the nutritional value of an individual pizza is often minimal. "How many anchovies do you get on a pizza? About two!" scoffs Marber. "And the essential fats will probably have been roasted out of existence by the pizza ovens - they are extremely hot."

He recommends ordering a salad with your pizza - and keeping in mind the volume of food you are consuming. "It's like eating four sandwiches. Would you do that? No!"

You should also consider the high salt content of some pizzas. "The amount of salt in all these takeaways is far in excess of what you would put in your home cooking." Salt has been linked to increased water retention and higher blood pressure, although in the right amounts it is a much-needed mineral in the body, stimulating the kidneys and gastric juices. As with takeaways in general, it is not the ingredient itself but the amount that is harmful.


Health scares about MSG have dogged the Chinese takeaway industry for years. But Marber says that, from a nutrition point of view, it shouldn't be our primary concern. "So many places say they don't use MSG, like it's some kind of badge of honour," he says. "But no one seems to mind about the other things that they put in their food. Like most other takeaways, the fat and sugar levels are very high."

The problem is that the British expect their Eastern cuisine to be strong in colour and flavour. As a result, restaurants often put more fat, refined sugar and thickeners into their food than they would if they were cooking for Chinese customers.

If you do fancy Chinese, Marber suggests plumping for steamed or stir-fried dishes, which are lower in fat. Wonton soup followed by chicken and cashew nuts would be an ideal combination. He also suggests that you go easy on the rice. "Certainly get an order of rice, but we generally eat too many carbohydrates so get one portion between two rather than one each," he says.


This is by far the healthiest option. With its emphasis on fish and vegetables, Japanese food is rich in vitamins and minerals. As Marber says: "If you doubt how healthy it is, just look at how long everyone lives in Japan." The Japanese have the longest average life-expectancy in the world, at 79.9 years, and the most centenarians.

Nori, a type of seaweed, is a good source of protein, calcium, carotene, phosphorus, iron and vitamins A, B and C. And fish oils are known to overpower eicosanoids, which are responsible for headaches. They also help to protect against deep-vein thrombosis and sunburn. "If I were to rank takeaway foods in order of their nutritional value, Japanese would be at the top," says Marber, "followed by rotisserie chicken, and fish and chips."