Eat healthy Mexican… it’s not as hard as you think.
If I was only allowed one ethnicity of food for the rest of my life, no question it would be Mexican. It’s bold, spicy, flavorful, and just downright delicious. I could eat it daily.
Sometimes, in fact, I want Mexican so badly that it doesn’t even feel like I’m choosing it, but rather it is choosing me. Mexican is my food soul mate.
Apparently I am not alone. I’ve read that salsa is one of America’s best-selling condiments. I’ve also read that Americans buy more Mexican food from the grocery than hamburgers.
The problem is, Americans aren’t exactly the poster child for good health. Why? Not because there aren’t healthy options out there, but because Americans don’t exercise self-control and eat healthy, especially when eating out.
Therefore, I owe it to Mexican food to come to its defense and give it the attention it deserves. So here you have, THE DEFINITIVE MANIFESTO on eating healthy at a Mexican restaurant! I want you to see that it’s possible to get fit while still eating out at your restaurante mexicano local. Without further ado, here are 14 rules on how to eat healthy Mexican.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #1: Watch the tortilla chips.
A serving of corn chips can range from seven to 15 chips. The calories per serving can range 200 to over 500 calories. Carbohydrates can start at 15 grams per serving. Fat grams can range from six on up. Don’t get me started on flour tortilla chips.
Now this wouldn’t be so bad if you really stuck to the serving size. But that can be hard right? Let’s be honest, when was the last time the server didn’t refill the basket a time or ten. Also, because we over-eat these early on in the meal, it’s easy to eat too much once the actual meal comes.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Remove three or four big chips from the basket and scoot the basket down the table away from you. Then break each chip into two or three pieces. Load up each piece with as much salsa as it can hold as salsa is more or less a freebie. This will allow you some indulgence without killing your whole meal out.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #2: Watch the refried beans.
Refried beans are often made with lard. So what you see on your plate is a combination of unhealthy fat, carbs (although they’re at least the complex kind), some protein and a little fiber. Not a total disaster but not ideal.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Ask if they have black beans instead. These will not have the added fat from the lard, they’ll likely have more fiber, and they’re more flavorful.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #3: Watch the flour tortillas.
As with refried beans, often times flour tortillas are made with lard, adding unnecessary and unhealthy kinds of fat. Deep fry one and it’s like double dipping in the fat vat.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Ask for soft corn tortillas instead of the crispy fried corn taco shells. These are usually made from corn meal, water, and salt, resulting in zero fat. I wasn’t always a fan of soft corn tortillas but now I prefer them. They have a delicate texture and the corns adds nice sweet overtone to the meal. So give them a try for a while.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #4: Watch the rice.
Mexican rice is usually white rice with salsa or oil and cilantro. It’s not the extra ingredients I have an issue with, it’s the rice itself. White rice is stripped of everything beneficial, resulting with a carb-loaded high glycemic reacting product. If it were made with wild, long-grain rice, it would be a different story.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: See if the restaurant will let you sub out your rice (or rice and beans if black beans aren’t an option) for a side salad, and use salsa as your dressing.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #5: Watch out for the combination platters.
These platters are usually some combination of the above components, and more often than not, the ground beef is the primary filling, a less than optimal option.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Don’t order a meal that starts with a number. Look over their house specials, their salads, and their a la carte options. Get out of the rut and take some chances. I cannot remember the last time I ordered a combination platter and I don’t miss them.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #6: Watch out for cheese overload.
Let’s face it, it’s hard not to want some cheese on our Mexican food. If we strip away everything we like from our restaurant outing, we may not enjoy it any more. So personally, I’m okay with some cheese. The problem you often run into is the sheer amount of cheese they put on the food. I’ve seen tacos that were two parts cheese to one part meat.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: If the meal normally comes with queso, ask for shredded cheese instead as you’ll consume far less. If you want to be extra diligent, ask for the shredded cheese on the side so you can better control the quantity going on your food.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #7: Watch out for the sour cream intake.
Since we are on the topic of dairy, let’s talk about sour cream. Personally, I like it. It certainly helps cool the fire from the generous dousing of hot sauce I add to my meals.
Now not all sour cream is made equal. Last I checked, Qdoba watered down their sour cream and uses a lower fat version anyway, resulting in a much less fattening product. Even still, sour cream is not a healthy fat. Furthermore, whenever I’ve asked for a side of sour cream at a local joint, it comes in a bowl big enough to bob for apples.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Unlike sour cream, avocados contain a very heart healthy fat. And they too can tame the heat. So feel free to help yourself to a serving of avocado or guacamole instead. Or if you’re watching the fat, ask for pico de gallo instead of sour cream. Won’t help cool the spiciness but it’s packed with flavor, nutrients, and you can eat as much of it as you want.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #8: Watch the sauce.
This is kind of a rehash of #6 and #7, but dairy based sauces (queso, sour cream, etc) are fattening and the vegetable based ones (ranchero, verde, enchilada) are not.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: If you must have some dairy based sauce, try going half and half. Half queso (or sour cream) and half enchilada (or other veggie based sauce). My guess is it will satisfy your desire without adding unnecessary calories.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #9: Hit the sauce, hot sauce that is.
