Mmm, let’s eat Mexican food tonight! That’s what plenty of us often say as Mexican has become one of the nation’s favorite cuisines. It’s so popular that salsa overtook ketchup in American condiment sales! While most American versions of this traditional way of eating may include gobs of cheese, plenty of salt and grease, and a day’s worth of calories and carbohydrates snuck into one meal, the good news is that authentic Mexican fare is packed with delicious, nutritious ingredients, such as beans, tomatoes, and peppers, so you can enjoy the wonderful taste – with a few tips and tricks – while maintaining a healthier way of eating.
Here are five practical ways to enjoy Mexican food without using up your calorie, carbohydrate, and fat budgets.
Know your wraps, chips, and shells
You can’t guess by size what’s in these foods, so make sure to read the labels carefully. Compare products for calories, carbohydrates, and both saturated and trans fats. Surprisingly, a fajita wrap sometimes has more calories or carbs than the one made for a burrito, even though the fajita variety is usually smaller. Different brands of chips vary too; baked tortilla chips are usually lower in calories, but not always, and serving sizes can vary dramatically. One serving for some brands is a mere seven chips, but as many as fifteen for others. Say no thank you to those salad shells (crunchy shells are usually deep-fried and generally add 400–500 calories to the dish). Instead, consider going “naked,” and skip the wrap or shell on your taco or burrito. Just break two or three chips over the top if you’d like a bit of crunch.
Love those salsas
Jazz up the flavor and boost nutrition with salsa, picante sauce, pico de gallo, salsa verde, and more. These tasty sauces always add delicious flavor and often sneak in an extra serving of veggies as well, all for very few calories and carbohydrates. So pour them over salads and into chicken and rice, or mix them into your guacamole. Think of salsa as more than just a condiment; when you add in some diced mango, pineapple, jicama, or any favorite fruit or vegetable you make salsa into a salad!
Understand the menu
Just as Mexican cuisine has plenty of delicious, healthy dishes and ingredients to enjoy, there are some tricks for what to avoid. A few dangers to watch for: oversized portions (ask the server to split the meal and take the rest home), fried foods, and any dish with lots of sour cream and cheese. Always ask if you aren’t sure how the food is prepared, but here are some quick tips for dining out – and eating well – in a Mexican restaurant:
- Burrito: these are usually oversized, making the calorie, saturated fat, and carbohydrate content oversized, as well. Try ordering extra lettuce and veggies, then eating mostly the filling, with just small portion of the tortilla.
- Chimichanga: a deep-fried burrito. Avoid if possible!
- Fajitas: the sizzle comes from extra fat! Request that your order is cooked in minimal oil or butter.
- Quesadilla: usually high in calories and saturated fat from the heavy dose of cheese on the inside and the liberal spray of oil on the outside. Consider sharing one for dinner.
- Tortilla soup: filling and low calorie. Ask for yours without the crispy tortilla strips.
- Guacamole: enjoy this heart-healthy avocado dip in small portions because it’s calorie-dense.
- Refried beans: a saturated fat landmine if cooked with lard or bacon grease. Ask your server if you can get them vegetarian-style, or ask for plain black beans and mix with salsa.
- Crispy shell: as mentioned above, this deep-fried tortilla adds hundreds of calories, plus lots of carbs and fat, to any meal.
Use your beans!
Make your meals less meat and more beans. Yes, you have to count the carbohydrates in your beans, but these tiny nutritional powerhouses are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, and several phytochemicals.
Let the flavors of your food shine
Instead of hiding the fresh taste under mounds of cheese and sour cream, add zing with lime juice or zest and pizzazz with fresh chopped cilantro or chili peppers. Lighten up with reduced-fat cheeses and nonfat Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. And add crunch with low-calorie jicama (a sweet, crunchy legume you can find in most grocery chains), rather than fried tortilla strips.
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE* is contributing editor for Environmental Nutrition and has written for many publications including EatingWell, Diabetic Living, Her Sports + Fitness, and LifeScript. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience