As a Latina dietitian, I talk to other Latinos all the time who feel their cultural foods are mostly unhealthy. This can create stress as they want to improve their health but feel their culture is getting in the way.
But I’ve found through my work and my personal experience, that heritage Latin American foods can be very healthy. This applies to all Latin American food, but for today let’s focus on Mexican food.
What is Mexican food
Before we can talk about if Mexican food is healthy, we need to understand what Mexican food is.
Mexican staple foods
The main staple foods in Mexican food are corn, beans, peppers, tomato, and squash. These foods have supported the Mexican people’s health since well before the Europeans’ arrival.
Corn is most famously used in Mexican food for tortillas, but it has countless uses in Latin American food culture.
Beans are commonly grown and served with corn. These two plants complement each other in nutrition and agriculture (1), providing a combination of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
In addition to corn and beans, traditional Mexican cuisine features squashes like pumpkin, chayote, and calabacita (similar to zucchini).
Other staple vegetables include tomato, chili peppers, onion, avocado, cabbage, and radish.
Another critical component of Mexican cuisine is herbs and spices like oregano, epazote, cumin, and cinnamon.
Finally, fresh fruits are very popular in Mexican food and are often eaten as a snack.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about all of Mexican cuisine, especially because there are so many regional variations.
Mexican food in the Northern region may rely more on wheat flour and red meat. Coastal regions feature plenty of fish and shellfish. The Yucatan region has a very distinct food culture that shares a lot in common with ancient Mayan food culture.
However, despite these regional differences, common themes across Mexican food are corn, beans, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Is Mexican food Healthy?
One of the most common questions I hear as a dietitian is, “Is Mexican food healthy?”
Yes, Mexican food can be very healthy. This is thanks to its base of corn, beans, tomato, and squash. The abundance of fresh produce and spices also helps make Mexican food very nutritious!
But to fully understand why Mexican food is healthy, let’s talk about what a healthy diet is.
Defining a healthy diet
There is no one dietary pattern that is considered the healthiest. A few dietary patterns that have shown positive health outcomes include The Mediterranean Diet*, and the DASH diet, among others (2).
What most of these dietary patterns have in common is a wide variety of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Healthy dietary patterns also include a variety of protein sources like seafood, fermented dairy, poultry, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
(*note the Mediterranean Diet is not necessarily representative of Mediterranean cuisine)
Why Mexican Food Is Healthy
By this criteria, a traditional Mexican diet can be considered a very healthy diet. Some of the characteristics of traditional Mexican cuisine that make it so healthy include:
Corn is a whole grain: Corn is the staple crop of Mexican food, and is often considered a whole grain. Corn and products made from corn can be great sources of complex carbs, fiber, and vitamin B3 (3).
Vegetables add flavor: Mexican food is rich in vegetables, particularly squash, tomato, chile peppers, and avocado. Often times these vegetables are used to add extra flavor to dishes. Take salsa, for example!
Fruits: fresh fruits are very popular in Mexican food. They may be enjoyed in drinks, desserts, or eaten as snacks with lime and chile.
Adaptable to dietary restrictions: Mexican food is very friendly to dietary restrictions. Staple grains like corn and rice are gluten-free. Also, the heavy use of beans makes Mexican food a great option for plant-based diets
What are the benefits of eating Mexican food?
There’s a lot of research on the health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet (9). Did you know there’s growing evidence of similar health benefits for a traditional Mexican diet?
New research suggests eating a traditional Mexican diet may be associated with better cholesterol levels, lower inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced risk of breast cancer (10,11,12,13).
And it makes sense because most of the features that make the Mediterranean Diet healthy are also present in Mexican food. This includes whole grains like corn, legumes, healthy fats, seafood, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Like any cuisine, Mexican food does have its nutritional challenges. Especially over the last few decades, there has been an increase in sugar, sodium, and saturated fats in the Mexican diet.
I want to remind you that every cuisine has sweets, fried foods, and treat foods. Mexican food is not alone in this sense.
Traditional diet vs modern industrial diet
The main reason people think a Mexican diet is unhealthy is that they confuse modern industrialized diets with a traditional Mexican diet.
As we learned earlier in this article, a traditional Mexican diet is mainly characterized by corn, beans, squash, tomato, and chile.
But this isn’t necessarily how the average Mexican or Mexican-American person’s diet looks today. Mexico, like most other industrialized countries, has undergone what is called a nutrition transition.
This is when a developing economy moves away from its traditional diet toward a more “Western” style diet. The new diet typically includes more processed foods and sugar, and lower fiber intake. This happens thanks to shifts in the economy, labor, and trade.
How to build healthy, balanced Mexican meals
The key to building a balanced meal is to include the following elements:
So to build a balanced Mexican meal, all you need to do is pick Mexican ingredients from each category. Here are some of the most common Mexican foods from each category:
Carbohydrates: Corn, corn tortillas, rice, etc.
Fiber: beans, corn tortillas, fruits, non-starchy vegetables
Protein: meat, seafood, beans, dairy products
Fat: Dairy products, avocado, nuts, and seeds, cooking oil
Non-starchy vegetables: tomato, avocado, onion, peppers, calabacita
Some classic Mexican meals already fit these criteria! Here are some example meals
Fiber: hominy, vegetable toppings
Fat: pork, possible cheese or avocado toppings
Non-starchy vegetables: Toppings like shredded cabbage, diced onion, radish slices
Fiber: beans, possible vegetable toppings
Protein: chicken, beans
Fat: Avocado toppings
Non-starchy vegetables: toppings like avocado, salsa, etc.
We know that eating a traditional Mexican diet can provide some impressive health benefits, thanks to fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables. All in all, you don’t need to ditch Mexican food even if you want to improve your health.
Staple foods like beans, corn, tomato, avocado and more create the foundation for a balanced, healthy Mexican diet.
As a Latina dietitian, I love helping fellow Latinos manage their health without leaving behind their favorite foods. For an intro to building balanced meals using your favorite cultural foods, check out my free 5-day Latino meal planner. Sign up below to get your copy!