To the surprise of no one who has observed the rise of Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the proliferation of taco trucks, Mexican food remains the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, according to an industry report. In spite of its popularity, however, Mexican food still has a bad rap as far as health goes, possibly because roughly one-quarter of all Mexican restaurants in the United States are considered fast food.
“There’s the misconception that Mexican food is unhealthy or that eating tortillas and rice is ‘bad.’ Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Marina Chaparro, RDN, an author and the founder of Nutrichicos. Chaparro grew up in Juarez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas, and now lives in Miami. “I wish people knew the vastness of Mexican food, which includes many different types of grains, fruits, veggies, and sauces.”
In fact, past research that looked at 500 post-menopausal women of Mexican descent found that those who ate more traditional Mexican foods, such as corn tortillas, beans, and even Mexican cheese, while limiting added sugars and fats and refined grains, experienced improvements in obesity-related inflammation and insulin resistance.
The next time you crave Mexican food, think of it as an opportunity to order something your taste buds will love. “My goal as a pediatric Latina dietitian is to teach families to enjoy their favorite cultural foods without guilt and help parents raise healthy eaters who have healthy relationships with all types of food,” says Chaparro.
Here, discover what she and other registered dietitians order at Mexican restaurants, and what advice they have for balanced, tasty meals.
Surprise, the pads of the opuntia or prickly pear cactus (the one with round, flat, prickly leaves) are not only edible, they’re delicious, and healthy to boot! The cactus fruit, known simply as prickly pear, can also be eaten, but the pads, called nopales, are a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine.
Nopales can be served raw in salads, but are more commonly grilled or boiled and added to eggs or tacos, or even used to flavor smoothies or sauces, according to Chaparro. “They can be an excellent option to fill up on veggies, not to mention they are nutrient-dense,” says Chaparro. Nopales are high in fiber and contain calcium, vitamin C, and potassium, per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Mayo Clinic also notes that they have antioxidants (that help protect your cells from harmful free radicals in your body, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).
People tend to think of beef, pork, and chicken when it comes to Mexican food, but seafood has a major place in Latin cuisine as well. “One of my favorite main dishes to eat at Mexican restaurants is Mexican seafood, also known as mariscos,” says Briauna Ramirez, RDN, a Phoenix-based registered dietitian-nutritionist and a cofounder of Viva La Comida. “If I can eat something I love and get healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, it’s a win.” Her favorite entrée is aguachile, a shrimp dish that’s similar to ceviche, made with lime juice, avocado, cucumbers, and onion. The dish delivers bright flavors and is a relatively low-cal, low-fat source of protein, with 20 grams (g) per three-ounce (oz) serving, according to USDA data. Seafood is also a great way to score beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, good-for-you fats that may support your heart, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Is there anything more crucial at a Mexican restaurant than starting your meal off with some salsa? “Salsas include so many nutritionally dense ingredients that blend together to make a variety of beautiful flavors,” says Ramirez. “It’s one of the most versatile toppings that you can eat with chips or add to meats and sides,” Ramirez adds. Plus, it’s an easy way to incorporate vegetables like tomatoes and onions to your meal and score valuable vitamin C (1 cup of pico de gallo salsa, for example, contains 26 milligrams [mg] of vitamin C, per the USDA, making it an excellent source). Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant in the body, helping fend off free radicals and create collagen, a type of protein necessary for wound-healing, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes.
If you love guacamole (and really, who doesn’t?), then consider making it your appetizer. “I love avocado, and it is a great way to start my meal off with some healthy fats, vitamins, and fiber,” says Rodriguez. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the avocados in guacamole provide, among other nutrients, monounsaturated fat, which may improve brain function, lower your cholesterol levels, and reduce your odds of heart disease and stroke. “It is also nice to try this at different restaurants, since [restaurant chefs] typically try to put a spin on it by adding different ingredients, such as fruits, seeds, herbs, or spices,” Rodriguez adds. Still, it’s easy to enjoy more “chips and guac” than you had planned (considering they taste so good!). To make sure you’re leaving room for your main course, Rodriguez and Ramirez suggest eating slowly and savoring each bite, listen to your body, and pick up on hunger and fullness cues.
