8 Healthy Mexican Food Tips

Traditional Mexican dishes can be diet-friendly and delicious

Vegetarian taco.

Traditional Mexican dishes can be diet-friendly and delicious

Never-ending chips, cheesy burritos and fried jalapeños can turn a Mexican fiesta into a caloric nightmare. Stick to healthy Mexican food options.

“The traditional Mexican-American diet can be high in fat, with frying being the preferred cooking method, and the use of lard and Mexican cream (crema) in many dishes,” says Angel Ochoa, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Oceanside. “If you make healthy choices, you can enjoy traditional Mexican food.”

Whether dining out at your favorite Mexican restaurant or cooking a Mexican dish at home, there are simple ways to reduce calories and fat in your meals. Just make some simple changes to the ingredients and how you cook your food.

Try these tips to cut fat, especially saturated fats, and stay healthy when enjoying Mexican food at your next Taco Tuesday or special event.

1. Stick with black beans

Black beans are low in fat and calories, high in protein, black beans and loaded with plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals. At the store, look for no-salt-added or reduced-sodium canned beans.

Nix the refried beans, unless you are checking ingredients. They are often prepared with lard, Mexican cheese blends and even bacon. If you crave refried beans, buy the fat-free version in the grocery and check the nutritional content when eating out. 

You can cook pinto beans in a crockpot with onion and a little salt and pepper. Instead of frying them with lard, mash them up and maybe add a small amount of olive oil.

The American Heart Association (AMA) offers recipes for healthy Mexican meals made with black beans, including black bean soup and black bean salad.

2. Skip the dips

Queso and nacho cheese dips are tempting, but both are high in fat and calories. Guacamole is made with avocado, which is healthy. Just be careful not to eat too much to avoid consuming too many fats and calories.

Substitute salsa as a starter, garnish or side. It’s fat-free, low in calories and a good source of lycopene.

3. Stay away from beef and cheese

You’ll say adios to unwanted extra calories when sticking with beans instead of beef or cheese in such favorites as burritos and enchiladas. You’ll also be getting more fiber, instead of fat.

Using ground turkey instead of beef can lower the fat content in dishes like albondigas (Mexican meatball soup). AMA offers a recipe for turkey breast and mole sauce.

If you don’t eat meat or are trying to cut down, consider this recipe for a plant-based taco with roasted cauliflower and broccoli.

4. Stop snacking

When you go out to dinner, forget the bottomless bowl of chips and choose a light appetizer with some nutritional value. “Ceviche is a raw fish in a citrus-marinade that is tasty and nutritious,” says Dr. Ochoa. “It’s light and usually has fruit or vegetables.”

5. Ask for corn tortillas

Choose corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas. Wheat tortillas are also a healthier choice compared to those made from white flour. Try tacos made with corn or wheat tortillas topped with guacamole instead of sour cream.

6. Forget fried foods

Some popular foods to avoid are nachos, chimichangas, chalupas, taquitos and chile relleno and other dishes that are also deep-fried. Better choices are chicken fajitas, grilled chicken with peppers and onions or a soft taco. AMA offers a recipe for chipotle chicken bowls with cilantro-lime quinoa.

7. Grill, bake, roast or steam

Grilled seafood, lean meat and poultry are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. “There are definitely lots of healthy Mexican food options when eating out at Mexican restaurants,” says Dr. Ochoa. “Finding them on the menu may be a challenge.”

Good thing you can make healthy Mexican dishes at home. AMA offers recipes for chicken and black bean tostadas with avocado cream and quick chicken fajitas, beans and Spanish rice.

8. Don’t go overboard with dessert

If you still have room for dessert, stay away from churros, which are fried, or tres leches cake, made with condensed milk, heavy cream and butter. Dr. Ochoa suggests a scoop of sorbet or ice cream. “If you really want to save calories, get one scoop and share it with everyone,” he says.

Celebrate in moderation

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become a day to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage with food, music, and drinks. If you're celebrating, remember to enjoy in moderation. If you are sober curious or taking a break from alcohol, maybe try a non-alcoholic mocktail instead of beer or tequila.

Cinco de Mayo or Fifth of May celebrates a historic Mexican battle against French occupation. It is not Mexican Independence Day, which is on September 16th.

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