Whether or not you’re Mexican, chances are you’ve had a quesadilla or two in your lifetime!
They’re delicious, endlessly versatile, and very easy to make! This makes them a favorite choice for many people.
The issue is that quesadillas have an unfairly bad reputation! Many people fear eating quesadillas will be bad for their health due to the calories and fat content.
Well, I’m a Latina dietitian, and I help Latinos enjoy the nutritional benefits of our cultural foods. And quesadillas are no exception!
Despite what you may have heard, quesadillas can be a healthy dish. It all depends on how they’re made and what else you serve with them.
Interested to know how you can enjoy the delectable taste of this Mexican dish while still having a balanced meal? Read on to find out how you can make your own quesadillas healthy, filling, and flavorful!
In several parts of Latin America, the word quesadilla may refer to different dishes.
In El Salvador, a quesadilla is a sweetened cheese bread dessert similar in appearance to cornbread. In Ecuador, quesadillas are pentagon-shaped pastries, stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings and then baked.
There are lots of different types of quesadillas out there, but for this article, we’ll focus on Mexican quesadillas.
What goes in a quesadilla
The Mexican quesadilla is a simple dish that only requires two ingredients: tortilla and cheese.
Traditional quesadillas are made with corn tortillas, although certain regions use flour tortillas more often.
Most Mexican quesadillas use traditional Mexican cheeses like Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese that melt well and provide great flavor. But in the United States, you may also see cheeses like mozzarella or cheddar used!
How healthy are quesadillas?
Quesadillas can be a very healthy choice! Homemade quesadillas can have all the food groups you need for an easy, healthy meal.
If you make a basic quesadilla it already has protein, fat, and grains. If you add a serving of vegetables and beans then your quesadilla will include every food group for a healthy meal.
Let’s start by exploring the nutrition facts of a basic quesadilla!
Quesadilla Nutrition Facts
One Cheese quesadilla made with a 6” flour tortilla has (1)
Carbs: 17 grams
Protein: 8 grams
Fat: 10 grams
Fiber: 5% of the daily value
Calcium: 24% of the daily value
Iron: 6% of the daily value
Vitamin A: 12 % of the daily value
Magnesium: 4% of the daily value
Keep in mind this is a relatively small quesadilla. This is the typical size of a homemade quesadilla and will typically be served as part of a larger meal.
A fast food chicken quesadilla has (2):
Carbs: 43 grams
Protein: 27 grams
Fat: 27 grams
Fiber: 12% of the daily value
Calcium: 48% of the daily value
Iron: 17% of the daily value
Vitamin A: 30 % of the daily value
Magnesium: 11% of the daily value
One restaurant cheese quesadilla made with a 10-inch flour tortilla has (3):
Carbs: 47 grams
Protein: 31 grams
Fat: 45 grams
Fiber: 12% of the daily value
Calcium: 80% of the daily value
Iron: 7% of the daily value
Vitamin A: 30 % of the daily value
Magnesium: 11% of the daily value
The main differences between the types of quesadillas are the size of the tortilla and the amount of cheese.
As you can see, quesadillas can be high in fiber, protein and carbohydrates. The protein and fiber work to keep you full for longer while the carbohydrates fuel your body and give you energy. This makes quesadillas an overall balanced choice!
While a quesadilla does have a significant amount of fat, remember that some dietary fat is beneficial for the body. You can adjust the fat content in your quesadilla by adjusting the portion size, the amount of cheese used, and making your own quesadillas at home.
Quesadillas are also a good source of calcium, vitamin A and iron. The nutritional benefits of a quesadilla can be improved even more when you add vegetables or beans, and choose high-fiber tortillas.
Of course, the type of tortilla and cheese can make a difference in the overall nutrition content of your meal!
Tortillas are a good source of carbohydrates that provide energy and nutrients to your body. All tortillas provide you with beneficial nutrients like calcium or magnesium, but corn and whole wheat tortillas are also good sources of fiber.
Fiber can be very beneficial in helping regulate your digestive tract. Fiber from tortillas can help you stay fuller longer. Fiber can also help to lower cholesterol and decrease your chance of heart disease (4).
The tortillas also provide magnesium which plays a crucial role in your nervous system and bodily functions. Magnesium is needed to help convert food into energy and helps combat inflammation throughout your body (5).
