12 Ways to Make Mexican Food Healthy

Take your fiesta from fatty to fit with these smart swaps, sizzling spices, and more

April 30, 2012
mexican food
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Oversized margaritas, cheesy enchiladas, and never-ending nacho bowls can turn your Mexican fiesta into a fatty nightmare. “People tend to smother their dishes with cheese, sour cream, and refried beans,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “But the basic ingredients of Mexican cuisine are quite good for you.” Think black beans, fresh tomatoes, and spicy peppers. For your next Taco Tuesday, bust the piñata—not your gut—by indulging in these diet-friendly South of the Border staples

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Turn Up the Spice

It’s easy to ramp up flavor by seasoning your dish with fresh chopped jalapeño or other peppers that pack heat. “Hot chiles are practically calorie-free,” says Jennifer Iserloh, author of The Skinny Chef. “And studies show that the capsaicin—the compound that makes them hot—helps your body burn more calories."

More: 7 Herbs & Spices Everyone Needs to Eat

cheese quesadilla
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Forego Fried Foods

Stuffing jalapenos with cheese and dropping them into the deep-fryer cancels out their health benefits. Three poppers pack 280 calories and 19 grams of fat. If you want to split an appetizer, you’re better off sharing a cheese quesadilla with three friends (100 calories, 3 g fat per serving).

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Buy a Bottle

At about 100 calories a pop, your best drink option is a light beer, says Iserloh. Bottles make it easy to count how many liquid calories you're consuming (although really you should keep it to one serving). To add a dash of flavor, ask the bartender to salt the rim of your glass and garnish it with a fresh slice of lime.

More: 6 Ways to Master Portion Control

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Get Off to a Rocky Start

Not in the mood for a cerveza? Go for a margarita, but make sure it’s on the rocks. The frozen kind is loaded with sugar and calories and people tend to slurp them down faster, says Gans.

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Favor the Fajita

A sizzling chicken fajita platter is loaded with veggies without being blanketed in the fattening cheese you’ll find in an order of enchiladas. If you do want to kick in a little queso, keep it under two tablespoons for your whole meal.

More: 14 Healthiest Cheese Varieties to Eat

black beans
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Pick the Smarter Bean

"Beans are one of the best things about Mexican food—but ask for regular black ones, not the refried kind," says Gans. A great source of protein, beans are naturally high in fiber and low in calories. The refried variety, however, gets its flavor from lard. One cup has nearly 30 percent more calories and more than five times the amount of fat as the same amount of black beans.

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Build a Better Burrito

Use this rule of thumb to keep your burritos from ballooning: Choose one protein (meat or beans, not both), one fat (sour cream, cheese, or guacamole), and pile on as many veggies as you want.

More: 10 All-You-Can-Eat Foods

cheese tacos
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Choose Your Cheese

Trim the fat from quesadillas, nachos, and other cheesy favorites by swapping full-fat dairy for the low-fat version, suggests Iserloh. (In her opinion, fat-free cheeses are tasteless.) Iserloh’s favorites: low-fat mozzarella because it melts beautifully and pepper jack for its flavor.

Mexican Corn
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Make Your Own Mexican Corn

Grilled corn is healthy enough, but once you slather on butter it’s merely a vehicle for saturated fat. Rather than grab a stick from a street fair, fire up your grill at home (check out these recipes for popular grilling sides). Barbeque the cob in its husk or wrapped in tinfoil with just a little bit of butter and squeeze on some lime for a punchy, low cal seasoning, recommends Gans. 

More: 50 Grilling Recipes for Your Summer Cookout

turkey tacos
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Trick Out Your Turkey

Swap beef for ground turkey when preparing a batch of tacos or nachos. Afraid that turkey meat is too tough? Just add a little canned tomato or mix with ground sirloin, which is leaner than ground chuck, suggests Iserloh.

whole wheat tortilla
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Wrap It Up

Choose your wrap wisely—many tortillas are carb traps. Mission’s Carb Balance whole wheat tortillas have the same number as calories as their regular version, but 13 times the fiber, so you’ll feel fuller, longer.

More: 5 Instant Food Swaps for Faster Weight Loss

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Watch Your Dips

Avocados are known for their heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but that doesn’t mean you should eat as much guacamole as you want. One avocado contains nearly 300 calories and 30 grams of fat. Keep your serving size to just two tablespoons—as much as people typically scoop up with two chips!

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