Delicious and Healthy Mexican Food
By Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Overstuffed burritos, deep-fried chimichangas, and greasy enchiladas smothered in cheese are prominently featured on the menus of most Mexican restaurants in the United States. In reality, however, genuine Mexican cuisine is very different. Colorful vegetables, flavorful salsas, grilled seafood, whole grains, and a variety of beans make up the backbone of the authentic Mexican diet.
Here are some ways to incorporate the bountiful variety of flavors of Mexican cuisine into your diet, in a way that’s designed to help you lose weight and maintain good nutrition.
Avoid fat and fried foods. Some common Mexican dishes like refried beans are traditionally made with lard. Eating your pinto beans whole (instead of mashed and refried) and simmering them in water or broth (instead of lard), or replacing the lard with minimal amounts of olive oil, can make a huge difference. It may be hard to resist the basket of fried tortilla chips that appears (and keeps magically refilling) on your Mexican restaurant table. However, you can ask for baked tortilla chips or whole-corn tortillas to dip into your salsa instead.
It’s also really easy to make your own baked tortilla chips at home. Just cut up corn tortillas into triangular wedges. Lay them out on a baking sheet and spray with a bit of olive oil cooking spray. Bake in a preheated 350 degrees oven until crispy for just 12 to 15 minutes, flipping once so both sides crisp evenly.
Choose whole grains. Either corn or whole wheat flour tortillas can be the foundation for a delicious Mexican fiesta. They have less fat, fewer calories, and more fiber than their white-flour cousins. Choosing 6-inch tortillas over 10-inch ones can also help you with portion control.
Embrace rice and beans. There’s a reason why rice and beans are the other staples of Mexican diets. Black, pinto, and kidney beans are high in protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. As previously mentioned, whole beans simmered in water or broth instead of refried are also naturally low in calories.
To cook Mexican rice at home with little or no fat, sauté some chopped onions, garlic, and a bit of jalapeño (if you want that extra heat) in a pan with just a bit of olive oil. Add uncooked rice and sauté a bit longer. Add some low-fat chicken or vegetable broth and chopped fresh tomatoes and simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked through and fluffy, about 20 minutes. Voilá! Delicious and nutritious rice that’s convenient and easy to make. Use brown rice instead of white for whole-grain goodness.
Go with fish—and make it grilled. Along the coastal towns and fishing villages of Mexico and Baja, people eat healthy seafood fresh from the sea. We can embrace that sunny, relaxed lifestyle by eating tacos filled with tasty fish that’s grilled (not fried), enjoying ceviche prepared with plenty of lemon or lime juice, or baking a tilapia fillet topped with spices.
Get spicy. Speaking of spices, Mexican cuisine has yet another bonus: It’s full of some truly delightful spices and other flavorings, which can help you avoid adding extra salt to your diet. Although your typical Mexican restaurant meal may be loaded with sodium, you don’t have to eat that way for a flavorful south-of-the-border-inspired meal. The staples of Mexican cooking include chili powder, oregano, cumin, cilantro, and chili peppers. And remember that hot peppers are a super metabolism booster. Even if you have a delicate palate, you can turn down the heat while still getting the benefits of these peppers by removing the seeds and veins, where most of the heat lives. Lime juice, another staple in adding authentíco flavors, is another great way of enhancing flavor without upping the sodium content.
Sample a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. Mexico is blessed with some of the most delicious fruits and vegetables in the world. Tropical fruits like papayas and guavas, as well as a variety of peppers and squashes, grow abundantly in the hot, sunny climate.
A typical Mexican street-cart food is often just a bunch of fruits (like mangos, pineapples, papayas, watermelon, or honeydew) and vegetables (including cucumbers and jicama) that have been sliced and seasoned with lime juice and chili powder. You can easily prepare this dish yourself for a delicious and nutritious afternoon snack, at home, at work, or for a road trip.
Don’t forget salsas and salads. Let’s not forget the soul of Mexican cuisine—salsa! There’s a seemingly endless variety of salsas that can be made from tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, onions, peppers, limes, and more. The more colorful the salsa, the more nutritious it’ll be. The good news is that freshly made salsa is good for you, so you can pile as much as you want on your tortillas, grilled fish, or salad.
And an easy way to make a nice Mexican salad is to get a bowl of mixed greens and toss in some corn, cooked black beans, and a few chopped avocados (but don’t overdo it, since avocados, while nutritious, are high in calories), then top everything with a generous serving of your favorite salsa. If you like, add some slices of grilled chicken or a few grilled shrimp. There you have it—lunch!