According to a food data analysis company, there are over 54,000 Mexican restaurants in operation in the United States. Mexican restaurants account for 8% of all the restaurants in America, making it the leading ethnic type of restaurant in this country. Only “varied menu” and pizzerias outnumber Mexican in terms of eatery types.
With Cinco de Mayo (which celebrates the Battle of Puebla, a Mexican victory in 1862 over Napoleon III’s French forces) coming up, thousands of people all over the country will celebrate by either cooking tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas and other popular Mexican dishes at home or getting takeout (because as of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing).
But there’s a dark side to Cinco de Mayo and it’s not just overconsumption of tequila. Mexican food, when purchased at most Mexican eateries, is not entirely healthy. In fact, regular consumption of Mexican food at restaurants may harm your health.
In traditional Mexican cooking, pure, unrefined lard (pork fat) is used to cook tortillas, meat and vegetables. The lard would coat the cast iron skillet or other cooking implement that was used.
Although the term “lard” has a negative connotation, one that brings to mind unhealthy fat (or more caustically: obese), when it comes to cooking unrefined lard is much healthier to cook with than today’s ubiquitous go-to oil in Mexican restaurants: vegetable oil.
Lard contains a high amount of saturated fat. While diets high in saturated fat may be problematic for those with genetic predispositions to heart disease, using a small amount of saturated fat to coat a frying pan is healthier than using vegetable oil.
The reason why relates to molecular stability. When heated, saturated fat molecules remain stable. On the other hand, vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil and Crisco are very unstable when exposed to heat.
Consuming lots of vegetable oil can contribute to chronic inflammation and a hardening of the arteries (the same problem that for decades was blamed on saturated fat; but that’s for another topic).
Vegetable oil is high in polyunsaturated Omega-6 fatty acids, which Americans consume far too much of.
Because of the misconception that lard and saturated fat in general is harmful to health, many Mexican eateries proudly display signs that say “We don’t use manteca. We use 100% vegetable oil.”
Now, in defense of Mexican food, the problem with vegetable oil isn’t limited to Mexican restaurants; the use of cheap, refined vegetable oil is widespread in the restaurant industry.
If you’re celebrating Cinco de Mayo by cooking at home, use lard, butter, coconut, walnut or avocado (healthiest choice) oil to coat the skillet.
When’s the last time you went to a Mexican restaurant and your entree was loaded with high-antioxidant cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower. Besides garnishes for tacos, Mexican cuisine lacks phytonutrients.
One exception is cabbage salad. But all in all, cilantro, chopped tomatoes and onions aside, most Mexican restaurants are devoid of nutrient-dense veggies. Go ahead and have your shredded [insert name of favorite meat here] tacos. But when at home, add some low-starch veggies to your plate to balance out the meal.
Yes, guacamole is by and large a healthy fat, primarily made from monounsaturated fatty acid-rich avocados. However, the salt-laden, vegetable-oil-soaked chips you’re dipping them in are not good for you.
High in Bloaty Carbs
Beans and rice are typical side dishes in Mexican restaurants. Besides the addition of the healthy spice, cumin, Mexican rice is not much more nutrient-dense than plain, white rice.
And refried beans (frijoles refritos) are most often cooked in vegetable oil. Beans, in general, contain compounds called lectins that interfere with digestion. Lectins can be removed from beans by soaking them in water for several hours. However, most restaurants probably do not soak their beans. This is why some people experience bloating after eating beans (and other foods cooked in vegetable oil).
Healthy Mexican Food Options
If you want to limit the amount of excess inflammation in your body, you have to be very picky about what you put into your body. When it comes to eating Mexican food, choose grilled fish dishes or ceviche. Say no to the rice and beans as well as tortillas.
Get a side of cabbage salad and nopales (grilled cactus). Skip the chips and instead ask for carrots to dip in the guacamole. Many Mexican eateries have sliced carrots as a free garnish. If you love beans, opt for pinto or black instead of refried.
Soups are also healthier options than your typical chimichanga or burrito. Entrees loades with sour cream and cheese should also be avoided if you’re looking to manage your weight.
Like any other variety of ethnic food, there are healthy choices and unhealthy options when it comes to Mexican food. If you’re celebrating Cinco de Mayo, buen provecho!