Nutrition Column – Mexican Cuisine: MakeitHeart Healthy

You enjoy eating out and you’re particularly fond of Mexican food, but you need to follow a heart-healthy diet. Can Mexican cuisine, especially Mexican fast food, be heart-healthy? Yes, if you choose carefully.

Mexican food can actually fit quite well into a heart-healthy diet plan. Because of the reliance on grains, vegetables and seafood, the traditional Mexican diet is relatively low in fat and cholesterol. This may not be the case, however, for much of the Mexican fare found in U.S. restaurants and fast food outlets. The liberal use of chips, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and/or deep fat frying does take its toll on the total and saturated fat content of any entree.

Among the Mexican-American cuisines, the Tex-Mex variety features lots of high-fat barbecued or fried meats. Cal-Mex, on the other hand, places a greater focus on vegetables and tends to be lighter in fat and calories.

Here are some tips on how to make heart-healthy choices whether eating Mexican in Texas or California, at a fast-food outlet or in a fine restaurant.

– Stay clear of the basket of salty, deep-fried corn tortilla chips – a bowlful can contain as much fat as the rest of your meal put together. If you can’t stop at one chip, ask that they be taken away, and order a plain tortilla you can dip in the salsa.

– Choose salsa over guacamole as a dipper and spread. Two tablespoons of picante salsa contain just 5 calories, compared to 50 calories in the same amount of guacamole.

– Consider soup. Gazpacho, black bean and other vegetable soups are filling, low in fat and quite nutritious.

– Choose entrees in which the tortillas are steamed or baked rather than fried.

– Ask to have the sour cream and extra cheese put on the side of your entree rather than on top. This allows you to choose just how much topping you want. If the entree arrives loaded with cheese, just scrape it off.

– Be wary of the taco salad served in the fried taco shell. If you eat the shell, you can easily consume 850 calories, half of which come from fat. To cut the calories and fat in half, ask that the dressing and taco strips be served on the side and leave the taco shell bowl intact.

– Instead of refried beans (cooked beans that are fried and mashed, usually with lard), ask for regular beans. This way, you’ll save on saturated fat but get the beans’ protein and fiber. A half-cup of cooked pinto beans has twice as much soluble fiber as a bowl of oatmeal.

– Try fajitas. Traditionally, fajitas are made with strips of grilled beef, chicken or shrimp and sauteed green pepper and onion. You then add lettuce, tomato, salsa, and other fixings, which are served on the side. Since you roll the tortilla yourself, you’re in control of what goes into it. When low fat is a priority, skip the sour cream and guacamole. If the restaurant does the rolling for you, ask that at least the sour cream and guacamole be served on the side.

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