Entrées at Mexican restaurants can be large and come with plenty of rice, which can be heavy on carbs. If you’re not into splitting with a friend, tacos can make it easy to try several different flavors and keep your meal balanced. Traditional tacos are smaller and made with a whole-grain corn tortilla, not refined white flour or a deep-fried hard shell, says Chaparro. If you stick to two or three tacos, it’s easy to stay within a reasonable amount of calories, especially if you make one a veggie option like mushroom or nopales. Traditional tacos tend to be topped with veggies, onion, herbs like cilantro, and lime for flavor, and typically don’t have cheese and sour cream like the Americanized versions sold at Taco Bell.
6. A Margarita (Yes, Really!)
Premade margaritas tend to be packed with processed ingredients. Consider this tip from the nationally recognized nutrition expert and author Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN: “Find out how they make their margs.” If you can, order yours on the rocks, and ask for it with just tequila, triple sec, and lime juice, adds Largeman-Roth, which is the classic version of the margarita, anyway (and skip the salted rim if you are trying to lower your sodium intake). If you’re not a margarita-lover, she suggests ordering wine or a Mexican beer instead, or even skipping the alcohol drink altogether.
7. Agua Fresca
If you limit alcohol in your diet, that doesn’t mean you have to pass up a tasty drink. Plain water is always a great option, and according to the Mayo Clinic, it helps you break down and process your food so you can take in nutrients more efficiently. It’s also helpful for staying hydrated if you are drinking alcohol. If Ramirez is celebrating or having a late dinner with a friend, for example, she’ll order a mojito with water on the side.
But if you aren’t a fan of plain water, you have options. “I choose water with lemon to stay hydrated while I enjoy my meal,” says Ramirez. Agua fresca (“fresh water”) is a popular Mexican beverage of water infused with fresh fruit, herbs, or other flavorful ingredients. These can be lightly sweetened but typically have less sugar than sodas. “Some of my favorites include Jamaica, which is hibiscus, and pineapple,” says Rodriguez. If you are watching your sugar intake, ask your waiter if the house agua fresca is made with added sugar, and if so consider diluting it with more water.
8. Ceviche or Salad
Ceviche, a dish that uses acids like lime juice to “cook” raw proteins like fish, is popular in Latin cuisine. Aquachile, as described in No. 2, is one option, but many Mexican restaurants offer a ceviche starter. “Raw fish in a citrus marinade is a great option,” says Jessica Levinson, RDN, a culinary nutrition expert in Westchester, New York. “It’s light but very flavorful and usually has fruit or vegetables in it.” A greens-based salad or a side of veggies is a great choice, too. “I also love to order a side of cucumbers and radishes for a boost of extra fiber,” says Rodriguez. “The combination helps me feel satisfied and has the added benefits of lots of vitamins and minerals.” Skip the “taco salad,” which some Tex-Mex restaurants serve in deep-fried shell bowls with a large scoop of sour cream.
Bring on the beans! “Beans offer a fantastic combination of nutrients, including plant-based protein, fiber, potassium, folate, iron, and calcium,” says Chaparro. The Cleveland Clinic calls out both black and pinto beans — both Mexican restaurant staples — as being particularly high in fiber (and fiber, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, can do everything from helping keep you regular, to lowering your cholesterol and reducing your risk for heart disease). For example, one cup of black beans contains 15 g of fiber, per the USDA, making it an excellent source. As for refried beans, a common side dish, Chaparro says, “Refried beans might have a bad reputation because traditionally they can be refried with lard, but it depends on how you cook them. You might not even need to use much oil.” If you are interested in how they’re cooked, ask the restaurant. You can also make them at home with olive oil or avocado oil to boost their nutrition. “Bottom like: Don’t skip the beans,” says Chaparro.
10. Dessert for the Table
Yes, dietitians eat dessert! By the end of dinner, you may be craving something sweet. First things first, Ramirez suggests gauging your fullness. “Whether or not I order a dessert depends on my fullness level,” she says. “Most of the time I usually offer to split my dessert, or if I really want a dessert but I’m too full, I’ll take it home to enjoy later.”
Many Mexican desserts feature some kind of sweetened milk (dulce leche), including tres leches cake, which is made with three kinds of milk. A full serving can be pretty decadent, and may exceed your recommended daily tallies for sugar and saturated fat, so splitting a dessert is a good option. Rodriguez says her go-to is flan, a caramel custard. “Since the food that I usually order is pretty filling, I prefer sharing my dessert,” she says. “This helps me enjoy my favorite dessert without feeling too full or uncomfortable.”
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