There are numerous studies and articles out there showing that spicy food helps burn more calories. The chemical that makes spicy foods spicy is called capsaicin. Capsaicin has been shown to suppress appetite as well as slightly increase metabolism. Of course, spicy alone won’t help you lose weight. But when eaten regularly and in combination with other healthy foods, you could get an extra boost.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: The heat from peppers comes from the veins, not the seeds as most people think. So you can cut around the veins to avoid too much extra heat. If you grill a jalapeno, that will diminish some of the heat as well. Fresh jalapeños are nearly always hotter than the pickled ones. Also, just because it’s a pepper doesn’t mean it’s blazing hot. A pablano pepper is a mild heat with a good flavor. So play around with it and live a little. If nothing else, you’ll get a little endorphin high from the hot stuff!
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #10: Watch out for the meat’s preparation method.
If the meat is cooked in its own juices (ground beef), not good. If the meat is lightly fried (carnitas), really not good. If the meat is deep fried (chimichanga or fried fish for fish tacos), really, really not good.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Look for grilled items and you’ll save yourself a lot of fat and unnecessary calories. Fajitas fall into this category. Fajita meats and veggies are generally cooked on a grill first (hence the grill marks) before they are transferred to the raging hot, cast-iron fajita plate. So a majority of the fat in the meat has been cooked over the grill, and what is left on the fajita plate is a small part of juices from the meat and a large part of juices (aka water) from the veggies.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #11: Learn to trust the menu.
A good Mexican restaurant (usually ran by Latinos and frequented by Latinos) knows authenticity and what works well together (and aren’t as concerned about catering to the whims of Americans’ taste buds). So trust the menu. For instance, if the item doesn’t come with cheese, don’t order it extra.
Before I had mastered this practice, I ordered Tacos De Carne Asada (steak, soft corn tortillas, pico de gallo, lime, and tomatillo salsa). But in my ignorance (or obedience to the ghost of palates past), I asked for flour tortillas instead or corn, and a side of shredded cheese. Boy was that a mistake. It served only to dilute the flavor, ruin the consistency, and add fat and calories.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Trust the Latinos and the flavor of their component combinations. They know of which they speak. So trust them. TRUST THEM!
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #12: Learn which restaurants serve the higher quality ingredients.
There is a big push for more restaurants to buy their ingredients from local sources. If you can find ones that do, you’ll likely be getting more organic produce, dairy, and meats in your meals. Even if they’re not buying local, some just serve better stuff. For instance, my favorite local Mexican restaurant happens to use higher quality produce and more generous amounts of it. So as you’ll see below, all Mexican restaurants are not created equally.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Make a vow to only try Mexican restaurants you’ve not eaten at before until you find the ones using the better ingredients.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #13: Limit the alcohol.
Now I realize for some of you, spicy food is just an excuse to have a beer. But alcohol, like Mexican rice (and other simple carbs like sugar), is a high glycemic index product, causing your blood insulin to rise and encouraging your body to store its fat. But to have no beer or margarita over Mexican may be a nonstarter for you.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: Limit yourself to one small size serving. Start with a big ‘ol glass of water and wait to order your drink with your meal. Sip it. Savor it. Slow it down.
Eat Healthy Mexican Rule #14: Make two meals out of it.
Remember when Mom said you had to clean your plate before you got any dessert? In this instance, I disagree. In fact, I’d say plan for left overs. Stop eating before you’re full. Remember, some leftovers taste better the next day after marinating all night in their flavor-filled saucy goodness.
Eat Healthy Mexican Tip: When your meal comes out, go ahead and ask for a to-go box. The server may look at you weird but ignore that. When you get the box, go ahead and put a fourth to half of your meal in the box and close it. It’s far less tempting to overeat when you already have a to-go box of leftovers. Plus you don’t want to look extra loco eating out of a plastic container in the middle of the restaurant.
So there you have them, fourteen rules to help you eat healthy Mexican food. I tried to think of some clever way to remember these rules with an acronym or acrostic like AIM to HALT but I got nothing, so you’re on your own.
If you’re discouraged, don’t be. Just stay with me on this. Let’s recap the rules one more time.
14 Rules for Eating Healthy Mexican:
#1. Watch the corn tortilla chip intake.
#2. Watch the refried beans intake.
#3. Watch the flour tortilla intake.
#4. Watch the rice intake.
#5. Avoid the combination platters.
#6. Watch out for cheese overload.
#7. Watch out for the sour cream intake.
#8. Watch the sauce.
#9. Increase the Spiciness.
#10. Watch out for the meat preparation method.
#11. Learn to trust the menu.
#12. Learn which restaurants serve the higher quality ingredients.
#13. Limit the alcohol.
#14. Make two meals out of it.
Eating Healthy Mexican in Real Life
Now I want to show you how this recently played out for me at my favorite local Mexican restaurant, El Caporal.
