Despite restaurants across the U.S. reopening, you may be inclined to uphold your quarantine routine of ordering takeout and eating in the safety of your own home (where, as an added bonus, you can actively donate to any number of good, relevant causes without interruption). Tonight, your stomach might say, “A robust plate of healthy Mexican food would help fuel this body and mind of ours as we navigate this nefarious world and work toward a better one.”
But in order to put your best foot forward, you should always consider the healthiness of your food, which is why I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, to help me rank some of the more common Mexican takeout dishes — from healthy to pretty damn unhealthy. Grab some chips and guac to munch on as we make our way through the menu.
1) Chips and Guacamole: “Guacamole is super healthy,” Hunnes says. “Avocados are full of heart-healthy fats.” She also mentions that guacamole can be quite satiating, a factor that could prevent you from overeating (if you have more willpower than I do), and contains a sprinkling of other healthy vegetables and lime juice, which is especially high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Moreover, while chips are certainly far from healthy, tortilla chips are one of the healthier options of the bunch (and when paired with a healthy dip, chips are a lot less bad then when eaten alone, mindlessly).
2) Pozole: Pozole is a pork and corn (or hominy) soup. While pork, like all red meats, is damaging to your heart, the soup typically only contains a small portion. Instead, the more major components of pozole are beans, which are one of the healthiest foods to exist, and vegetables, like corn. Accordingly, Hunnes says pozole is “quite healthy overall.”
3) Chilaquiles: “Chilaquiles, although lightly fried, have the main constituents of whole-grain corn tortillas, refried beans and vegetables, with some shredded chicken (or other meat) for flavor,” Hunnes says, deeming them “mostly healthy.” Chilaquiles are also typically doused with salsa — more so than, say, tacos or burritos — which is super healthy, frequently boasting a base of tomatoes, onions and lime juice, all of which are nutritional powerhouses.
4) Enchiladas: Enchiladas might feel like one of the more gluttonous options on the menu, but similar to chilaquiles, the sauce that enchiladas are smothered with usually adds to their healthfulness — it typically has a tomato base, contains onions and is flavored with an assortment of healthy herbs and spices. Hunnes does note, however, that enchiladas filled with beans and vegetables, as opposed to meat and cheese, are always a healthier option, as well as those wrapped in corn tortillas, which provide more nutrition than their flour-based brethren.
5) Tamales: The big thing that differentiates tamales from tacos and burritos is their being made with steamed bundles of masa dough, made by soaking the whole corn kernel in a calcium-rich lime water. As a result, masa flour is higher in calories than regular corn flour, but also higher in calcium, fiber and several other vitamins and minerals. All of which, Hunnes says, makes masa one of the healthier wrappings within Mexican cuisine. But of course, what your tamales are filled with also plays a huge role in how healthy they are.
6) Tacos and Burritos (tied): The thing to remember about tacos and burritos is that they have the potential to be healthy, but that depends entirely on what you fill and wrap them with. As a general rule of thumb, beans and vegetables are the best fillings, and chicken is generally believed to be an okay filling. Red meats and cheese, however, contribute significantly more unhealthy fats, which can build up in your body and harm your heart over time. And again, corn tortillas are slightly healthier than flour, since they deliver fiber and other nutrients, while being lower in fat and calories.
One thing of note about burritos: They tend to be filled with Spanish rice, which does add more calories, but also typically contains onions, green peppers and some kind of tomato base. So as far as rice goes, Spanish rice is a fairly good choice.
8) Tortas: Tortas are another case of toppings being the primary dictators of their healthiness, but at least for our ranking, they live a notch below tacos and burritos, because, as Hunnes points out, they tend to be served on a large white bun, which delivers more empty, unnecessary calories than corn tortillas (and in most cases, flour tortillas, too).
9) Quesadillas: The only reason quesadillas are lower than tacos and burritos is because they rely on loads of cheese, which, in addition to being high in fats that become especially unhealthy when consumed in large amounts, also contains the possible tumor promoter (and animal protein) casein.
10) Flan: Flan, for anyone who may not know, is “usually a very sweet, caramelized-cream (or milk) dish,” Hunnes explains. (It also tends to be extremely jiggly.) It can be pretty high in sugar and can especially pose problems for all those lactose intolerant people out there, because it contains dairy. “But,” Hunnes says, “I suppose if you only have a few bites and share it with others, there are worse things out there.” That does rely on you actually sharing, though, which… good luck.
Now eat up, enjoy your food and put that full belly to good use by fighting the good fight for a better, more compassionate society.