Technology–from food blogs to TV channels entirely dedicated to food–has globally expanded our pallets to bring world cuisine right into our kitchens. Ethnic cuisine, especially Mexican and Asian, is now a part of our everyday life. Tragically, like with everything else in America, we’ve taken their food dishes and then super-sized them. Overstuffed, super sized grande burritos, deep-fried chimichangas, and greasy enchiladas smothered in cheese are prominently featured on the menus of most Mexican restaurants in across the US. In reality genuine Mexican cuisine is very different. Colorful vegetables, flavorful salsas, grilled seafood, whole grains, and a variety of beans make up the backbone of the authentic Mexican diet.
If Mexican food is one of your favorites, here are a few guidelines designed to help you maintain good nutrition and cut calories when eating out or cooking at home. Remember when it comes to food bigger is not better it’s just bigger, which will only make you bigger too.
Healthy Tips for Ordering Mexican Food. Request smaller portions or order food a la carte, or separately, to control portion sizes. For example, instead of ordering a standard meal with chicken enchiladas that includes rice, beans and high-fat side items, such as sour cream and guacamole, request an enchilada with marinated vegetables and fat-free beans and salsa. (Salsa is super low in fat and is made with only fresh, low cal vegetables, such as tomatoes and oninons.)
Just say no to nachos. Next time you eat out at a Mexican restaurant, pass on the nachos. Did you know that nachos oftentimes have more than 1,000 or more calories?!? That’s like the equivalent of eating a giant plate of chili cheese fries for dinner!
Avoid fat and fried foods. Fried foods in general are not healthy, because of the amount of un-heart healthy lard or shortening. Although it enhances the flavor of the foods, lard and shortening are trans fat. Limit your intake of total fat to between 44 and 78 grams per day. Some fried dishes Mexican entrée’s may contain up to a whopping 30 grams of fat, (almost 70 percent of the total recommended daily fat intake). In addition, these dishes may contain anywhere from 500 to 1,000 calories upwards!
Some common Mexican dishes such as refried beans are traditionally made with lard. Eating your pinto beans whole (instead of mashed or refried) and simmering them in water or broth (instead of lard), or replacing the lard with minimal amounts of olive oil, can make a huge difference in total calories and fat content. Fried tortilla chips that arrive at your table before you even have a chance to sit down are oftentimes almost impossible to resist. Eat one and the blind flirtation of grease and salt on your tongue will cause you to reach for another, and then another. And before your know it you will become a mindless hand-to-backet-to-mouth machine. Although it may be hard to resist that basket of fried tortilla chips that arrive at your table as you sit down, how about asking for baked tortilla chips or whole-corn tortillas to dip into your salsa instead? Another compromise is to eat half the basket, and definitely just say no if the waitress offers you a refill!
*Making your own baked tortilla chips at home is super fast and easy. Just cut up corn tortillas into triangular wedges. Lay them out on a baking sheet, then spray lightly with a good quality olive oil cooking spray. Bake in a preheated 350 degrees oven until crispy for about 12 to 15 minutes, flipping once so both sides crisp evenly.
Fill Up on Soup First. Studies show that people who eat low-sodium, low calorie, high fiber soup, such as vegetable before a meal consume on average 200 less calories per meal. Multiply that times 365 days and that equals a 20-pound weight loss over one year. *Try my yummy and nutritious Vegan Tortilla Soup recipe.
Opt for Baked or Grilled Items. It’s OK to enjoy your favorite proteins, such as chicken, beef, pork or shrimp. However, choose a dish where these proteins have been baked or grilled. This can help to shave a minimum of 200 to 300 calories from your meal. *Try my most favorite ever Grilled Fish Tacos recipe from Malibu Seafood!
Choose whole grains. Either corn or whole wheat flour tortillas can be the foundation for a delicious Mexican fiesta. They have less fat, fewer calories, and more fiber than their white-flour cousins. Order soft tacos rather than crisp tacos that have been fried most likely in lard. Choosing 6-inch tortillas over 10-inch ones can also help you with portion control.
Beware of Dips. With its load of brain-boosting, cancer-fighting healthy fats, guacamole is a first-class condiment, but it still packs a whopping 100 calories per scoop which will quickly derail your diet goals. For example, 2 tbsp. of guacamole has 4.5 g of fat. Eating an average of 4 or 5 tbsp. can add up to 9 or more than 11 g of fat from the guacamole alone. Instead, pair it with salsa to replace, not supplement it. *Try my deLISH Mock-A- Mole Dip recipe.
Stick with salsas and salads. Let’s not forget the soul of Mexican cuisine—salsa! There’s a seemingly endless variety of salsas that can be made from tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, onions, peppers, limes, and more. The more colorful the salsa, the more nutritious it’ll be. The good news is that freshly made salsa is good for you, so you can pile as much as you want on your tortillas, grilled fish, or salad. *Try my Pico de Gallo recipe.
Trade Your Beans. In many Mexican restaurants, main entrée’s are served with a side of rice and refried beans. Black, pinto, and kidney beans are high in protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. refried are also naturally low in calories. However, the refried beans can be tricky. A 5-oz. side of refried beans can contain up to 300 calories and 11 g of fat. Trade your refried beans for black beans and save yourself almost 150 calories and 9 g of fat. Rice can be considered a healthy grain or carbohydrate. A recommended healthy portion of total carbs per meal is one half cup—not one half cup or rice and one half cup of beans!
To cook Mexican rice at home with little or no fat, sauté some chopped onions, garlic, and a bit of jalapeño (if you want that extra heat) in a pan with just a bit of olive oil. Add uncooked rice and sauté a bit longer. Add some low-fat chicken or vegetable broth and chopped fresh tomatoes and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked through and fluffy, about 20 minutes. (Whenever you can, use brown rice instead of white for whole-grain goodness.)
Dairy Don’ts. Sour cream and all the cheeses spread over Mexican food can add up to a lot of calories and fat very quickly. Ask for fat-free sour cream or cheese on the side instead of letting the food be brought to the table smothered in cheese. Some restaurants may have nonfat choices for both the cheese and sour cream, but it is healthier overall to just eliminate or reduce both of those items. Avocado, while high in fat, is a healthy fat and offers a creamy texture to food
Get spicy. Speaking of spices, Mexican cuisine has yet another bonus: It’s full of some truly delightful spices and other flavorings, which can help you avoid adding extra salt to your diet. Although your typical Mexican restaurant meal may be loaded with sodium, you don’t have to eat that way for a flavorful south-of-the-border-inspired meal. The staples of Mexican cooking include chili powder, oregano, cumin, cilantro, and chili peppers. And remember that hot peppers are a super metabolism booster. Even if you have a delicate palate, you can turn down the heat while still getting the benefits of these peppers by removing the seeds and veins, where most of the heat lives. Lime juice, another staple in adding authentíco flavors, is another great way of enhancing flavor without upping the sodium content.
Go Easy on the Alcohol. Many people love a good cocktail with their Mexican meal. However, an 8-oz. margarita, for example, can have up to 400+ calories and 34+ g of carbohydrates, which primarily comes from sugar. Many of the calories and carbohydrates are derived from commercial cocktail mixes. An 8-oz. margarita is the recommended serving size, although many restaurants serve them in sizes that are three to four times this size. To make a healthier choice, stick as closely as possible to the 8-oz. serving size. You can also ask your waiter or waitress if the bartender can use fresh limes to make the margarita or if they have sugar free simple syrups to eliminate boatloads of carbohydrates and calories. *Try my two Skinny Margarita’s Drink Mixes—Skinny Lime Margarita and Skinny Pomegranate Margarita.