Growing up in rural Nebraska, I’m a little embarrassed that I used to equate Mexican food to the Taco Bell menu. Thankfully, after living in San Antonio for the past 20 years, I’ve been exposed to the rich heritage of Mexican cuisine. While this food tastes great, it is not always considered the healthiest. The good news is that there are now more healthier Mexican food options available in San Antonio than ever before.
This is likely due to the increasing awareness of the health benefits of this cuisine, which focuses on fresh & whole ingredients, and restaurants offering healthier options to traditional dishes. In this article, I’ll break down some of Mexican food’s health benefits and tips on preparing or selecting gut-health dishes. This analysis and recommendations should help you enjoy the numerous health benefits of Mexican cuisine at home or in a restaurant.
Mexican food is a melting pot of ingredients from Mexico, with influences from Spain, Europe, and India. You can enjoy delicious Mexican food without sacrificing your health by choosing a combination of healthy ingredients.
- Vegetables: In Mexican cuisine, vegetables are often integrated into dishes, so don’t have the misconception that they are not present. Some of the benefits of including veggies in your recipes are good sources of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, magnesium, iron, fiber, and antioxidants that help fight inflammation and lower blood lipids. Common vegetables in Mexican cuisine include cabbage, carrots, corn, garlic, jicama, mushrooms, nopales, onion, peppers, potatoes, queletes, radishes, and squash.
- Protein: When selecting healthy proteins for Mexican recipes, there are a few things to remember.
- First, choose lean proteins. This means proteins that are low in saturated fat and calories.
- Second, consider the cooking method. Some cooking methods, such as frying, can add unhealthy fats to your food. Instead, choose healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, baking, or roasting.
- Third, be mindful of the portion size. Even healthy proteins can be unhealthy if you eat too much of them. Aim for a serving size of 4-6 ounces of cooked protein per meal. Chicken, shrimp, fish, pork, and beef are excellent protein sources. Skip on the carnitas as they are high in saturated fats.
- Beans: Since beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine, we’ll list them separately from the animal proteins described above. Beans are an excellent source of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. They are also low in fat and calories. Additionally, black beans can reduce inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease.
- Tortillas: Wheat tortillas are the healthiest, followed by corn and flour. View the section below to understand better the health benefits of these different types of tortillas.
- Salsa: Fresh salsa is a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is also low in calories and fat. When buying pre-made salsas, one thing to remember is the milligrams of sodium on the label. Keeping your intake in check is important for heart health and maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
- Guacamole: Guacamole is made from avocados, a good source of healthy fats, fiber, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins (E, B, K). Remember to look at the nutrition fact panel at the grocery since store-bought guacamole often contains sour cream, added sugar, artificial flavors, preservatives, and more sodium than homemade guac.
- Mole: Mole sauce is a staple of many traditional Mexican dishes. According to the National Institutes of Health, mole sauce is an excellent source of Vitamin B, riboflavin, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and niacin. Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, helping to protect your cells and organs from free radicals, and it provides you with an energy boost. While mole sauce can be high in calories and fat, there are some tips you can follow to make it healthier:
- It is typically made with lard. Choose a healthier oil, such as olive oil or avocado oil.
- Reduce the amount of chocolate used. Also, consider substituting a healthier chocolate alternative, such as dark chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder.
- Lime juice: Lime juice is a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants. It also adds flavor to Mexican dishes without adding many calories or fat.
- Fresh herbs and spices: Fresh herbs and spices add flavor to Mexican dishes without adding many calories or fat. They are also a good source of antioxidants. This includes spicy chiles, oregano, cumin, and garlic, among others.
- Fruits: Fruits are added to various Mexican dishes to make them more nutritious and delicious. They are an excellent source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and fiber. Also, they are low in calories and carbs. Some healthy fruits used in Mexican cuisine are avocado, papaya, mango, pineapple, and guanabana.
Tips to Healthy Mexican Cuisine
When eating Mexican food, it’s important to be mindful of your portion sizes and to choose healthy toppings and fillings. Avoid fried foods, sugary drinks, and too much cheese and sour cream.
Here are some additional tips for making Mexican food more gut-friendly:
- Use whole-wheat tortillas instead of flour tortillas. To learn why, read the section below, which evaluates three types of tortillas.
- Grill or bake your meat instead of frying it. You should avoid fried foods because they tend to slow down the emptying of the stomach. Also, they can move undigested food through the body too quickly, leading to diarrhea, or stay in your digestive tract too long, causing you to feel full and bloated. Many fried foods are low in fiber and take longer to digest.
- Choose lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, or beans. Proteins higher in fat can trigger contractions of the colon, and the high-fat content of red meat is just one reason to choose healthier options since it has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. These contractions can lead to several digestive problems, including: diarrhea, constipation, stomach cramps, and bloating.
