How to Eat Low Calorie at a Mexican Restaurant
You may be afraid to eat out, especially at a Mexican restaurant, if you are on a reduced- or low-calorie diet for weight loss. Mexican food is delicious but the caloric value for many popular entrées runs high. In fact, compared to other ethnic cuisines, it is much more difficult to make Mexican fare healthy.
There is no problem with the basic ingredients or Mexican food staples such as beans, corn tortilla, rice, corn, fresh peppers and tomatoes. These foods are, for the most part, are low in fat and calories. It is the ‘extras’ and condiments, such as cheese, sour cream and guacamole, that do the most damage. Keep in mind though, that the main ingredient in guacamole is avocado, which is a fruit rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, so small amounts are okay.
Another problem is that many of the foods are deep-fried and or cooked using a large quantity of oil that increases the fat (and calorie) content of Mexican meals to much higher levels. You can sidestep obvious calorie traps by limiting the above-mentioned ‘extras’ and avoiding items such as fried tortilla chips and shells as well as beans (and other foods) that are made with lard.
If you are watching your calorie intake, pass up these calorie-laden options: nachos, chili relleno, chimichangas, taquitos and chalupas (these are all deep-fried) and huge burritos. For example, a large burrito stuffed with meat, cheese and sour cream can set you back, on average, a hefty 1,050 calories. Making a smart swap to a slightly smaller burrito stuffed with lots of vegetables and whole beans, topped with or alongside pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes and onions with hot peppers) provides about ½ the calories. The amount of options and your ability to make special requests depends upon the type of Mexican restaurant you frequent.
At a high-end fine dining Mexican restaurants, you are likely to have many choices and sophisticated dishes to choose from, such as grilled seafood. At fast food or quick serve Mexican establishments, your choices are often far more limited. In addition, the staff may not be able to make healthy ingredient substitutions and suggest menu alterations.
Mexican Dining: Better Choices
Appetizers: fresh salsas are very healthy. If available, request baked tortilla chips or raw vegetables, such as sweet bell pepper strips for dipping. You can also choose a basic green salad topped with pico de gallo, a couple of slices of avocado and a lime wedge. Gazpacho is another option for your starter. This is a tasty low-fat cold soup available at many Mexican restaurants.
Ceviche is a low calorie seafood appetizer generally available at restaurants specializing in South or Central American cuisine. However, if it is on the menu at a Mexican restaurant, try it! The base ingredient is some type of raw fish or shellfish, cut into small pieces. The fish is marinated in an acidic fruit juice (usually lime) along with salt, peppers and other seasonings. The acidic fruit juice alters the structure of the protein in the fish. Though not technically ‘cooked,’ the lime juice marinade gives it a firmer texture and opaque color. Grilled shrimp skewers also keep the fat and calories in check.
Entrées: are your main dishes and should be your main focus. Healthier, lower calorie options include chili con carne, red beans and rice and soft chicken or fish tacos (wrapped in a corn tortilla). Whole beans are high in fiber, protein and low in fat as long as they are made without lard. Choose whole pinto, black or refried beans for your bean burritos (pass up the heavy condiments). You can have a ‘taco salad’ but you must omit the fried shell! Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), chicken fajitas, grilled fish with lime and grilled chicken with peppers and onions are all lower calorie options.
Do not be afraid to ask if low-fat cheese, whole grain brown rice, whole-wheat tortillas and marinated vegetables (as a starter or side dish) are available. Keep in mind that, regardless of your choices, any option is likely to be very high in sodium. There are two Mexican restaurant chains that specialize in healthy cuisine: Macheezmo Mouse (Seattle and Portland) and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill (restaurant locations nationwide).
Be careful with your beverage choice as many Mexican favorites are very high in calories and can undermine your quest to keep your calorie-intake under control. Skip the frozen, blended margaritas and piña coladas. Instead, if you want an alcoholic beverage, choose a 12-oz. regular beer, light beer or margarita on the rocks. The beers provide fewer than 150 calories and the margarita, about 200 calories per 7-oz serving.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest. Nutrition Action Healthletter; July/August 1994. Mexican Food: Oilè
- Perry, Marge. “Cooking Light” magazine; November 2010. Menu Navigator: Best and worst choices at Mexican restaurants