Are tamales good for you? If you’re like many of my Latino nutrition clients, you may be heading into the holiday season worried about health impacts of your favorite holiday foods.
You may be surprised to learn that tamales are actually quite nutritious–providing fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, depending on the filling, tamales may be a good source of protein or vegetables.
But of course we want to consider factors like portions, filling, and even cooking technique. We’ll go over all of that and more in today’s blog post. By the end, you’ll feel confident building a balanced plate for yourself including tamales.
So let’s jump in!
What are tamales?
There are many different varieties of tamales out there. What they all have in common is that they are corn dough (masa) wrapped in either a corn husk or a banana leaf, and steamed.
Some tamales may have fillings, some may be sweet, and some may be savory.
To begin our discussion on the nutrition of tamales, let’s look at the nutrition facts for a few different kinds.
I pulled the nutrition facts for some of the most common types of tamales: pork, chicken, corn (no filling), and sweet fruit.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find the nutrition information for a vegetable tamal (like rajas or chipilin) to compare.
See below for nutritional information on different types of tamales:
1 red pork tamal (140 g)
1 chicken tamal (140 g)
1 corn tamal–no filling (140 g)
Sweet fruit tamales – 100 g**
* Note the fruit flavor has a different serving size than the others.
Let’s discuss some interesting findings from comparing the nutrition facts of different types of tamales.
As you can see, all of the tamales are a pretty good source of fiber and vitamin B3 (more on why below).
You may have been surprised to see that the meat tamales were a better source of vitamin C than the fruit-flavored ones. One limitation of this data is that I don’t have access to the exact recipe used.
My guess is that the pork and chicken flavors used meat that was cooked in a tomato and chile salsa, which is one of the more common fillings for tamales. This tomato and chile salsa would provide a significant amount of vitamin C, so that finding makes sense.
Additionally, it’s unclear if the fruit tamal uses canned fruit, dried fruit, fresh fruit or jam. Using a preserved fruit or a jam could potentially explain the low vitamin C content of the fruit tamal.
Unsurprisingly, the tamales with a meat filling had lower total carbs and higher protein content.
All of the varieties had very similar fat contents. This is showing us that the fat likely comes from the masa itself (which is traditionally prepared with lard) rather than from the filling.
One nutrition fact that surprised me was how the meat tamales had significantly more calcium. Traditionally, masa has been a source of calcium in Mexican diets.
However, the amount of calcium in commercially made masa is lower than in homemade masa, so this might be the explanation for this difference (1).
Which tamal is healthiest?
I want to reiterate that every variety of tamal can absolutely fit in a healthy diet. However, the tamales with a meat filling offer a better balance of protein and carbs and may be easier to fit into a balanced meal.
This makes sense since fruit-flavored and sweet corn tamales are typically offered as a dessert, anyway.
The only caveat is that I wasn’t able to evaluate a vegetable tamal like one with a rajas filling. While these likely wouldn’t offer more protein, they may have an improved fiber, vitamin, or mineral content.
Health Benefits of Tamales:
There are some interesting health benefits to tamales, including:
- Resistant starch may help with blood sugar control (2). Most tamales use nixtamalized corn (but not all of them). This increases resistant starch, a type of complex carbohydrate which can help your body better manage blood sugar (3, 4).
Keep in mind total carbohydrate still matters for blood glucose control. However, choosing carbs high in resistant starch, like tamales, may help improve your blood sugar control.
- Vitamin B3 helps your body convert food into energy: Nixtamalization increases your body’s ability to absorb the vitamin B3 found in corn (5).
- Supports digestive health: As we saw in the nutrition facts section, tamales provide a good amount of dietary fiber. This can help support your digestive health and keep you regular. This is true even for tamales that don’t use nixtamalized corn!
- Tamales are steamed: Most tamales are cooked by steaming. This cooking method is great for preserving nutrient content and doesn’t add extra fat (6).
- Iron helps your body transport oxygen to cells (7): If you choose a meat or bean filling you’ll get a good source of iron. But most tamales have at least some iron (see nutrition facts above).
Other health benefits will vary based on the fillings. Tamales with meat will provide plenty of protein for added satiety and tissue repair. Tamales with vegetables will likely have even more vitamins and minerals.
The biggest potential drawback of tamales is the type of fat. Many tamales include lard in the masa, which is what gives it the distinct texture. Lard is a source of saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which have been associated with increased risk for heart disease (8).
However, lard is also a good source of unsaturated fats, which we know to be heart healthy (9, 10). Researchers have begun to look a little more closely on the impacts of lard itself on heart health, because of the confusion here.
Some initial studies are seeing minimal negative health impacts from lard in mice (11). But these studies have not been evaluated in humans yet and we really don’t know enough to say for sure.
As a dietitian, I like to err on the side of caution. While I believe tamales–including ones made with lard–can be very nutritious, I recommend caution for people at risk for heart disease.
I also think it’s important to add that tamales date back thousands of years, to pre-Hispanic mesoamerica. This original version would not have been made with lard, since lard was introduced to the Americas by way of Spain.
Eating tamales as part of a balanced meal
Tamales can easily fit into a balanced meal. To build a balanced plate, I recommend making sure you have at least one of each of the following food groups:
Note, one food may check off multiple food groups. Different people may need different portion sizes of the individual food groups, depending on their needs.
Tamales naturally provide carbohydrates, fiber, and fat. So to build a balanced meal we need to add protein and vegetables. This could easily come from the fillings.
As we discussed in the nutrition comparison section, meat tamales will have more protein. Personally I love tamales de rajas con queso (poblano and cheese). These will have both more protein and extra vegetables.
You can also use sauces and garnishes to get extra vegetables. Salsa, shredded cabbage, avocado slices, and radish slices are also easy ways to add extra vegetables to Mexican meals.
If I were to build a balanced plate with tamales, I would do it this way:
- 1 chicken tamal
- 1 tamal de rajas con queso (cheese and poblano pepper)
- 2-3 tbsp salsa
- Small side of cabbage salad
Tamales are a nutritious food, providing fiber, resistant starch, and important nutrients like Vitamin B3.
There are many varieties of tamales out there, and choosing a tamal with a meat or vegetable filling can help you build a balanced, nourishing meal.
As Latinos, we are often taught to avoid our cultural foods like tamales. But as we can see, they have so much to offer us.
That’s why I help Latinos learn about nutrition while including their favorite cultural foods. Get my free 5-day Latino meal planner to start building healthy meals with your favorite foods today. Sign up below for your copy.