LOOKING BACK, “TRADITIONAL” MEXICAN FOOD WAS HEALTHIER AND MORE DELICIOUS THAN WHAT IS BEING SERVED TODAY.
The higher rates of obesity and diabetes among Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and the broader Hispanic-American populations are a slow-moving tragedy. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mexican-Americans are 1.9 times more likely to get diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, 1.7 times more likely to be receiving treatment for end-stage renal (kidney) disease related to diabetes and 1.5 times more likely to die from diabetes.
But this trend is not terribly far off the mark from the general U.S. population, particularly among the native-born and even segments of the population who come from Asia, Europe and Africa. Genetics might play a role, but with immigrants the numbers show that these diseases (obesity and diabetes) are less prevalent in their native countries. The bottom line is our food and our lifestyles make a majority of people fat and sick.
It’s sometimes referred to as the “Latino health paradox,” says Chris Rodriguez, a graduate student at California State University in Los Angeles and co-author of DecolonialFoodForThought.com. The Web site documents old foodways of indigenous Meso-American cultures, including how those ways are rapidly changing with migration and modern agriculture.
More animal-based foods, less physical activity
“The Mayan creation story is that man was created from corn,” says Rodriguez. “We also say, ‘sin maiz no hay pais’ (without corn there is no country).” But that plant-based diet changed with the European explorers, who brought cows, pigs and chickens to the New World and consequently began shifting diets from plants to animals (staples of indigenous diets had previously been fish, quail, deer, opossum, iguana, snake, rabbits, turtles, frogs and grasshoppers, as well as the “three sisters” of corn, squash and chilies).
Rodriguez says the further erosion of his ancestors’ diets– and the crux of the paradox — is found in the United States, where cheaper foods and an increased emphasis on animal proteins render second and third generations much less healthy than their Mexico-born parents. “Here, we are told that rice and beans are poor peoples’ foods,” he says. “And the tamale vendors are replaced by McDonald’s and Walmart and Applebee’s.”
Another part of the problem is a continued use of traditional recipes in a new country that requires less physical activity. When people are working on farms with antiquated technologies — that is, not sitting in comfortable tractors but more likely lugging, pushing, pulling, digging and harvesting by hand yet still eating fat- and calorie-rich foods — their bodies need and burn that fat and those calories readily. But in cushier America, the calories-in/calories-out formula stays in equilibrium only if people reduce the intake side of the equation.
For example, take chorizos. The Mexican style of making this sausage is from a variety of meats, mostly the fattier cuts of pork ground with different seasonings, including and especially red chili peppers. It is typically served in tacos, queso fundido, choriqueso, burritos and tortas and, in a bold expression of cultural-culinary fusion, as a pizza topping. Often, pinto or black refried beans and melted cheese accompany chorizo dishes.
The chorizo itself, before adding accompaniments, is very high in saturated fat. A typical brand of packaged pork chorizo delivers 76 percent of its calories from fat, a total of 23 grams in a 60-gram serving. By comparison, a McDonald’s Big Mac gets 52 percent of its calories from fat; a comparable quantity of the Big Mac would contain only 9 grams of fat (the Big Mac is roughly three times larger than a 60-gram chorizo sausage).
Rodriguez says that the original, artisanal chorizos were from pasture-raised animals, leftovers of the livestock slaughter that were raised free of hormones. “Agriculture and our food had a relationship with the land,” he says. “But factory-produced chorizos are from contaminated stock, containing a concentration of chemicals.” Another difference from the old foodways is that chorizos served in America are in larger quantities and served more frequently.
Getting to healthy: The soy chorizo and dilution
There are two ways of beating down the fat and calories of almost any dish or ingredient. One is to find an acceptable substitute; the other is to keep eating the same food but in much lower proportions.
The first approach might be to try a soy chorizo. There are several brands out there, and at least one we see (Trader Joe’s private label) carries 140 calories and 10 grams of fat per 70-gram serving — less than half the fat of the real thing. And of that, only 1.5 grams is saturated. But as with so many processed foods, particularly ones trying to mimic processed meats, it comes with 700 mg of salt (roughly one-third the recommended daily intake for an adult).
The second approach is to continue using real chorizo but in much lower quantities relative to other, healthier ingredients. The Internet is loaded with ideas — just Google “chorizo healthy recipes.” But short of that here are some simple suggestions:
- Crisp chopped chorizo in a pan and drizzle over a green salad
- Use in a whole-grain-pasta lasagna recipe
- Mix with any whole-grain pasta with tomatoes and chopped spinach
- Mix into a stir-fry with favorite vegetables
- Mix into a cabbage slaw made with vinegar (not mayonnaise), raisins and walnuts
- Mix into a warm bowl of wild or brown rice and steamed broccoli (with a little olive oil and lemon and perhaps oregano and turmeric for flavor)
Fast-food Mexican winners and losers
In general, Mexican food in its American presentation — we’re talking Taco Bell, Baja Fresh, Chipotle Grill, El Pollo Local, other regional fast-food chains and the thousands of taquerias that dot the land — commits many nutritional sins. The refried beans quadruple the fat of what are otherwise simple whole beans (Caribbean cuisine does not make this dietary error, and the healthier chains provide this as an option). Extra cheese always adds a lot of fat. Flour tortillas, nacho chips and white rice are processed carbohydrates that add significant calories with a high glycemic load (sugars quickly absorbed into the bloodstream that stress the pancreas and can lead to type II diabetes). And as with all processed and restaurant foods, the sodium content tends to be very high.
Finer Mexican cuisine is rich in fish, vegetable and fruit dishes that would warm the heart of any registered dietitian. But there are certain components of even fast-food Mexican dishes that are beneficial:
- Black bean soups (great fiber and protein without added fat)
- Burrito in a bowl instead of a tortilla (spare yourself 340 calories at Chipotle Grill when you do that)
- Fajitas, while fried in oil, still are largely vegetables and protein, a low-carb meal if you go easy on the rice and wraps
- Guacamole, high in healthier monosaturated fat from the avocado, is a very rich source of oleic acid (lowers cholesterol), potassium (regulates blood pressure), a mix of carotenoids (which aid the body’s ability to absorb other nutrients in your diet), a mix of other antioxidants that are associated with reduced cancer risks and vitamin E (see “Chemopreventive Characteristics of Avocado Fruit,” Ding, Chin et al., Ohio State University [Seminars in Cancer Biology, 2007])
- Seasonings that include red chilies (with inflammation-reducing capsaicin), cilantro (which removes heavy metals from the body and is an anti-inflammatory) and oregano (antioxidant properties)
Yes, all of these require altering our habits a bit. But for anyone who travels across land and sea to start a new life in America — or, if you want to get a leg up on fixing your own American eating habits — isn’t it worth giving it a shot? A lot of grandparents, accustomed to the old foodways, would be proud.