(REAL SIMPLE): Americans have been slurping down pho, a hearty Vietnamese noodle soup, increasingly for the past decade, but a big question remains: Is pho healthy?
There’s nothing quite like a big, steaming bowl of pho (pronounced “fuh”)—typically made up of a meaty broth, white rice flour noodles, beef or chicken, and spices and topped with a medley of herbs, bean sprouts, hot chiles, and a lime—on an icy winter day or night. (In Vietnam, it’s usually eaten for breakfast like Cheerios.) It’s deeply comforting and filling, but you don’t walk away from the meal feeling stuffed as you might after eating a meal of pizza and pasta or fried foods. But if you have ever wondered if it’s good for you, or even detoxifying like other types of bone broth soups, you are definitely not alone. We consulted the experts to weigh in.
“Pho is a very nutritious dish,” says nutritionist Rachael Hartley. “Made with rice noodles and a rich beef bone stock, it’s a perfect vehicle for bean sprouts and nutrient-rich herbs.” The soup itself, a rich bone broth, is filled with health benefits for your body, including your immune and digestive system, and your bones and joints.
In terms of calorie content, pho ranges from 350 to about 500 calories on average depending on the size of the portion and the meat or even seafood you add in. Pho is a great source of protein (vital for your bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood), but Mia Syn, a nutritionist, says, “When it comes to the protein, opt for lean cuts of meat or veggies to lower your saturated fat intake. Eating foods that contain high levels of saturated fat regularly can raise blood cholesterol which increases your risk of heart disease. Chicken is leaner than beef.”
The noodle soup has also been cited by doctors as an excellent cold remedy due to all the healing spices it’s packed with, such as coriander and anise.
Rice noodles don’t offer much in the way of nutritional value, so Hartley suggests swapping them out for brown rice noodles to make your pho healthier. “While it may not be traditional, at home, you can get more nutrition out of your pho by using brown rice noodles for more fiber,” she says.
Adding veggies, such as carrots, broccoli or spinach, to your pho is another great way to increase the nutrition in your bowl. “Fresh vegetables added to pho are a nutritious addition,” says Syn. “Vegetables are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals and filling fiber.”
The one thing to be extra conscientious with pho is that it’s very high in sodium, which can cause increased blood pressure and contribute to cardiovascular issues.1 (Some bowls have more than 1,000 mg, which is practically the entire allotment of recommended sodium intake for the day.) “Depending on the broth used and amount of fish sauce added, sodium can add up quickly,” says Syn.
Hartley suggests making pho at home with a low-sodium stock as a good alternative or pairing it with a lower sodium side, like a salad of fresh cucumbers dressed in rice vinegar and sesame oil with herbs.