I started by looking over the menu before even having a single chip, and I didn’t even bother with the back page, where the combination platters are listed, as that’s Rule #5 – Avoid Combination Platters. Looking over the house specials, I selected El Gallinaso: A chicken breast marinated with orange liqueur and spices and topped with grilled shrimp covered with cheese and salsa ranchera and served with rice and a tossed salad.
But when I ordered, I made a couple changes. First I asked to sub out the rice for fajita vegetables (grilled onions and bell peppers) as that helps me to preserve Rule #4 – Watch Rice Intake.
Now because I’ve had this dish before, I knew it also came with my choice of tortillas. So naturally I opted for corn over flour, helping me follow Rule #3 – Watch the Flour Intake.
Now you can see from the picture of my salad that this is a higher quality restaurant (rule #12). We aren’t talking merely iceberg lettuce and shreds of cabbage. This is a real salad. It has healthy helping of spinach, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers and some onions, and the tip from rule #4, I used salsa as my dressing. So the only thing “bad” about the salad was the cheese, and I didn’t even eat all of the cheese.
Next up you can see my entree. The thing was smoking hot and crazy good. I even added some hot sauce to up the ante, which satisfies Rule #9 – Increase the Spiciness.
And if you notice behind my grilled chicken (which, by the way, is Rule #10 – Watch the Meat Preparation Method), there sit my fajita veggies, perfectly seasoned and cooked. Off to the right are my corn tortillas, void of any lard. So the only negative again is the cheese. But again, I didn’t even eat all of it, trying to abide by Rule #6 – Watch for Cheese Overload.
Okay, the next is a picture of what I didn’t eat. I want you to take a look at the chips. Notice anything? That’s right, they’re almost all still there. Why? Cause I only ate three of them. And in case you’re wondering, no, that wasn’t my second basket. That was my only basket.
Notice anything else? The bowl of salsa is almost empty. This is me following Rule #1 – Watch the Chips. And while it’s hard to tell from the picture, per rule #6, I didn’t eat all the cheese they put on there.
Now if you look at this next picture, in action is Rule #14 – Make Two Meals Out of It. So now, I’ve got an entire other meal to look forward to! Win win.
Let’s recap: I followed rules 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 14. The rest of the rules didn’t really apply as the meal didn’t come with the items and/or I didn’t add them to my meal.
And here’s the thing, I DID NOT feel deprived. If anything, I felt empowered. When you are in control of food (rather than the other way around), it frees you up. So these “rules” will, over time, give you the control and the freedom you need to truly enjoy food.
Here’s another meal I had recently at the same restaurant: Fajita Salad.
Because of the quality of the restaurant, again you can see the wonderful ingredients. Also, notice no flour tortilla shell? Those things are a disaster. Because a good restaurant should be happy to please, I ordered my peppers and onions grilled rather than raw.
Now this same salad at a lesser restaurant (that shall go unnamed) comes in a fried flour tortilla bowl, with iceberg lettuce, no cucumbers or tomatoes, covered in queso, sour cream, and guacamole… hardly what you’d want if you’re trying to eat healthy at a Mexican restaurant. My salad, however, helped me stick with rules #2-7, #10 and #12! And since salads don’t do well as leftovers, I didn’t mind violating rule #14.
Now for the sake of full disclosure, I don’t always eat this way at a Mexican restaurant. I practice the nutrition tithe and have a cheat meal that will break nearly every rule listed by ordering what is likely my favorite meal on earth, The Burrito Ranchero (and yes, it deserved to be capitalized!). It’s a behemoth of flavor and spice and I cannot imagine a burrito that could taste better than this. Just look at it!
“The Burrito” (as I’ve become accustomed to calling it) is rare for me and it’s the perfect example of how to cheat on your diet. But when it happens, it tastes SO good partly because I don’t eat it all the time (maybe 3-4 times a year). That’s the beauty of the nutrition tithe, it affords me to eat foods I still love, but in moderation.
Eat Healthy Mexican: Wrap Up
So there you have them in action, the best guidelines I can give you for eating healthy at a Mexican restaurant. I hope I did not discourage you or dream squash your Mexican food outings. I don’t mean to give you the impression that you can never eat Mexican food again or that when you do, it won’t be enjoyable. Or perhaps worse, it will still taste amazing but you’ll feel guilty eating it. That’s not my goal at all.
In fact, I want you to be able to eat more Mexican because, well, Mexican food makes me so happy. Following the nutrition tithe gives you room for full-on splurges. It’s that kind of “rule” (like the rules above) that actually allows me to enjoy food more, not less!
Keep in mind also that you can make the above changes over time, if all at once if that’s too much shock for your system. Learn what to look for and don’t be afraid to ask the server to make some changes. They are there to serve you and should be happy to help.
As you can tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought (I told you I loved Mexican). As you saw, there are times to cheat on your diet. Until then, get in the habit of practicing moderation, especially by stopping before your full.
Follow these rules and you will take your Mexican food eating to new highs, while keeping your weight at new lows. Again, this is about moderation, not deprivation. Making small changes can add up. So be patient.
In the end, it’s about enjoying your favorite flavors while maximizing the health benefits and minimizing the health detriments. Being intentional like this will actually free you up to try new things, expand your palate, and shrink your waistline.