Mexican Fiesta

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Unfortunately, a tasty Mexican meal like that can add up to thousands of calories — and the sodium is off the charts. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and with some planning you can enjoy food from south of the border without jeopardizing your diet.

When the waiter brings over that basket of crispy tortilla chips, it’s hard to eat just one — or even just one serving. What you need to remember is that crispy is just a nicer way of saying fried — and that means loads of fat and calories. Keep munching to a minimum. Or better yet, ask your server to take the chips away. However, if you can’t resist the call of the chips, at least watch what you’re dipping them in. If it’s a choice between salsa and guacamole, salsa is, hands down, the better choice. Not only is it much lower in calories, but tomatoes, the main ingredient, are packed with lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. Guacamole contains heart-friendly monounsaturated fat, as well as other healthy nutrients, but it’s still high in calories.

  • Tortilla chips (12-15 chips): 140 calories, 6g fat, 19g carbs
  • Guacamole (3 ounces): 110 calories, 9g fat, 7g carbs
  • Sour cream (2 tablespoons): 62 calories, 6g fat, 1g carbs
  • Salsa (3 ounces): 26 calories, 0g fat, 5g carbs

Talk about a fat trap. Enchiladas are tortillas softened in oil, stuffed with meat and smothered with cheese. Nachos are made with fried chips, fatty cheese, and high-calorie sour cream. It’s really a toss-up between the two, but you can make the nachos a bit lighter by ordering them without the sour cream, less cheese and eating them with salsa instead of guacamole.

  • Baja Fresh Cheese Enchilada: 840 calories, 36g fat, 91g carbs
  • Taco Bell Nachos BellGrande: 780 calories, 43g fat, 80g carbs
  • Chili’s Classic Nachos: 902 calories, 50g fat, 63g carbs

Not much of a choice here — this is almost a Mexican standoff (if you’ll pardon the expression) between two fried and greasy dishes. A chimichanga is a deep-fried flour tortilla filled with beans, cheese, onions and chicken or beef — a greasier crispy cousin of the burrito. Quesadillas, meanwhile, consist of two tortillas stuffed with cheese and other fillings. Although serving size varies, typically chimichangas pack about 1,420 calories vs. 1,240 calories for a quesadilla. You can lighten up the quesadilla even more by ordering it with less cheese and sour cream — or without cheese, if other vegetable or meat fillings are available. Or, to save still more calories, you could go for an oven-baked burrito without cheese, sour cream or refried beans.

Fajitas seem like one of the best choices on any Mexican menu, but much to my dismay, I found that even those are not diet food by any stretch of the imagination. The meat and vegetables are cooked with loads of oil, and the toppings can almost double the calorie count. One plus is that the tortillas are simply warmed, not fried or cooked in oil. So, if you can get the beef, chicken or vegetables chargrilled (it doesn’t hurt to ask!), use a minimal amount of guacamole and leave out the sour cream, cheese and refried beans, you’ll actually have a reasonably healthy dish. Also, choose chicken over beef to save calories and fat. Or, even better, try to pack in extra flavor with pico de gallo (chopped tomatoes, onions, and herbs — like a chunkier salsa) and “beef it up” with vegetables instead of the meat.

Burritos can be relatively healthy, depending on the ingredients. They are typically stuffed with layers of beef, sour cream, shredded cheese and guacamole, turning a potentially healthy meal into a ticking fat bomb. You can slash calories and get a protein boost by dumping the fatty extras and choosing a black bean burrito — without sour cream, cheese or rice.

Whether it’s a burrito or a fajita, the bottom line is to choose your toppings wisely.

  • La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill Bean and Cheese Burrito (with chicken and black beans): 725 calories, 23g fat, 89g carbs
  • Rubio’s Chicken Burrito: 640 calories, 26g fat, 61g carbs
  • Chili’s Classic Marinated Chicken or Steak Fajitas:
    • Chicken: 1,021 calories, 41g fat, 97g carbs
    • Beef: 1,067 calories, 51g fat, 93g carbs

Oh, and by the way, choose whole-wheat tortillas (if available) over those made with white flour. The whole wheat is higher in fiber.


    • La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill Taco Salad (with chicken and pinto beans): 961 calories, 45g fat, 113g carbs
    • Rubio’s Taquitos (3): 310 calories, 11g fat, 37g carbs

    Even though they’re about equal in calories, beans are a rich source of protein, folate and fiber. Also, rice and beans are very filling, so you typically eat only one portion. But if the beans are refried and smothered in cheese — forget it. When it comes to tacos, it really depends on how many you eat. They average about 200 calories each, so if you eat two or three that can add up. Also, keep in mind that those taco shells are fried, and you’re adding costly calorie extras when you spoon on the guacamole, sour cream and shredded cheese. You’d be best off with soft tortillas filled with lean meat, low- or nonfat sour cream, tomatoes and lettuce or spinach.

    • Two Taco Bell Crunchy Tacos: 340 calories, 20g fat, 26g carbs
    • La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill Black Beans and Rice (with green onion and cheddar cheese): 438 calories, 8g fat, 78g carbs

    A 12-ounce bottle of Dos Equis, at about 150 calories, is definitely the best choice. But most people who go to a Mexican restaurant to have a good time are looking for those fancy frozen margaritas, which can pack more than 800 calories in a single pint glass. And if you think having yours on the rocks is any better, think again — they’re about the same.

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