Mexican Food Tacos Tamales and More

From fast-food establishments to full-service restaurants, Mexican food and its Tex-Mex offspring are among America's favorite ethnic foods. And Mexican flavors now appear in pizzas, entrée salads, wraps, and stir-fries. The staples—tortillas, beans, and rice—are great sources of starches, and pinto or black beans supply fiber as well. Moderate portions of meat and poultry contribute adequate, but not lavish, amounts of protein. And beans and rice, or beans and tortillas when eaten together, also supply high-quality protein.

Depending on the choices, Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine can be high in fat—and sodium, too. In most restaurants, vegetable oil (no longer lard) is the fat used in cooking (except perhaps in refried beans). Cooked with vegetable oil, the saturated fat may be lower, but not the calories or the total fat. As with foods of every culture, enjoy variety, but go easy on foods with more total fat, especially saturated fats, and trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium.

  • Order guacamole and sour cream on the side to control the amount. Or ask for low-fat or fat-free sour cream. For more vitamins A and C, use a heavy hand with tomato-based salsa. Made with tomatoes, onions, chiles, and herbs, it's virtually fat-free, yet bursting with flavor. So are the cilantro, hot sauce, and peppers!
  • Ask for soft tacos. Crispy tacos and tostadas are deep-fried. Corn tortillas have a little less calories and fat than flour tortillas.
  • Ordering a taco salad? Enjoy, but go easy on the big, crisp tortilla shell it's served in—or the taco chips on top—to trim fat and calories. Enjoy warmed, soft tortillas on the side. And dress it with salsa!
  • Go easy on nachos and cheese, or chile con queso, especially if it's just the appetizer before the meal. To cut in half the fat and the calories from cheese, ask for half a ladle of cheese sauce, or half as much cheese shreds. For the starter of chips and salsa, enjoy one basket or less, then have it taken away if you can't resist, or skip the nacho basket altogether.
  • Order a low-fat appetizer: gazpacho (chilled tomato soup), jicama and salsa, tortilla soup, or black bean soup.
  • Since portions in Mexican meals tend to be large, choose the regular plate, not the "deluxe combo" plate. For most people, the regular plate is plenty! Ask for more shredded lettuce and tomato instead.
  • Choose mostly baked or stir-fried entrées such as enchiladas or fajitas on a soft tortilla. Go easy on fried dishes such as chiles rellenos, chimichangas, or flautas.

Although tacos, tamales, enchiladas, and burritos are among the most popular items, especially in Tex-Mex restaurants, Mexican and Southwest restaurants offer a far broader menu, especially in authentic restaurants. Next time, check the menu further. You may find salads with nopales, or cactus pads; chayote and jicama, which are starchy vegetables; and tomatillos, or green tomatoes. For prepared foods look for Veracruz-style seafood dishes, which are cooked in a herbed tomato sauce; or chile verde, which is pork simmered with vegetables and green chiles.

• Want a margarita? "On the rocks" has fewer calories than "frozen." Skip the salt if you have high blood pressure.

From the Mexican Menu

Enjoy more often:

  • Jicama with fresh lime juice
  • Salsa
  • Soft tacos
  • Burritos, enchiladas, tamales, fajitas
  • Red beans and rice*
  • Spanish rice*
  • Refried beans (no lard)
  • Steamed vegetables
  • Black bean soup, menudo (spicy soup made with tripe and hominy), gazpacho
  • Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice)
  • Fruit for dessert such as guava, papaya, or mango
  • Flan or pudding
  • Grilled meat, poultry, fish
  • The fat and calorie content varies depending on the ingredients and the preparation method.

Enjoy less often:

  • Guacamole dip with taco chips
  • Sour cream and extra cheese
  • Crispy, fried tortillas
  • Crispy tacos, taco salad
  • Tostadas, chiles relleños, quesadillas, chimi-changas, chalupas
  • Refried beans (cooked in lard)
  • Honey-sweetened pastry and sopapillas
  • Chicharonnes (fried pork rinds)
  • Fried ice cream
  • Chorizo

Mexican Menu Language

Learn to speak Mexican menu talk. Look for descriptions

that offer clues to the fat content.

Menu clues-less fat and perhaps calories:

Asada (grilled)

Mole sauce (chile-chocolate sauce)

Served with salsa verde (green chile sauce)


Tomato sauce, picante

Topped with lettuce and tomato

Veracruz-style (tomato sauce)

With chiles

Wrapped in a soft tortilla

Menu clues-more fat and perhaps calories:



Layered with refried beans

Mixed with chorizo (Mexican sausage)

Served in a crisp tortilla basket

Smothered in cheese sauce

Topped with guacamole and sour cream

Chile con queso



Posole (soup made with corn kernels) Rice

Sopa (thick rice soup) Taco shells

Tortillas, flour and corn

Fruits Avocado Mango Papaya

Platano (cooking banana) Zapote (sweet yellow fruit)

Popular Mexican Fare: Fitting within the Food Groups

Vegetables Beans and peas (pigeon peas, garbanzos, black, kidney, red beans)* Chayote Corn Jicama Nopales Peppers Refried beans* Salsa Tomatoes Tomatillos


Coffee con leche (with milk) Flan (custard) Jack cheese

Leche (milk) Queso blanco (cheese)

Meat and Beans Beans and peas (pigeon peas, garbanzos, black, kidney, red beans)* Beef Chicken

Chorizo sausage




Refried beans*

Oils Corn oil Vegetable oil

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