- Load up on vegetables. Vegetables are a good source of fiber, prebiotics, and various essential nutrients for digestive health, including vitamins A, C, and K, as well as potassium and magnesium. Including lots of veggies in your Mexican dishes will help to keep the digestive system healthy and functioning properly.
- Use avocado or olive oil instead of butter or lard. The digestive health benefits of using these oils when cooking include:
- Lubricate the digestive tract, making it easier for food to pass through, which can help prevent constipation.
- It helps to promote regularity by stimulating bile production and helping to break down fat.
- The antioxidants in these oils can help to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract.
- The oils oil can help to protect the stomach lining from acid and other irritants. This can be helpful for people with conditions such as acid reflux and ulcers.
- The polyphenols in olive oil can help to support a healthy gut microbiome. This is important for overall digestive health and well-being.
- Season your food with fresh herbs and spices instead of salt. Too much sodium can irritate the lining of the digestive tract, leading to inflammation and other problems, which can include acid reflux and heartburn.
- Skip the store-bought taco seasoning packets. These are likely to contain inflammatory additives, anti-caking agents, and preservatives. In addition to the issues described previously regarding too much salt, for some, the ingredients in the seasoning packets can irritate the lining of the intestines. This can lead to inflammation, cramps, and diarrhea. Making your own taco seasoning using fresh herbs and spices is an easy remedy.
- For guacamole, consider using pickle juice made with salt and water (not vinegar) instead of lime juice and salt. This type of pickle juice leads to fermentation and contains good bacteria in the form of probiotics… you’re gut will thank you. However, pickle juice can be high in sodium, so use it in small amounts as a salt replacement in your guac recipe.
By following these tips, you can enjoy delicious and gut-healthy Mexican foods.
Which Tortilla is Healthiest – Wheat, Flour, or Corn?
When selecting a gut-health tortilla, the main focus is on fiber. A typical whole wheat tortilla contains 10g, a corn tortilla contains 4.7g, and a flour tortilla includes 1.8g of fiber.
Whole wheat tortillas are made with the entire wheat grain, including the bran and germ. These parts of the wheat grain contain the most fiber and nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, and zinc. These nutrients are essential for supporting the overall health of the digestive system.
Here are some of the benefits of fiber for gut health:
- Promotes regularity: Fiber helps to keep the digestive system moving and prevents constipation.
- Feeds the good bacteria: The good bacteria in the gut feed on fiber. These bacteria help to keep the gut healthy and prevent disease.
- Reduces inflammation: Fiber can help to reduce inflammation in the gut. Inflammation is a risk factor for several chronic diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.
Keep these factors in mind when choosing healthy tortillas:
- When at the grocery store, compare the nutrition labels of different brands of tortillas to find the healthiest option.
- Look for tortillas that are made with whole grains. Whole wheat tortillas should list whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.
- Avoid tortillas that contain added sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
- Choose tortillas that are low in sodium.
- Select the tortillas that are lower in calories and carbohydrates.
- When dining out, if whole wheat is not offered, choose corn tortillas instead of flour. Corn tortillas are made from whole grains and have fewer calories, sodium, and carbs. Conversely, flour tortillas are more refined, can contain additives, and usually have significantly higher amounts of sodium.
Gut Healthy Verdict of Mexican Cuisine
Yes, Mexican food can benefit your digestive health for several reasons.
- It is rich in fiber: Many Mexican dishes are high in fiber, which is important for gut health. Fiber helps to keep the digestive system regular and can also help to reduce inflammation.
- It contains prebiotics: Prebiotics are non-digestible fibers that feed the good bacteria in the gut. When these bacteria ferment prebiotics, they produce short-chain fatty acids, which have several health benefits, including improving digestion and reducing inflammation.
- It is low in processed foods: Mexican cuisine traditionally relies on fresh, whole ingredients. This benefits gut health, as processed foods are often high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and salt. A high intake of trans fat, added sugar, and salt has a harmful effect on gut and brain functions. The digestive tract may not signal to our brain that we are satisfied after eating processed foods. This may cause us to overeat and gain weight.
- It includes a variety of healthy oils: Many Mexican dishes are cooked with healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado oil. These oils are good for gut health because they are easily digestible and can help to reduce inflammation.
- It is often spicy: The spices used in Mexican cuisine can help to improve digestion. Some spices, such as ginger and turmeric, have anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce gut inflammation.
As a gastroenterologist in San Antonio, I often see patients who experience digestive issues due to food choices. Hopefully, the information in this article will help you to identify healthy Mexican food options, ingredients, and how to prepare them.
Remember… Avoid fried foods, sugary drinks, and too much cheese and sour cream. While this recommendation is not specific to Mexican cuisine, eating popular dishes like chicharron, carnitas, and refried beans will not deliver the potential gut health benefits other Mexican foods can offer.
If you want to improve your gut health or are concerned about digestive issues, you can request an appointment online or call our office at 210-615-8308.