Articles » Nutrition » Healthy Eating Tips » Healthy Mexican Food Options | Quick Guide

Healthy Mexican Food Options | Quick Guide

Below is a continuation of the healthy eating article series from Christy Maskeroni, who is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer in New York City.

Rice, beans, lean proteins, veggies, spices, and corn tortillas are the basic ingredients of Mexican cuisine. Cheese, sour cream, lard, and guacamole are the add-ons that can take a healthy Mexican cuisine into an alarming calorie-laden meal. If you stick to these simple suggestions, you’ll be eating well and feeling even better.

Here are a few strategies to make a Mexican Cuisine fit into a healthier and lower-calorie lifestyle.

Healthy Mexican Food Options Strategies

Put it on the side.
Ask for cheese, sour cream and guacamole on the side (or without). This will save you 300 + calories! If you choose one, choose the green stuff. Guacamole is made from avocados which are a good source of heart healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, and potassium, just to name a few. Cheese and sour cream are high in saturated fat which has been known to increase cholesterol and the risk for heart disease.

Keep it unwrapped.
Calories in flour tortillas can range from 150-400 calories! And, that is WITHOUT anything stuffed inside it. Choose corn tortillas as an alternative. They are smaller and lower in calories so they will keep portions and calories under control. Or, change it up all together and choose a dish without the wrap like the fajita skillet.

Switch the sides
Most restaurants serve a hearty entrée WITH a side of rice and beans. There is no need for all of that food! Instead of rice and beans, ask for a side salad.

Watch the fluids.
Frozen margaritas can really put a damper on your goals with their high sugar and calorie content. One standard 8 ounce frozen is roughly 300 calories. However, many restaurants like to super-size their drinks and offer 12 or 16 ounce margaritas. This means you could be drinking 2/3 of your calories in just one cocktail. Is it worth it?

Go simple with your cocktails.
These alternatives can save you the calories and allow you to still enjoy a beverage: 6 ounce mojito 180 calories, 5 ounce glass of wine 125 calories, 6 ounce 150 calories (can vary with ingredients), 5 ounces of sparkling wine 100 calories, 1.5 ounces of tequila 100 calories, club soda, diet soda or water with lime 0 calories.

Don’t spill the beans.
Beans may sound like a healthy choice, but be careful. Refried beans are often made with lard, making it a much higher fat and calorie dish. Instead, opt for the black beans

Swap the starter.
The standard chips and salsa can make a pretty mean dent in your meal. Add guacamole on top of that, and you have probably reached your target calories without even picking your fork up for the main course. Instead, start with ceviche – a low calorie, refreshing seafood appetizer made with fish, citrus juice, lime juice, and spices OR try a brothy soup. Many Mexican restaurants have a bit of a twist on the classic chicken soup. Made with chicken, spices, lime, avocado, and herbs this appetizer will definitely satisfy. Skipping out on the appetizer all together is also a great way to reduce the damage!

Remember the basics.
Whether it’s Mexican, Chinese, or another cuisine, there are a few basic tips that can help you eat well at almost any restaurant. Go lean. Choose seafood, vegetarian, or chicken over beef. It can cut fat and calories down tremendously without sacrificing flavor.

Watch the preparation.
Avoid items that are fried, crispy, heavily sautéed, au gratin, coated, basted, or stuffed. Instead choose or ask for steamed, broiled, baked, or poached. Order for two. Share dishes with your friends/family. This is a great way to sample several dishes and save you the extra calories.

Mexican Food Options Comparison

Now, I have compiled a list of some menu favorites and a few healthier alternatives:

** calorie content will vary from place to place
Resources: www.polloloco.com; www.calorieking.com; www.myfitnesspal.com

Healthy Mexican Food Meal Example

For a little perspective, here is of what a MODERATELY portioned meal might look like from each of the menus:

You can cut your calories by MORE THAN HALF by just making these simple changes! And, if you go a step further and opt out of alcohol and share some of your dishes, you will really make an impact!

Christy Maskeroni MS, RD is the Director of Nutrition and Master Coach Trainer at CLAY Health Club & Spa in New York City. She has spent the last several years developing customized nutrition and fitness programs for clients interested in reaching a new height of health and wellness. www.insideclay.com


  • Leila says:

    Congratulations on BuiltLean's one-year anniversary, Marc!! Thank you for continuing to share such consistently detailed information in such an accessible way!!

  • Marc Perry says:

    @Leila - Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it!

  • Mary says:

    Congratulations on your one year Anniversary. The information you provide has been extremely helpful. I have learned a lot and the videos are a real plus. Wishing you the very best!

  • Marc Perry says:

    @Mary - Thanks for the well wishes! It's amazing it's already been on year.

  • Grenville says:

    Hi there Marc...

    Big fan here! Love your website and love the tips you offer.

    I have to ask - what is your take on fat burner supplements. Do they work or do more harm for the body?

    I recently joined the gym and have started working out really hard but it's always discouraging to see those love handles and "moobs"!

