Nutrition Articles

Dining Out: Mexican Cuisine

Restaurant-Specific Strategies

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Characteristics:

In the United States, these dishes come in huge portions. If you’re not careful, you can easily consume a full day’s worth of calories in a single meal. Dishes are often fried with lard and topped with cheese. Most dishes are combined with several other items to create large platters.
Common Ingredients:

Mexican cuisine is loaded with potential calorie landmines, from cheese and sour cream to crispy tortilla shells and guacamole. Staples include great sources of complex carbohydrates and protein like rice and beans, along with tomatoes, fresh fish, corn, beef and poultry.
Hidden Dangers:
  • Many restaurants still make their refried beans with lard.
  • Guacamole is usually very high in calories.
  • Taco salads can carry more than 1,000 calories. Most of the ingredients inside the salad are usually healthy, but extra condiments, cheese, beef and a calorie-laden tortilla shell can sabotage your meal.
  • Avoid deep-fried entrees like Chile Rellenos, Chimichangas, and Flautas.
  • The fish in Fish Tacos is usually breaded and fried. Try to get grilled instead.
  • Watch for these words:
    • Chorizo (Mexican sausage)
    • Con Queso (with cheese)
    • Rellenos (stuffed, usually with cheese)
    • Combination (usually a supersized portion)
    • Crispy (fried, especially taco shells)
    • Plato Gordo (fat plate)
  • Cheese Quesadilla: 900 calories
  • Paella a la Valenciana: 900 calories, 42g fat
  • Refried Beans (Frijoles): 640 calories per cup
  • Nachos: 800 calories and as much as 65g fat
  • Cheese Enchiladas: 980 calories
  • Chicken Tostada: 935 calories


Healthy Finds:
  • Look for baked dishes, like enchiladas, burritos and tamales. Make sure to order with light or no cheese.
  • Gazpacho is a cold tomato soup with green peppers and cucumber. It’s fat-free, full of vitamin C and beta carotene, and only has 60 calories.
  • Salsa is packed with vitamins A and C, no fat, and is low in calories.
  • Fajitas (stir-fried meat and lots of veggies, with steamed tortillas)
  • Ceviche (fish or shrimp cocktail marinated in citrus, sometimes with tomato and avocado)
  • Mole Sauce
  • Chile Verde (pork simmered with veggies and green chiles)
  • Arroz Con Polo (chicken with rice)
  • Look for these words:
    • Asada (grilled)
    • Verde (green)
    • Picante (tomato sauce)
    • Nopales (cactus pads)
    • Chayote or Jicama (starchy vegetables)
    • Veracruz-style (tomato sauce)
  • Chicken Fajitas: 200 calories and 7g fat
  • Tortilla Soup: 240 calories
  • Black Bean Soup: 180 calories, 5g fat
  • Serviche: 150 calories, 5g fat
  • Shrimp Taco: 320 calories, 19g fat
  • Clams Marinera: 330 calories, 16g fat
  • Arroz Abanda (fish with rice): 340 calories, 8g fat

The Big Tip:

Keep it simple and order a la carte from the menu. Pass up the combination platters, which are usually more than one person can eat, and piled with sour cream, guacamole, fried food and cheese. OR, you can make an entire meal out of healthy side items, such as beans, rice, vegetables and salsa.
Substitition Ideas:

 Try This Skip That
Mexican rice Refried beans
Steamed "soft" shells Fried "hard" shells
Salsa Sour cream
Enchilada Chimichanga
Jicama & salsa Chips & salsa
Pinto or Black beans Refried beans
Whole-wheat tortillas Corn-flour tortillas
Baked Tortilla chips Fried Tortilla chips
Picante sauce Cheese sauce
Fajita Quesadilla
Guava, papaya, and mango Fried ice cream

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Member Comments

  • Great Ideas! Mexican is my favorite cuisine.
  • Great information here. I have a huge weakness for Mexican food, however, I can still have it without feeling deprived. I like someones comment about counting out the chips before hand so they don't over indulge.
  • FOXGLOVE999
    Where I live fajitas are not found at Mexican Restaurants, only Tex-mex or fusion.
  • This is really helpful! Thank you so much!
  • We go out for Mexican food pretty often. Chips can be a downfall since they are usually free and unlimited so I try to count out ten chips and that is all I eat. I break them into small pieces and try to make them last through the whole meal. I don't get refried beans and I split the rice in half so I only eat half. But Mexican food is tough because it is yummy so easy to eat a lot.


