Nutrition Column – Making Healthier Choices When Enjoying Ethnic Cuisine

Americans today dine out more often that ever before. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans dine out about four times each week, or the equivalent of 225 meals per year.

Among the most favored restaurant cuisines are those with an ethnic flare. In the United States, Italian cuisine is the most popular with Mexican and Asian fare (Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese) following close behind.

As with traditional American cuisine, some ethnic dishes are healthier than others. Consider the following tips the next time you order Italian or Mexican food.

Italian cuisine:

– Low-fat pasta is the foundation of many Italian dishes. The fat is contained in rich sauces and other ingredients tossed with the pasta. Try choosing marinara or other tomato-based sauces rather than creamy white sauces.

– Italian food and bread seem to go hand-in-hand. Enjoy a slice or two, but go easy on the butter or olive oil. Also, keep in mind that garlic bread tends to be slathered in high-fat spreads.  

– A fresh garden salad can be a healthy addition to your meal. Salads served in Italian restaurants generally contain a wide variety of raw vegetables and salad greens. To control fat calories, order the dressing on the side.

– Enjoy traditional Italian bean and vegetable dishes such as minestrone soup, which is a tomato-based soup that contains beans, vegetables and pasta.

– When ordering pizza, top it with a variety of vegetables and less meat and cheese.

– If you are watching your fat intake, avoid veal scaloppini and chicken or veal parmigiana, which are usually sauteed or pan-fried.  

– If you are watching your salt intake, avoid items with pancetta or prosciutto, which are Italian bacon and ham.

– A few words to watch out for on the menu are fritto, meaning fried, and crema, meaning creamed. Primavera, on the other hand, indicates a dish prepared with fresh vegetables and herbs.

Mexican Cuisine:

– Look for dishes without the typical add-ons like sour cream and guacamole, or ask that they be served on the side. In their place, eat tomato-based salsa, which is full of vegetables and flavor yet virtually fat-free.

– Choose black beans and plain rice instead of refried beans, which tend to be cooked in lard, and Mexican rice, which may be high in sodium.

– Rather than eating fried tortilla chips as an appetizer, ask for a couple of plain tortillas to dip in salsa.

– Choose baked or stir-fried entrees, such as fajitas, enchiladas, burritos or soft tacos in place of fried entrees like crispy tacos, chimichangas or flautas.  

– Enjoy traditional Mexican soups, including gazpacho, tortilla soup or black bean soup, which generally are low in fat.

– Be careful about ordering nachos and cheese, which are loaded with fat and calories.

– Learn the words that tend to indicate higher-fat fare: crispy, fried, layered with refried beans, mixed with chorizo (Mexican sausage), smothered in cheese, and chile con queso.  Words that suggest lower-fat dishes include, asada (grilled), served with salsa verde (green chile sauce), simmered, Veracruz-style (tomato sauce) and Mexico City-style (no cheese).

Coming next week:  "Dining Out Asian Style" – how to make healthy selections when eating Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese cuisines.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension