Mexican food is downright delicious, but it also tends to be both fried and cheese-laden. This can quickly add up to destroy any hard-working individual’s healthy meal plan. The good news is that you don’t have to shy away from the cuisine in order to stay on track. There are plenty of healthy Mexican food swaps that cut down on fat and calories without sacrificing the flavor and spice that you love so much. In honor of Cinco de Mayo (and the traditional Mexican fare that you should enjoy on this special day), we asked nutritionists to come up with lighter swaps for classic menu items. Provecho!
Swap flour tortillas for corn tortillas.
Most people tend to prefer the flavor of corn tortillas over flour since they offer a bit more zing to the taco itself. This is helpful since corn tortillas tend to be a bit healthier. They’re full of more nutrients, thanks to the fact that they’re made from corn. They also tend to be lower in calories. “A six-inch corn tortilla is around 60 calories, whereas an equal-sized flour [tortilla] is around 110. That’s almost half the calories!” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., Houston-based dietitian, nutritionist, and founder of Eat Right Fitness. He also points out that most flour tortillas tend to be larger, which greatly increases the calorie count. Whenever possible, choose corn for a healthier meal.
Swap a taco shell for a lettuce wrap.
The majority of the flavor in a taco comes from what’s inside. So swapping out the shell doesn’t really sacrifice all that much. But it does make your dish way healthier. Dr. Adams suggests using a large leaf or bibb lettuce instead of taco shells or tortillas when fixing tacos, burritos, or any other Mexican specialty. “This really reduces calories, but still provides an easy way to eat your food with your hands,” he says. “On the same note as using leaf or bibb lettuce instead of tortillas, you can also make a burrito or taco bowl using lots of veggies, lean seasoned ground turkey, low-fat cheese, and all the salsa [that] you want (it’s a low-cal freebie).”
Swap ground beef for ground turkey.
Ground beef is delicious, but it’s also typically high in fat (unless you’re buying extra lean). A healthier option is to choose extra lean ground turkey. It’s lower in fat and an excellent source of iron, potassium, zinc, and phosphorus, explains Dr. Adams. “The extra lean ground turkey may not have enough fat to really hold any taco seasoning flavor. [However] you can still save loads of calories and not give up the flavor by using half extra lean ground turkey and half lean ground turkey,” he says. “This greatly reduces the fat, which drives the calories down on this favorite Mexican staple.”
Swap sour cream for Greek yogurt.
Sour cream might be a delicious topping, but it’s also loaded with unnecessary fat and calories. A great swap that provides a similar flavor with a whole lot more nutrients is Greek yogurt. Dr. Adams explains that Greek yogurt is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, potassium, and protein. It also has that similar tangy flavor that sour cream provides on top of your Mexican entree. Try to stick to just a few tablespoons. Any more than that might distract from the flavor or your main dish.
Swap regular refried beans for vegetarian fried beans.
“Many refried bean brands may contain added animal fat, making them high in fat and cholesterol,” explains Gisela Bouvier, a registered dietician and founder of B Nutrition and Wellness. “However, the fat and cholesterol content can be drastically reduced when you opt for vegetarian refried bean brands instead.” Not sure where to find this kind? Popular Mexican brands at your local grocery store, such as Old El Paso and Rosarita, offer vegetarian options. Just look for the word “vegetarian” on the label.
Swap fried corn tortilla chips for jicama chips.
Most of us are used to munching on tortilla chips at the beginning of every Mexican meal while forgetting that these are almost always deep-fried. A better option, which may only be possible when preparing your meal at home, is to choose jicama chips. Jicama, also known as yam bean, is a root vegetable that can be sliced and baked to substitute for corn tortilla chips. They’re still crunchy and flavorful, and offer tons of immune-boosting nutrients, such as vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. “One cup of jicama is approximately 49 calories, 11 grams of carbs, and offers six grams of filling prebiotic rich fiber. Whereas one serving of tortilla chips (seven chips) has 140 calories, 19 grams of carbs and only two grams of dietary fiber,” says NYC-based Registered Dietitian Eliza Savage.
Swap nachos for sweet potatoes.
While there’s no arguing their deliciousness, nachos are certainly not the healthiest option on the menu, especially when they’re piled sky-high with cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fatty meat. A healthier option is to go chipless and instead slice up some sweet potatoes. Bake them in the oven, and use them for the base instead of corn tortillas. “Wash the sweet potatoes and pierce with a fork, wrap them in a paper towel, and microwave on high for four minutes,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian and founder of TLB Nutrition in New York City. “When cool enough to handle, cut the sweet potatoes into wedges, toss with the olive oil, chili powder, and cumin, transfer them to the hot grill, and grill for a few minutes on each side until toasty and delicious.”
Swap margaritas for skinny margaritas.
Don’t want to be that person at the bar? Simply ask your server to make you a fresh margarita instead of one that is pre-mixed. Often the pre-mixed margaritas are loaded with way too much sugar. Not only is this sugar not good for you, but it will also likely lead to a terrible hangover in the morning. Skinny margaritas tend to be made with freshly squeezed lime juice and far less agave than regular margaritas.
With these healthy Mexican food swaps, you can have your tacos and eat them, too!