Eating Out the Healthy Weigh: Mexican

Enjoying Mexican -- without all those deep-fried calories!

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman

The food police -- otherwise knows as The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- are at it again. This time they tackled another of American's favorite foods, Mexican cuisine. Consider this: CSPI sent some of the menu items from the new Chipotle fast food restaurant chain off to a laboratory for analysis since the calories were not available from the company. The results might make you hotter than jalapeño salsa! A typical chicken burrito from Chipotle registered approximately 1,000 calories, the vegetarian burrito was 1,120 calories, and the pork came in at 1,130 calories!

Mexican food by nature can be a trap for calories, fat, and sodium. The fried tortilla chips, high-fat meats, sour cream, cheese, guacamole, refried beans, and deep-fried combo dishes can really pack on the pounds. So what's a hungry Mexican food lover to do? Don't despair, we've got tips on how to identify the healthier choices at your local Mexican restaurants and fast food chains that qualify for a WLC eating plan.

Monitor Your Portions

Start with portion control. If you are like me, you probably reach first for the tortilla chips dipped in salsa. Eat as much salsa as you like, but before you get started, put a handful of chips onto your plate (or napkin) and don't go back for more. Enjoy the guacamole, rich in healthy fats, only in very small portions. Healthy fats or not, it's still loaded with fat and calories. Likewise with cheese: A powerhouse of protein and calcium yet laden with saturated fat, cheese should be enjoyed in small portions.

Choose Wisely

But just because it is labeled vegetarian or grilled does not necessarily mean it is healthy. At Baja, another new Mexican fast food chain, the Especial Combo meal contained a whopping 32 ounces of food totaling 1,730 calories, 71 grams of fat, and 3,720 mg of sodium -- more than most of you probably have in your plan for an entire day. Many of the Mexican foods analyzed by CSPI were over 1,000 calories, loaded with sodium and a day or two supply of saturated fat. Not exactly the right kind of foods for WLC members.

You can enjoy Mexican cuisine if you follow a few guidelines for selecting the more healthful offerings at these restaurants or when you whip up the cuisine at home:

  • Beans, beans, good for the heart -- these nutritious nuggets are loaded with fiber, complex carbohydrate (the good kind), protein, vitamins, and minerals. The best part, they are low in calories. If refried beans are your delight, buy the fat-free version in the grocery store and check the nutritional content for restaurant fare.
  • Grilled seafood, lean meat, and poultry are excellent sources of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Protein helps to keep you feeling full and is a dieter's best friend.
  • Choose dishes that have plenty of fresh veggies, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa. These foods are loaded with nutritional goodness from the high fiber content to the disease-fighting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Load up on these foods to help fill you up.
  • Ask for low-fat sour cream and if unavailable, use sour cream sparingly.
  • Choose corn and whole-wheat tortillas over flour tortillas because they have fewer calories, less fat, and more fiber. Six-inch tortillas will help you keep your calorie intake under control.
  • Mexican rice is often made with tomatoes and very little, if any, fat. At Rubio's, they offer a rice with "Healthmex" items for only 110 calories.

The only way to be sure you are getting healthy food that fits into your eating plan is to check out the nutritional profiles of the foods. Many restaurants have this information compiled and will provide it upon request. Others send you to their web site. My advice is to check it out before you go and make a plan -- select the items that are the most nutritious that also fit into your eating plan. Some restaurants, like Rubio's, have "Better Bite" entrees that have no more than 5 grams of fat per serving. At Taco Bell you can now select the "Fresco" option, which substitutes more veggies and salsa for the sour cream and cheese. At La Salsa, the "Mexico City" versions of dishes have no cheese. Baja has its "Baja" style that is lighter in calories.

The great news is that restaurants across the nation are lightening up their cuisine in an effort to help stem the tide of obesity. The bad news is that the large portions of heavily laden calorie and fat offerings continue to sell. You can still have your Mexican "fix," however, as long as it comes from the lighter side.

Originally published Nov. 18, 2003
Medically updated Jan. 20, 2004.

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