What’s (good) on the menu: Mexican food fiesta

by SARA on February 1, 2010

Stephanie, in warmer climes

Camille and I are both suckers for big flavor–and Latin fare gets major points (Camille, specifically, makes a mean flan). Spicy food is actually supposed to cool you down somewhat–which is why these dishes are so endemic to warm climates–but for whatever reason my cravings get especially strong when the weather chills down. I can think of nothing better, for example, than to warm up with chili or nachos (or nicer yet, my friend Val’s famous and amazing Mayan Hot Chocolate). So you can bet I was especially excited to meet up with SG resident nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg (who’s just launched her own nutrition consulting business) for a night of Mexican food, where I got to learn more about what to pick and what to pass up to put a healthy, fresh spin on Latin fare. Keep reading, for Stephanie’s top pointers.

Chips and Guacamole. Plate it! Guacamole can be healthy, since it’s made from avocado, which is a good-for-you fat (monounsaturated; the same kind you get in olive oil). But, because it’s not portioned out, it’s easy to eat too much. With this, and any dips (apart from salsa), stick with 2 tablespoons (enough to get you the flavor, while keeping fat down. In this case, to four grams) and put it on your plate.

Add a small handful of chips (plate that, too), or ask for wheat or corn tortillas—which are of course baked instead of fried, something that can slash fat content by as much as 2/3. Side note: Many restaurants have Jicama, and it’s becoming increasingly common for people to ask for that instead of chips or tortillas to dip in guacamole or salsa. Jicama is a root vegetable, high in fiber, crunchy, and a much healthier alternative to chips.

Opt for tacos, burritos, or fajitas–and be a deconstrictionist: All of these choices have the same advantage–you can take them apart and put them together to your preference. Given how huge restaurant portions can be, this can be a great opportunity: You can make your order a saner, smaller one (something the size of your fist is usually ample), and in the process make sure you’re keeping the best ingredients for health and flavor.

Raw vegetables like lettuce, onions, and tomatoes fill you up and add vitamins, so you can go heavy on those, for instance. Cheeses, beans, rice, and meats can add flavor and some key nutrients, but are full of fat (often from the lard-and-bacon-heavy cooking process), while rice is often used to bulk things up so try to pare those down to a ratio that works for you. Experiment a little and you’ll find that it doesn’t take much of any of those to add a significant amount of taste. (See our sushi edition for more on how rolled up foods can be a stealth source of carbs and calories.)

Watch your carbs: Burritos can be a carb overload after you add up the tortilla (a large tortilla alone can be over 300 calories), rice, and beans. Cut down your exposure by choosing just two out of those three sources. If possible, too, ask for whole wheat tortillas or brown rice. It takes your body more time to break down something that’s made with the entire grain, so you’ll not only feel full longer, but also turn less of it directly into sugar and fat. Finally, most restaurants offer a “naked” burrito, which is all the ingredients normal burrito, just with no shell.

As for tacos and fajitas: If the shells are small, have one and eat the rest without a shell or if it is a large wrap, cut in half and save the other half for lunch the next day. Finally, if you plan to accompany any of these with a drink, say a margarita on the rocks (about 168 calories) or sangria (155 calories), then make sure you’re just having one other carb source—tortilla, rice, or beans.

Be stingy with sides: Because cheese, sour cream, and guacamole all serve a similar purpose—adding that creamy, satisfying, fatty taste—see if you notice a difference if you ask for just one (for additional flavor, add extra salsa). By cutting out cheese and sour cream, for example, you’re saving an average of 10 grams of saturated fat and 16 grams of total fat. Also, if you’re making Mexican at home, Greek yogurt can be an effective substitute for sour cream.

Not all beans are created equal: Beans can be incredibly healthy—filled with fiber, protein and iron (Per ½ cup serving, beans contain around 7g protein and 8 gram of fiber). However, refried beans are often made with lard, bacon, and even cheese. Ask if your beans are baked or refried, and–if baked ones aren’t on the menu–check if there’s a vegetarian option (somewhat lighter, thanks to the vegetable oil). If you do opt for the refried, stick with the two tablespoon rule.

Think twice before the salad: With the guacamole, cheese, sour cream, cheese, meat, beans and tortilla shell you might as well get the nachos! If you have problems with portion control and want to make this choice healthy, you need to ask for many items on the side. If that seems like a pain (or you don’t feel like channeling Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally) a great, light choice is ceviche–you’ll be filling up on protein and flavor, while skirting carbs and saturated fats almost completely.

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Clementina February 10, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Contrary to popular belief, native Mexican food is one of the healthiest on the planet (accourding to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition) It is low in fat (yes, you read that right) and high in fiber and vegetables. If the dish is dripping in cheese, then it’s simply not Mexican, it’s Tex-Mex (Mexican food’s evil overweight twin).

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