  • Who the heck put corn tortilla in the "Skip That" column??? I guess they don't have Celiac disease or gluten-intoleranc
    e. But, even if they don't have those issues, the corn tortilla has survived for centuries as the way Mexicans initially ate. Wheat tortillas have only recently been introduced--and not necessarily for the better. I think something should only be in the "skip that" column if it is felt they harm your health.
  • Thanks for posting this article! My husband and I will be taking a trip to the southwest this summer and I plan on printing this guide (especially for Mexican cuisine) and taking it with me to help me stay on track since I won't have access to internet let alone Sparkpeople.
  • I had noticed as I made more of an effort to eat healthier, my trips to my favorite Mexican restaurant had declined. Now I see why. My favorite dish is called quesadilla supreme. It's pretty healthy, except it's loaded with guacomole and white American cheese. I think I need to switch to a chicken fajita.
  • I think that corn tortillas don't deserve to be in the watch out column, especially when compared to some whole wheat tortillas. Corn tortillas don't have added fat, where most wheat flour tortillas do, unless you buy ones specifically that don't. Also corn tortillas have the corn germ ground up with the flour.
  • My boyfriend and I go to Mexican restaurants a lot, and this article was very helpful to me. How on earth do they fit 900 calories into a quesadilla?? And Giant-Steps, that was a great suggestion about spinach enchiladas.

    One thing the article says is safe to order is fajitas, but there are a couple of things I would suggest about that. First, when you order fajitas, ask for corn tortillas as opposed to flour tortillas. Corn tortillas are usually whole grain, smaller, and have less calories and most Mexican restaurants have them, you just have to ask.

    Also, when you get fajitas ask for no butter. Apparently, after the fajitas are cooked the cooks usually melt a bunch of butter on top so it's shiny and sizzles well on the plate. You won't miss the butter and it makes the meal a little healthier.
  • Ate Mexican for both Lunch and Dinner for my birthday... I was taken out to lunch and it was my choice, but dinner was not. So, for lunch I had Pork Carnitas, rice, 1/4 c. guacamole with diced tomato, maybe a 1/4 c beans, lettuce and diced tomato with ONE homemade tortilla. Kept the calories and fat down.
    Dinner, since I had already eaten a substantial meal, opted for Soupa de Albondigas. So delish... lots of huge chunks of zucchini, a few chunks of potato and carrot. It was a bit spicy but so good. Loaded with meatballs, but only ate four... they were a bit larger than I would expect for a soup. Started passing around the extra albondigas... there were 8 in the bowl. Hot tea, no calorie laden drinks. I did endulge in the homemade tortilla chips and salsa... Needed the heat from the salsa to help kill the cold that just does not want to let go. Everyone I know has this nasty cold.
  • Maybe I spend too much time traveling in Mexico, but I found this article to be rather lacking. I'd have to say the first problem is how Mexican food has been modified within North America, most Mexican restaurants offer popularized dishes that only resemble what you get in Mexico. For instance, cheese! It is not as ubiquitous as appears in restaurants up here!
    Some specific problems I had with the articles were the 'watch for' words... yes, verde means green, picante means spicy (not always red though...)... WHY should anyone watch for them?
    AND!!! Tamales. Low fat? Hmmm... maybe sometimes but many are made with LARD. I love tamales but enjoy sparingly.
  • Going out for Mexican with friends tonight and this article was very helpful!!
  • I pulled this article up before I run out the door for a water fitness class celebration. We are doing Mexican and now I know my SMART choices! Thanks SparkPeople!!!! Luv Ya!
  • PAYDAY10
    Hopefully, the artical will help me be more prepared the next time my family wants to go to Don Pablos. Sodium is a real issue in most Spanish/Mexican foods. I like the foods but try to stay away from these types of foods.