    I know that it will take time and with proper diet, results will show.
    But will taking fat burners accelerate that?

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Grenville - Thanks for the kind words regarding my website! To cut to the chase, I'm not a proponent of fat burning supplements at all. In general studies are inconclusive that fat burning supplements even do anything, but even if they did aid fat burning, at what cost? The problem is that fat burning supplements are unregulated (not regulated by the FDA), which by itself is enough to seriously question any claim of efficacy by these products and more importantly, the safety of the products. Even if fat burning supplements worked very well, I don't think relying on some pill as a replacement, or even additive to proper nutrition and exercise is the right decision.

      Nature offers an abundance of healthy, nutritious foods we can eat that have everything we could ever need as human beings to live long, fit, healthy lives. I'm confident that with a smart nutrition strategy and effective exercise you can reach your bodies physical potential and enjoy great health without the use of any potentially harmful, or life threatening (remember ephedra?) fat burning supplements!

      I hope that answers your question and I apologize if I came across as too strong, but I have strong opinions about supplements in general, because I think 99% of them are unnecessary, and even worse, potentially harmful. Thanks for the comment and congrats on working hard in the gym. Losing fat takes time and I think losing 1lb of fat per week is a great pace for most people. If you have not seen these articles yet, definitely check out: http://www.builtlean.com/2010/06/11/part-1-7-reasons-to-keep-a-food-journal/ and also this one: http://www.builtlean.com/2011/01/18/how-many-calories-should-you-eat-to-lose-weight/.

  • slim dream says:

    great tips. Love mexican food hah

  • Grenville says:

    No need to apologize Marc. Hey when you feel strong about a cause, stand by it!

    Seeing that you're against supplements, what's your take on protein powders? They're supplements too, in a way.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Grenville - That's a great question. I do plan on writing an article on both supplements in general and protein supplements in particular. While whey protein supplements in small amounts (1-2 servings per day) are most likely harmless, a Consumer Reports in a study last year found trace elements of noxious chemicals including arsenic and cadmium in popular protein drinks Myoplex and Muscle Milk with 3 or more servings per day: Protein Study.

      I can tell you with confidence you don't need to drink protein shakes to get the body you want. In fact, eating protein vs. drinking protein is more desirable because of the thermic effect of food (i.e. eating foods like lean meats requires you burn to 30% of the calories you just ate during digestion). If you do choose to have a protein shake, I would consider it after a workout if you are not going to eat a whole meal for at least a couple hours, or if you are running late and make up a quick fruit and protein smoothie in the morning. There is clear evidence that a post-workout high protein snack can be helpful for both muscle building and fat metabolism. Again, I do plan on going into much more depth with all this, but hope this is helpful!

  • Grenville says:

    Thanks Marc. Looking forward to the article!

  • James Barclay says:

    Hi Marc,

    Great site and very informative with a genuine desire to help others without the pushy salesman attitude of other similar sites. Just a quick question tho that I'm keen to know the exact answer to. I personally love doing push ups and feel I can do a lot at almost any given time and to add to this I've trained with 2 different guys in particular with big well proportioned pectoral muscles which look full/well defined as opposed to that chunky limited centre chest these flat bench enthusiasts acquire and the 2 guys (who don't know one another) have claimed to do at least a couple of hundred push ups every night before bed even on chest working days! Surely this is going against the rules of muscle building as the muscle doesn't get the time and rest it needs to recover properly? I am aware that push ups can help endurance but unsure if every night could be detrimental? I eat protein bars after work outs and intend to do push ups at night then have a low fat protein snack just before bed to help with muscle growth, not sure if this would be a good idea or not! Any advice would really help. Also the protein bars are so called "diet bars" with 181 cals 5 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of saturates totalling 25 grams of whey protein. It's called a PHD diet whey bar.



    • Marc Perry says:

      @James - That's a great question. I used to be completely obsessed with doing push ups. They helped me build a pretty decent chest when I was only a teenager.

      In order to build muscle, you need a few things (I'm going to go into more detail about this soon). It's easy to over-complicate the process, but it's really pretty simple:

      1) Eat more calories than you burn (http://bit.ly/mxFyna) around 20% extra

      2) Eat ample protein - roughly 1g per pound of body weight (that's a general guideline)

      3) Lift heavier weights over time while focusing on basic movements

      In addition, as you pointed out, recovery is imperative. So, if you are just doing push-ups and no heavy lifting, sure you can do them every day. But if you are heavy lifting with your chest, I would do pushups maybe once per week when your chest is fully recovered. Ideally, you should be sore for a good few days after lifting chest. Personally, I'm sore for between 3-5 days when I focus on chest. My favorite sequence is 3 sets of 8-12 reps of flat bench, then incline DB Bench, than cable chest flyes paired with pushups (you go back and forth). Crazy chest pump from these exercises!

      Hope this is helpful and thanks for the comment, James. Much appreciated. If I ever become a pushy salesman, please call me out on it!