So while you gain certain benefits from tortillas it is important to remember that not all tortillas are created equal. Some types of tortillas provide more nutrients or benefits than others. Keep this in mind while also taking into consideration the size of the tortilla.
Tortillas come in all different sizes. Some tortillas, particularly white flour tortillas, are often 8-12 inches while other types, like corn tortillas, are generally smaller.
When creating a healthy balanced quesadilla make sure to take into account the size and type of tortilla. One white-flour quesadilla may be enough for a meal, while you may need 2-3 corn quesadillas to feel full.
Let’s explore some of the nutritional differences between different tortilla options!
White flour tortillas are made from refined wheat flour which gives them a soft pliable texture. This makes them great for foods like burritos.
Nutritionally speaking, flour tortillas have twice as much calcium and iron as corn tortillas, because of fortification. However, they also have more than double the amount of fat with more calories and less fiber. (6).
Corn tortillas are made from milled corn which makes them a whole grain and that provides different nutritional benefits. Corn tortillas have more fiber and more B vitamins than white flour tortillas. They also have fewer calories, carbohydrates, sodium, and fat than white flour tortillas. (7).
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour tortillas are also made from whole grains. These wheat tortillas have more protein and fiber than either white flour or corn. Wheat tortillas also have more calcium and other nutrients like phosphorus and potassium (8).
Cheese is high in calcium and a good source of protein but it also adds saturated fat to a quesadilla. A high intake of saturated fat may increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
It’s important to note that some saturated fat can still be part of a healthy diet, and that cheese contains some heart-healthy unsaturated fat in addition to saturated fat (9).
The good news is that the most traditional cheeses for a quesadilla are already lower-fat options. Oaxaca cheese has only 5 grams of fat per ounce. This is slightly less fat than many other cheese varieties like mozzarella and monterey jack (10).
It just goes to show that our food traditions already are a healthy option!
The calcium from the cheese helps strengthen your bones and helps your muscles contract. A diet rich in calcium also helps to lower your blood pressure and reduces the risk of osteoporosis (11).
Homemade vs restaurant options
As we have seen with the nutrition facts, restaurant quesadillas often have extra-large portions and can be a much larger meal than homemade quesadillas.
Restaurant offerings are also less likely to include nutritious additions to your quesadilla like vegetables, lean meat, or whole grain (including corn) tortillas. If you want to enjoy a quesadilla while still having a balanced meal then follow these suggestions:
How to Make a Healthy Quesadilla
There are several ways you can make your quesadilla healthier but one of the simplest ways is to add vegetables.
Ways to add vegetables
Including vegetables in your quesadilla will not only make your quesadilla more flavorful and filling, it will also increase the amount of vitamins and minerals that you receive from your meal.
Thankfully, there are a lot of healthy Mexican vegetables you can add to your quesadillas.
To add more vegetables to your quesadillas, try:
Adding sauteed bell peppers, mushrooms, or onions to your filling
Mixing chopped spinach in with your cheese
Dipping your quesadilla in fresh salsa or guacamole
Adding extra fiber
Another way to make it even healthier is to increase the amount of fiber in your quesadilla. This will help you feel full!
To add more fiber, try:
Choosing corn or whole wheat tortillas
Add beans to your filling
Dipping your quesadilla in guacamole
Adding extra vegetables to your filling
Other nutrition considerations
Meat can be another great addition to your quesadilla. Meat can make a quesadilla more filling while providing lots of nutrients. When adding meat to a quesadilla consider lean cuts like chicken or lean cuts of steak. Choosing grilled meat can be another good option!
The last part of making a healthy quesadilla is what you put on it. Toppings like crema add extra saturated fat, which may or may not work for your health goals. Toppings like avocado can provide heart-healthy fats and salsa is a good way to get extra veggies!
The Big Picture
Quesadillas are a delicious treat that can easily be a part of a healthy balanced meal. A quesadilla is high in protein and calcium while also being a good source of fiber and iron.
This simple dish can easily meet your health goals by adding vegetables, lean meats, and beans that make your quesadilla more filling and even more nutritious.
This shows how your favorite Latin American mainstays can be healthy choices that support a healthy lifestyle.
Are you interested to see how more of your best-loved Latin American food can fit into a healthy diet?
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