Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 04, 2021
Pick the Right Dish
There’s no denying that Mexican food is delicious. But many of the entrees are made with oil, lard, and salt -- and loaded with cheese and sour cream. You can get more than a day’s worth of calories, saturated fat, or sodium in a single meal. A closer look shows there are plenty of healthy dishes to help you steer clear of a dietary disaster.
Worst: Deluxe Burrito
When it comes to burritos, size matters. In restaurants, this dish often offers up several servings of rice, beans, and meat. That’s topped with scoops of high-fat cheese and sour cream. Then it’s all wrapped up in a giant flour tortilla. The result is a meal that can clock in at 900 calories or more. Can’t pass one up? Go easy on the rice, cheese, and sour cream, and save half for another meal.
Best: Burrito Bowl
Unwrap that burrito, and you’ll save about 300 calories to start. For a healthy bowl, go with brown rice, black or pinto beans, and grilled chicken or lean steak. Top with lettuce and salsa, which packs plenty of flavor for just 5 calories a tablespoon. Hold the sour cream, or use a small amount of light sour cream, and get the guacamole on the side. While guac is loaded with healthy fat, it’s also high in calories, so watch how much you have.
Tacos have built-in portion control. They’re smaller than most of the other things on the menu, so you can keep calories in check. Order the grilled chicken, lean steak, or grilled fish on a baked corn tortilla. Those have 70% more fiber and less than half the fat of their white flour counterparts. Skip the chorizo, fried fish, and carnitas (fried pork or beef), which are higher in unhealthy saturated fat.
Worst: Refried Beans
Despite their name, these mashed beans aren’t usually fried. But they’re often flavored with a big scoop of lard. That’s why a cup of refried beans can have about 10 grams of fat. They’re also usually served with a layer of cheese on top.
Best: Black or Pinto Beans
In a taco or as a side, black or pinto beans are a healthy pick. They’re usually slow-cooked with onion, garlic, and spices. A half-cup packs in 8 grams each of fiber and protein. Plus, research shows these beans have more disease-fighting antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables.
This cheesy appetizer is loaded with fat and calories. Go for the salsa or pico de gallo instead. Their tomatoes have an antioxidant called lycopene, which may help protect you against heart disease and certain cancers. Both are good with tortilla chips, but keep an eye on how many of those you crunch -- they have about 18 calories each.
Worst: Taco Salad
A salad sounds like it should be a healthy meal, but this version can have more calories than a burrito. The fried shell alone packs in nearly 400. Add the ground beef, cheese, and sour cream, and you’ve got a “salad” that clocks in at more than 800. To turn this into a healthier dish, skip the shell and order it with grilled chicken and half the cheese. Ask for the guac and sour cream on the side, and use them sparingly.
In Mexican cuisine, many soups are high in nutrients and low in calories. Look for one made with broth. Good bets are black bean, chicken tortilla, and shrimp (caldo de camaron) soups. Or you might try pozole -- a stew with pork, vegetables, and hominy (ground corn kernels). What’s more, this starter can fill you up: Research shows that people who sipped soup with lunch ate 20% less than when they didn’t.
At home, this can be a quick and healthy meal. But some restaurants do it a bit differently. A pile of meat and cheese is sandwiched between two giant flour tortillas, then pan-fried. And it’s served with scoops of sour cream, guacamole, and salsa. The result: One quesadilla can deliver more than all the fat and sodium you should get in a day.
It's made of raw fish marinated in lime and lemon juice, onion, tomatoes, and cilantro. The acid cooks the fish, so there’s no need for lots of oil. It’s low in calories but packed with protein. The fish also gives you calcium and heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Ceviche often comes with tostadas or fried corn tortillas. Each tostada has about 60 calories, so use only one or two to scoop up the ceviche. Use a spoon or fork to get the rest.
This is code for “deep-fried burrito.” Think that sounds unhealthy? You’re right. The dish has more than 1,500 calories and 93 grams of fat. Factor in toppings like guacamole and sour cream, and you’ll get most of your day’s calories and sodium in one meal. And research shows that a diet high in fried foods can raise your chances of diabetes and heart disease.
With this sizzling dish, you can build your own bites. Start with lean sources of protein like grilled chicken, fish, or shrimp. Then pile on the veggies. Onions and peppers are loaded with fiber and vitamin C. Because flour tortillas have about 100 calories each, swap them for the corn kind or have only two. And go easy on the guacamole to keep your calories in check.
Worst: Chile Relleno
While the main ingredient here -- a chili pepper -- is healthy, this dish is anything but. That’s because the pepper is stuffed with cheese, coated in batter, and deep-fried in oil. Then it’s smothered in sauce and melted cheese. As if that’s not enough, it’s usually served with a side of rice and refried beans. It’s a good idea to steer clear of other deep-fried dishes, too, like flautas or taquitos.
These are Mexican comfort food, but they’re waistline-friendly. Corn tortillas are wrapped around a filling and baked in a chili sauce. The chicken or veggie version has only about 300 calories. Order the kind with red or green sauce. Words like “suizas” or “white sauce” are a tip-off that it’s made with cream. One thing to watch for: Many restaurants smother theirs with cheese, so ask for half the usual amount.
How can you make a pile of deep-fried chips even worse? Load it up with a mountain of melted cheese, ground beef, and beans. Then top it with salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. Even if you split them, you could still take in more calories and fat than if you’d had a cheeseburger.
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Sandra Arevalo, RDN, spokeswoman, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
USDA Nutrient Database.
American Heart Association: “Tips for Eating Mexican Food.”
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “The Five Most Unhealthful Foods at Mexican Restaurants: Findings.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Your Best Bets and Smart Swaps for Eating Ethnic Food.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Fried-Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Coronary Artery Disease: A Prospective Study in 2 Cohorts of US Women and Men.”
Appetite: “Soup Preloads in a Variety of Forms Reduce Meal Energy Intake.”
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: “Lipophilic and Hydrophilic Antioxidant Capacities of Common Foods in the United States.”
Annual Review of Food Science and Technology: “An Update on the Health Effects of Tomato Lycopene.”