Local Restaurants Give Tips on Cooking Healthy Mexican Food

When many people think of Mexican food, they might imagine a greasy mountain of cheddar cheese and refried beans piled high top a fried tortilla.

However, that isn’t real Mexican food at all.

“The traditional Mexican menu is far from being unhealthy,” says Diana Teran-Moreno, the owner of Mexico in Season, a health-conscious Mexican restaurant with vegan and vegetarian options that opened December 2013 in South Tucson.  “The chimichanga doesn’t even exist in Mexico.”

(Photograph by Austin McEvoy)
A cook rings a bell in El Saguarito’s kitchen, indicating a plate of food is ready for transport. Vasquez often delivers food to customers himself. (Photograph by Austin McEvoy)

Raised in Sonora, Mexico, Teran-Moreno’s menu features authentic Mexican dishes from cactus stir fry to sizzling fajitas. “It was the crossing of cultures when Hispanics came to the US in the 50s that led to all the fried stuff,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s the younger generation that doesn’t know this [traditional] food.”

The first Mexican restaurant in Tucson to identify itself as health-conscious was El Saguarito, founded by Albert and Blanca Vasquez in 1989. Trademarked as “the healthy Mexican alternative,” El Saguarito’s menu includes gluten-free, vegan and “heart friendly” dishes.

“We try to keep the authenticity of the food while also trying to make it as healthy as possible,” Albert Vasquez says. “For example, we took out the lard from all the recipes to minimize the fat.”

Because of Lent, a season of prayer in which most practicing Catholics do not eat meat, the restaurant’s most popular item right now is their fish tacos, Vasquez says. Their variation is made with unbreaded basa fish, similar to catfish, and fresh vegetables served with a side of cilantro-ranch sauce instead of cheese.

Healthy dishes like these can also be made at home. Teran-Moreno and Vasquez offer the following tips and tricks for cooking healthy Mexican food in your own kitchen without sacrificing flavor.

Transform the Tortilla

Tortillas made with lard are not only loaded with calories but leave many people feeling bloated and uncomfortable. At El Saguarito, all tortillas are made with canola oil, which is a lighter source of fat with a “hint of nutty flavor,” Vasquez says.

Joan Rosario browses the menu at El Saguarito. One of her favorite dishes is their bean and cheese enchilada, which is served on a corn tortilla. (Photograph by Austin McEvoy)

Substitutions like this leave customers feeling light, as opposed to weighed down and lethargic, after their meals, Vasquez says. “I prefer this food to the place across the street,” says Joan Rosario, referencing another Mexican food restaurant. Rosario has been dining at El Saguarito regularly since it opened. “They have the greasy stuff, but I like the food here better,” she says.

Another ingredient in the standard tortilla that you can do away with is flour, which is a source of refined carbohydrates, otherwise known as “white carbohydrates.” This kind of carbohydrate is easily broken down by the body into its sugar monomers, providing quick energy. However, when eaten in excess without appropriate levels of exercise, the unused energy is stored in the body as fat.

Eating too many of these kinds of simple carbohydrates can also lead to type 2 diabetes. Teran-Moreno, who also owns La Tauna Tortillas, recommends using corn or whole wheat instead. Cornmeal and whole wheat flour contain complex carbohydrates that take longer for the body to break down, resulting in a more sustained supply of energy.

“I especially like the whole-wheat tortillas,” says customer Christina Barnum, who studies nutrition at the University of Arizona. “I hope more places with healthy options like this pop up in the area.”

Eliminate Red Meat

(Photograph by Austin McEvoy)
A pot of seasoned chicken cooks on a stove top in El Saguarito’s kitchen. The restaurant only serves white meat. (Photograph by Austin McEvoy)

Red meat is found in many popular Mexican dishes, like carne asada tacos or ground beef burritos.

However, in addition to being high in saturated fat, red meat also contains L-carnitine, an amino acid that gut bacteria convert into a substance called trimethylamine-N-oxide, or TMAO. TMAO wreaks havoc in the body and can lead to clogged arteries, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Nature Medicine.

For these reasons, none of Vasquez’s recipes contain red meat. Instead he uses white meat, such as fish and chicken. Even his Sonoran hot dogs are made with turkey meat rather than beef.

Add Veggies

Vegetables are rich in nutrients and fill you up without adding too many calories to an entrée. Growing up in Mexico, Teran-Moreno says vegetables were a big part of her diet, and they don’t have to be boring.

“We don’t miss out on flavor here ever,” she says. “You are never cheated.”

Her menu features vegetarian-friendly dishes like red chili potatoes and onion stir fry.  The most popular dish is her calabazitas, which she makes with zucchinis, tomatoes, onions, poblano peppers and corn.

Vegetables can also be used in place of starchy carbohydrates, such as those found in tortillas. For those on low-carb diets, Vasquez recommends using a piece of romaine lettuce instead of a tortilla, which is an option he offers at his restaurant.

Limit Sugar

Almost twice as many Hispanics are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year compared to non-Hispanic Caucasians, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The culprit? Sugar.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s cells become resistant to the hormone insulin, which is necessary for transporting sugar from the blood to body’s cells. For this reason, people with high sugar diets are more at risk for developing the disease.

You can limit your sugar intake with simple substitutions, like making margaritas with silver tequila instead of gold, Vasquez says.

Gold tequila is flavored with both agave nectar and caramel, he says. Silver tequila, on the other hand, is typically only made with agave nectar and consequently has less calories.

“You get more alcohol for your money when you buy silver tequila,” he added.

Diana Teran-Moreno's son, Jonathan, piles vegetables onto a customers plate. It is the customer's first time visiting Mexico in Season. (Photograph by Austin McEvoy)
Diana Teran-Moreno’s son, Jonathan, piles vegetables onto a customers plate. It is the customer’s first time visiting Mexico in Season. (Photograph by Austin McEvoy)

The amount of sugar in non-alcoholic drinks can also be reduced by using fruit as a natural sweetener instead of sugar additives, Teran-Moreno says.

Because many member of her own family have diabetes, Teran-Moreno does not sell any soft drinks at her restaurant, only water and homemade juices. One of her most popular juices is a watermelon concoction made with lime and cucumber.

“I truly believe that you are what you eat,” she says. “Bad food can really hurt people.”

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