Cinco de Mayo may only be once a year, but if you’re like many people, tasty Mexican food sounds good any time of the year. But don’t dive into the basket of chips and guacamole just yet.
"Mexican food uses delicious spices, sauces, grains and meats, but it also can have a high count of saturated fat and calories, thanks to fried items and cheeses," says Susan Watkins, RD, CDE manager of education, nutrition and weight management at
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Fullerton. "Choosing your food wisely can still help you savor Mexican dishes without overloading on the unhealthy stuff."
Here, Watkins offers tips for ordering a satisfying, and healthy Mexican meal at a restaurant:
A la carte is smart. Most restaurants offer tempting combo platters, where the plates are loaded with tacos or tamales, plus heaps of refried beans and rice. Ordering single items off the menu can cut down on the sheer amount of food, which means fewer calories. Order two tacos and a side salad with salsa as the dressing (instead of rice and beans.) If you can't resist, split a combo meal with a friend. You can each order a side salad without cheese topped with low-fat dressing or salsa.
When it comes to tortillas, corn is king. Corn tortillas are a better choice nutritionally than flour ones. A corn tortilla has 52 calories and about 11 grams of carbs, while a flour tortilla has 146 calories and roughly 24 carb grams. Although don't make the switch just yet; tacos with corn tortillas often come with two tortillas instead of one flour tortilla. If you are trying to cut calories, remove one corn tortilla.
Choose grilled chicken or grilled fish; portabella mushrooms and other veggies make great low-fat options, Watkins says. A meal consisting of one or two soft grilled chicken, fish or portabella mushroom tacos with a side of whole beans (not refried) can actually be a healthy option.
"Think 'balanced plate,'" Watkins says. "If you are having tacos, skip the rice to balance out your carbohydrates. If you're ordering a burrito, skip the rice or cheese and instead include lots of vegetables and grilled proteins."
Skip the fried food altogether. This one is a given: Deep-fried tostada and taco shells—and especially those giant fried-tortilla bowls that pretty much negate any nutritional value of the salads they contain—have too many calories and fats. Also stay away from fried foods such as taquitos and flautas. A quick, easy rule of thumb is if it’s crunchy, it is probably fried. For example, when it comes to tacos, soft is better than hard. Hard tacos are fried and have a lot of added calories and fat. That brings us to…
To chip or not to chip. That free basket of chips and salsa is, taste-wise, divine. Nutritionally speaking, however, it's not. One major Mexican restaurant chain, On the Border, lists a serving of chips and salsa at 440 calories and 22 grams of fat.
"The best choice is to tell your server not to bring the chips to your table, so you're not tempted," Watkins says. To curb your appetite before your meal arrives, try a broth-based soup instead or a side salad. "If you must indulge, order a smaller, healthy meal such as a salad to help balance out the calories you received from the chips. Also, ask for the chips to come with the rest of your food—that way you won't overeat the chips, and consume too many calories, before the actual meal. Or ask the waiter if he/she can put a small handful of chips on your entrée plate, like a side dish. Even just five chips can satisfy that craving."
Don't waste away in Margaritaville. The brightly colored Margarita that looks like it's being served in a birdbath may be a festive way to toast Cinco de Mayo, but may not be the best option. Many margarita mixes contain added sugars and artificial colors, and the calorie and sugar count can skyrocket as the glasses get bigger and bigger than a typical 8-oz. serving.
"A simple Margarita on the rocks with fresh lime juice is a good alternative. You can also try a "skinny" margarita but they do often contain artificial sweeteners," Watkins says. "Look for drinks made fresh with real ingredients, and not from a premade mix. Also, to cut back on sodium, skip the salt around the rim."
Minimum cheese, please. With its high fat content, cheese can be the downfall of any healthy Mexican meal. Instead of a cheese-filled enchilada, order one with veggies or a lean protein. And if you have cheese in your taco, for instance, cut back elsewhere—those refried beans on the side will still be tasty without a slathering of queso on top. Better yet, think about the calorie savings you would achieve if you asked for no cheese with all of your food. And with flavorful salsas and herbs such as cilantro you won't miss the taste or the extra calories.
Go to the light side. Many Mexican restaurants now offer "light" menus that have versions of popular dishes with lower fat and calories than regular menu items. Beans are not refried, side salads replace rice and regular sour cream is scratched in favor of lowfat versions or simply just salsa.
"Even better, some of these menus will list basic nutritional information on each dish, so you know exactly what you're getting," Watkins says. "You can still get the great taste of Mexican food without feeling guilty."
Remember not to go to the meal "starving." When we are really hungry all problem-solving skills tend to go out the window. Eat a light meal or snack before lunch or dinner to help curb cravings. And most importantly remember vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. If you stick to the simple rule of having at least two cups of vegetables added to most meals, you will control calories and curb hunger. Before you know it, you will be looking and feeling your best.
For more information about St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, click here. For more information about Watkins, click
here. For more information on our weight program options, call (714) 446-5677 and ask about our free Pathways to a Healthy Weight orientation.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.