Americans love Mexican food. We gobble down more tortilla chips than potato chips, more salsa than ketchup. The good news is that authentic Mexican food can be very healthy, even reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

That’s great if you’re making homemade cook-from-scratch Mexican. But what if you’re eating out or ordering in? Mexican restaurants tend to serve some of the most fat-filled, salt-stuffed, calorie-crammed food in the restaurant universe.  Can you eat at one and avoid the health bombs…eat smart and still enjoy yourself?

Yes, you can—and we’ve got you covered.

Hope Warshaw, RD, CDE, immediate past president of the American Association of Diabetes Educators—and a member of Bottom Line’s Diabetes Resource Center panel of experts—has literally written the book on healthy eating out. It’s called Eat Out, Eat Well: The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant and is published by the American Diabetes Association. It contains great advice for people who want to prevent diabetes or manage the condition—and for everyone else who wants to eat healthy when someone else is doing the cooking.

In the excerpt below, Warshaw gives her tips on what to order the next time you decide to eat at a Mexican restaurant. Olé!

On the Menu: Mexican Restaurants

Mexican food in the US has a rich history. Historically, most Mexican restaurants served a sub-cuisine known as Tex-Mex—an Americanized version of a few items from Mexico’s diverse culinary landscape. Tex-Mex dishes include nachos, tacos, burritos, and chimichangas. But over the past decade or so, things have changed. Traditional Mexican herbs and spices are now readily available in the US and chefs are increasingly exploring and using these bold flavors. Plus, Mexican-Americans, who make up a large and growing percentage of the US population and now live all over the country, have influenced menus and helped to shape a new culinary landscape that embraces the complexities of Mexico’s various regional cuisines.

The result is a wide variety of Mexican restaurants, which, naturally, offer diverse menus. Specific dishes may vary, but Mexican cuisine typically features five essential ingredients—rice, corn, beans, tomatoes and a wide array of chilies. The good news is that these ingredients are healthy, at least before being prepared. They are all high in vitamins and minerals and low in fat. Plus, spicy toppings—red or green salsa, pico de gallo, and chilies—can increase your vegetable count and add zip for nearly zero calories.

There’s even more good news: In Mexican cuisine, there’s minimal focus on animal protein compared to a typical American meal. Compare the small quantity of protein, one to two ounces, in one enchilada to the familiar eight- or 10-ounce (or more) steak served in most steakhouses. This has its roots in the old Mexican practice of making a small amount of meat feed many mouths (a common thread in many ethnic cuisines). Soft tacos filled with beans and vegetables, chicken enchiladas, grilled fajitas and fresh salads are just a few of the healthier dishes you can choose from. But don’t get too carried away. The health attributes of traditional Mexican ingredients can be quickly squashed if the ingredients are fried, refried, or smothered with cheese or sour cream, as they often are in Mexican cuisine. Think of dishes such as loaded nachos, quesadillas, chimichangas and Mexican salads served in the fried tortilla bowl. You should probably pass on these high-fat and calorie-rich dishes.

Fat is clearly the villain in Mexican cuisine. There are many fried items on Mexican menus, and many Mexican recipes traditionally call for the use of lard or animal-fat drippings. Animal fat contains cholesterol and saturated fat. Due to pressure to improve the healthiness of their foods, large restaurant chains have switched to using healthier liquid oils.

Mexican food can also be high in sodium. Salt is used in many recipes and sauces, and a lot of the prep work, such as spicing the meats, is done in advance. This makes it difficult to request that salt be omitted. However, if you order a dish such as grilled chicken, fish or beef in an upscale Mexican restaurant, you might be successful with a hold-the-salt request, as these restaurants often cook from scratch. Chips, salsa and large amounts of cheese can also contribute to raising the sodium level of a dish or meal.

Portion sizes can be quite large, and your carbohydrate count can escalate quickly with tortillas, beans, rice and those hard-to resist chips. The best healthy eating strategies to use at Mexican restaurants include watching your portions, saying no to high-fat toppings, such as cheese and sour cream, and avoiding anything deep-fried.

Green-Flag Words

Ingredients:

  • Avocado
  • Black beans, pinto beans
  • Chilies
  • Enchilada sauce
  • Lettuce, tomatoes, onions
  • Mole Sauce
  • Salsa (green or red)
  • Shredded spicy chicken, beef or ground beef
  • Soft tortilla (corn or flour)

Cooking Methods/Menu Descriptions:

  • Burritos
  • Fajitas (best to share)
  • Grilled
  • Guacamole
  • Marinated
  • Served with spicy tomato sauce
  • Simmered
  • Soft tacos
  • Wrapped in a soft tortilla
  • Arroz con pollo
  • Tamales
  • Tostadas

Red-Flag Words

Ingredients:

  • Bacon
  • Black olives [Editor’s note: These can be high in sodium]
  • Cheese (any style—topped, stuffed, covered, shredded)
  • Chorizo (Mexican sausage)
  • Sour cream

Cooking Methods/Menu Descriptions:

  • Cheese quesadillas
  • Cheese sauces
  • Chili con queso
  • Chimichangas
  • Cream sauce
  • Crispy
  • Fried or deep-fried
  • Layered with refried beans
  • Nachos with cheese
  • Queso fundido
  • Served in a tortilla shell
  • Served over tortilla or nacho chips
  • Tacos

At the Table:

  • Sour cream
  • Tortilla chips

Healthy Eating Tips and Tactics

  • Avoid the chips on the table. They can be addicting, especially when your waitperson is adept at refilling a bottomless basket. Before you know it, you can easily eat more than 500 calories. Avoid them altogether by asking your server not to bring them. Or if your dining partner(s) isn’t game for that plan, just put a small portion of chips on your plate. Then work to keep the basket out of arm’s reach.
  • Choose grilled items when you can. Most Mexican restaurants have healthier grilled items, including fajitas and fish, chicken or beef dishes. Add flavor to these dishes with salsas and grilled vegetables.
  • Take advantage of ordering à la carte. Choose from appetizers and side dishes to control your portions and make your own healthy, balanced meal.
  • Be careful with guacamole. It’s certainly healthier than cheese dip, but its calories can add up quickly.
  • Drink wisely. A typical margarita is loaded with sugar and calories, and drinking alcohol has a tendency to make people worry less about eating a healthy meal. Choose sparkling water with fresh lime instead. If you want alcohol, a light beer or “skinny” margarita, available in some restaurants, is a better choice.

Get It Your Way

  • Choose soft tacos instead of hard tacos. Choose corn tortillas instead of flour tortillas, because corn is a whole grain.
  • Hold the guacamole, cheese and sour cream, or ask for them on the side.
  • Request that the kitchen avoid topping your dish with cheese. Or at least ask them to only give you a light helping.
  • Substitute black beans (if available) for refried beans to limit fat.
  • As for extra salsa, tomatoes, lettuce and onion to use as low-calorie, flavorful toppings.
  • Order salads without the fried tortilla shell or fried tortilla strips. You can replace the fried tortilla with a warmed, soft, tortilla if you want to.