It’s hard to imagine that Mexican food is good for preventing diabetes, let alone protecting you from cancer. Just think about the common gut-busting fare at a typical Mexican restaurant—”loaded” nachos, bottomless bowls of fried tortilla chips, white-flour­­–based burritos the size of a loaf pan overstuffed with meat and cheese and sour cream. You might get beans…probably fried in fat!

But here’s a secret: That’s not really Mexican food. The truth is, it’s much closer to the typical American diet—one that’s high in calories, refined grains, large amounts of meat, with a mere smattering of fresh vegetables and fruit. Real Mexican food, on the other hand, is just as delicious (or more so) and includes plenty of vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits plus modest amounts of meat, milk and Mexican cheeses—and is a whole lot healthier. Eating this way may help to prevent diabetes—and it’s a healthy way to eat if you already have diabetes.

In the latest research, eating real Mexican food helped healthy women reduce insulin resistance—a key risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes—in just a few weeks.

THE MEXICAN EXPERIMENT

At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, researchers were concerned that women of Mexican descent who adopt an American diet have disproportionately high rates of obesity and diabetes compared to individuals of Mexican descent who keep their more traditional Mexican diets. So they tried an experiment—what if these women went back to eating their traditional Mexican fare?

They recruited 53 healthy women. About half were normal weight and half overweight or obese. None had high blood sugar, diabetes, or any other serious health problem. The women were divided into two groups. For 24 days, one group ate a traditional Mexican diet, and the other ate typical American foods and beverages. Both diets were similar in calories and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and total fat), and they weren’t designed to lead to weight loss. All the meals were prepared for the women. After the initial phase, the women switched diets so that those eating American ate traditional Mexican and vice-versa.

Results: When the women ate traditional Mexican food, their bodies became more sensitive to insulin, so they needed less insulin to digest their meals. That’s significant because elevated levels of insulin increase the risk of developing diabetes. Specifics:  

• A marker of insulin resistance went down 15% in women eating traditional Mexican food.

• Insulin levels went down 14%.

• An insulin-related growth factor, which is linked to increased cancer risk, went down 4%.

Like any study, this one has its limits. It included only women, and only women of Mexican descent at that, so how women and men of other ethnic backgrounds would respond to healthy Mexican food isn’t scientifically established. Nor does it mean that the diets that most people eat in Mexico today are healthy—the truth is, there’s lots of unhealthful food served in Mexico these days, and rates of obesity and diabetes are sky high on both sides of the border.

But going back to the old food ways might be a solution in Mexico and in the US. Other research has confirmed, for example, that the traditional Mexican dietary pattern is associated with reduced risk of chronic disease in observational studies.

The really good part: If you’ve never tried real, traditional Mexican food, and you give it a go, you might find that you love it. Here’s how to put it to use in your kitchen—and when you go out to Mexican restaurants.

HOW TO EAT HEALTHY THE MEXICAN WAY

What makes traditional Mexican cuisine so much healthier than the typical American diet? Well, first, let’s admit what most Americans tend to eat the most of—meat (including processed meat)…mounds of cheese…other processed foods…fried foods…refined carbs…and lots of sugar, including sugar-sweetened beverages.

In contrast, the traditional Mexican meals served in the study featured corn-based dishes cooked with chilies, garlic, onions and herbs, beans, squash, citrus fruits and rice. There was full-fat dairy and cheese, too—yay—but not the same dairy or the same cheese that most Americans eat. (More on that below.)

Margarita Santiago-Torres, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center in Albuquerque and one of the study authors, made some interesting distinctions…

• Real tortillas. In authentic Mexican cooking, there’s no such thing as a “flour tortilla,” which is considered a refined grain product and is an American invention. Traditional Mexican tortillas are made only from whole corn, which is high in fiber and offers vegetable protein. And although corn tortillas figure prominently in Mexican cuisine, chips made by frying them do not.

• Less animal protein. Most of the protein in traditional Mexican cuisine comes from vegetable sources such beans and other legumes. The role of meat in a typical meal is minimal. Although meats are incorporated into many meals, they are often in smaller portions in dishes such as pozole (a corn-based soup often made with chicken or pork) and mixed dishes such as tamales. (In the study, while total protein was the same for both diets, the amount from vegetable sources was much higher in the Mexican diet…40 grams a day versus 26 grams).

• Fiber from food, not from a bottle. The corn and beans and other legumes that figure so prominently in traditional Mexican dishes are rich in dietary fiber, which is not only important for digestion and helps manage blood sugar but also lets you feel full longer so you’re less likely to overeat. In the study, daily fiber on the traditional Mexican diet was 36 grams—on the American diet, it was 15 grams. For overall nutritive value, these naturally healthful sources of fiber beat out the American version—fiber pills or supplemental fiber powder from a can—by a mile.

• More fresh produce, less processed food. The proportions of fruits and vegetables are higher in a traditional Mexican diet than in an American one. And you won’t find much in the way of canned or processed foods—which tend to be high in sugar and sodium.

Traditional Mexican food does include some elements that are controversial. A common cooking fat is lard—pig fat—which is high in saturated fat. However, there is also controversy about whether saturated fat actually contributes to heart disease—and there’s no reason you couldn’t substitute a preferred fat for lard in your cooking if you wished.

The Mexican fare also featured full-fat milk, which has more fat and saturated fat than the low-fat or skim milk that so many Americans choose—but here again, there is growing evidence that full-fat milk may actually be beneficial in terms of diabetes prevention. And the cheeses in traditional Mexican cooking, such as queso blanco and queso fresco, tend to be lower in calories and fat than, say, a typical cheddar. How these dietary elements figure into the healthfulness of Mexican food isn’t yet known.

But the big picture is known. Like the Mediterranean diet, the traditional Mexican dietary pattern is a healthy model. If you follow it, you’ll be eating fewer refined grains, less sugar and sodium, more fiber and more vegetable protein and fresh produce. When you cook at home, consider trying some traditional Mexican dishes.

As for eating out, the good news is that many new Mexican restaurants, both formal and casual, are incorporating Mexican dishes that are more authentic on their menus. At the very least, suggests Dr. Santiago-Torres, the next time you go out for Mexican food, skip the chips, ask for corn tortillas instead of flour, go for black beans, enjoy plenty of salsa—and take a look to see if they have pozole on the menu.