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Yes, Virginia, Latin and Mexican Food Can be Healthy

Cut the cheese, hold the chips and opt for lean meats and veggies.

Yummy! Fresh ingredients in Athens, Ga.
Yummy! Fresh ingredients in Athens, Ga.

By Cesar Javier Toledo

A taco salad sounds like a healthy choice on the menu at your favorite Mexican restaurant. But take a closer look. It contains lettuce, that’s true, but it’s also a  gigantic taco shell with shredded cheese, sour cream and white rice.   

 The reality is that a fiesta taco salad with beef at Taco Bell has 780 calories. A beef Grande Taco Salad from On the Border, another Mexican eatery, contains 1,280 calories.  But there are ways to eliminate bad calories without sacrificing the joys of international cuisine.

 “When eating out, look to see if whole grain options are available. Sometimes there is brown rice, whole wheat tortillas and whole grain pasta that can be ordered,” said Connie Crawley Crawley, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition and cooking classes in many Georgia counties

 “Take the taco chips and salsa off the table,” she said. She also recommends avoiding molten cheese dips, dishes covered with cheese and creamy sauces.

Lean cuts of meat, skinless poultry and fish--roasted, grilled or broiled--are better than red meats or anything that has been fried. No matter where you’re dinning.

Eating at a Mexican or Latin establishments doesn’t have to be unhealthy.  “Latin American foods are very diverse,” said nutrition columnist Charles Platkin.  “While the cooking methods are not always the healthiest, the foods themselves often are.”

Yellow rice, a staple of Latin cuisine is a sore point with Platkin, a syndicated nutrition columnist and founder of DietDetective.com. 

“One cup of regular white rice has about 170 calories, while yellow rice has 640 calories per cup,” said Platkin.-“Yellow rice is typically made with the addition of oil and/or butter, some vegetables and annatto powder or saffron.”

There are many genres of ethnic dinning. Zoe’s Kitchen, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant on Alps Road, uses color-coded labels to help customers make dietary choices. Meals may be designated by calorie count (several supply 500 calories) or as, vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free.

 Many dishes include quinoa as a substitute for rice or as part of a salad.

Quinoa is a grain from Peru that is higher in protein than brown rice and is loaded with nutrients. One cup fulfills 48 percent of our daily magnesium needs.  

The restaurant, which opened in August 2013, drew people who were curious about the special diets and nutrition in general.

 “Customers have been requesting a healthier gluten-free menu and instead of pointing them to the web site, it’s easier to have something on hand so we can interact with them directly,” said employee Michael Bailey.

Although Zoe’s is new, it already has fans.

“I don’t always feel like cooking and there aren’t many fast-food places that actually have more healthy options than unhealthy ones,” said Shonna Barkley, a nutritionist at the Office of Early Learning.  “So I’m glad I found out about Zoe’s.”

About three miles away on North Chase Street, Antonio Ramirez, owner of Tlaloc Mexican restaurant, doesn’t display calorie count but does take pride in the fresh, healthy ingredients he uses in all his menu items.

“People I know in this business have recommended that I cut costs by using canned tomato sauce for the salsa and previously-bagged guacamole, but the taste is not the same,” said Ramirez. But he stands firm. “I like to use fresh tomatoes and only use a small portion of canned tomato sauce in our salsa.”

Ramirez’s reataurant is always busy and he attributes this to Tlaloc’s use of fresh, natural ingredients. 

“I love Mexican food and this place definitely is one of my favorite places to go, “said UGA junior Bianca Falero. “There isn’t anything on the menu that I don’t like and I think it’s because it actually tastes homemade.”

 

 

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