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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Abolishing the myth of unhealthy Mexican food


    Austin McEvoy for El Independiente

    A pot of seasoned chicken cooks on a stove top in El Saguarito’s kitchen. The restaurant only serves white meat.

    When people think of Mexican food, they might imagine a greasy mountain of cheddar cheese and refried beans piled high atop a fried tortilla.

    However, that isn’t real Mexican food at all.

    “The traditional Mexican menu is far from being unhealthy,” said Diana Teran-Moreno, the owner of Mexico in Season, a health-conscious Mexican restaurant with vegan and vegetarian options that opened December 2013 in south Tucson. “The chimichanga doesn’t even exist in Mexico.”

    Raised in Sonora, Mexico, Teran-Moreno’s menu features authentic Mexican dishes, from cactus stir fry to sizzling fajitas. She said it is unfortunate that younger generations aren’t familiar with the healthier, more traditional fare.

    The first Mexican restaurant in Tucson to identify itself as health-conscious was El Saguarito, founded by Albert and Blanca Vasquez in 1989. Trademarked as “the healthy Mexican alternative,” El Saguarito’s menu includes gluten-free, vegan and “heart friendly” dishes.

    “We try to keep the authenticity of the food while also trying to make it as healthy as possible,” Albert Vasquez said. “For example, we took out the lard from all the recipes to minimize the fat.”

    Healthy Mexican dishes can also be made at home. Teran-Moreno and Vasquez offer the following tips and tricks for cooking healthy Mexican food in your own kitchen without sacrificing flavor.

    Transform the tortilla

    Tortillas made with lard are not only loaded with calories but leave many people feeling bloated and uncomfortable. At El Saguarito, all tortillas are made with canola oil, which is a lighter source of fat with a “hint of nutty flavor,” Vasquez said.

    Another replaceable ingredient in the standard tortilla is flour, which is a source of refined carbohydrates. This kind of carbohydrate is easily broken down by the body into its sugar monomers, providing quick energy. However, when eaten in excess without exercise, the unused energy is stored in the body as fat.

    Eating too many of these simple carbohydrates can also lead to Type 2 diabetes. Teran-Moreno recommends using corn or whole wheat, which contain complex carbohydrates that take longer for the body to break down, resulting in a more sustained supply of energy.

    “I especially like the whole-wheat tortillas,” said customer Christina Barnum, who studies nutrition at the UA. “I hope more places with healthy options like this pop up in the area.”

    Eliminate red meat

    Red meat is found in many popular Mexican dishes, like carne asada tacos or ground beef burritos.

    However, in addition to being high in saturated fat, red meat also contains L-carnitine, an amino acid that gut bacteria converts to trimethylamine-N-oxide, which wreaks havoc in the body and can lead to clogged arteries, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Nature Medicine.

    For these reasons, Vasquez opts for chicken or fish in lieu of red meat. Even his Sonoran hot dogs are made with turkey meat rather than beef.

    Add veggies

    Vegetables are rich in nutrients and fill you up without adding too many calories to an entrée. Growing up in Mexico, Teran-Moreno said vegetables were a big part of her diet, and they don’t have to be boring.

    “We don’t miss out on flavor here, ever,” she said. “You are never cheated.”

    Her menu features vegetarian-friendly dishes like red chili potatoes and onion stir fry. The most popular dish is her calabazitas, which she makes with zucchinis, tomatoes, onions, poblano peppers and corn.

    Vegetables like lettuce can also be used in place of starchy carbohydrates, such as those found in tortillas.

    Limit sugar

    Almost twice as many Hispanics are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes each year compared to non-Hispanic Caucasians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    The culprit? Sugar.

    Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s cells become resistant to the hormone insulin, which is necessary for transporting sugar from the blood to body’s cells. For this reason, people with high-sugar diets are more at risk for developing the disease.

    You can limit your sugar intake with simple substitutions, like making margaritas with silver tequila instead of gold, Vasquez said.

    The amount of sugar in non-alcoholic drinks can also be reduced by using fruit as a natural sweetener instead of sugar additives, Teran-Moreno said.

    Because many members of her own family have diabetes, Teran-Moreno does not sell any soft drinks at her restaurant, only water and homemade juices. One of her most popular juices is a watermelon concoction made with lime and cucumber.

    “I truly believe that you are what you eat,” she said. “Bad food can really hurt people.”

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