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Healthier Mexican Food

October 6, 2014 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

For Mexican food lovers (myself included!) there is a simple approach to improving the health benefits and nutritional quality of Mexican-style meals. It really doesn’t matter if you’re eating out at Mexican restaurants or preparing it yourself at home. There are potential pitfalls in both instances which can be largely avoided by practicing a basic technique I call “crowding out”. The concept is that you crowd out most or some of the unhealthy foods and replace them with better options. In the realm of Mexican cuisine, this means minimizing your intake of chips, rice, sweetened beverages and tortillas and focusing instead on foods containing more fiber, healthy fat, nutrients and protein.

One of the greatest health risks in modern Mexico is an increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes. But, there’s nothing uniquely dangerous about Mexican food which sets it apart from other food cultures throughout the world. Rather, the growing incidence of diabetes mellitus is thought to be caused by increased consumption of high glycemic and/or refined foods, a reduction in physical activity and subsequent increased obesity. Fortunately, this pattern can be reversed and so too can future diabetes and diabetes-related complications and mortality.

If you eat out at Mexican restaurants regularly or it’s a staple in your home, it’s important to note that you have the power to shift a typically unhealthy meal to a relatively healthy one. Seriously! Recent studies reveal that simply replacing rice and white flour containing foods with beans lowers blood sugar, insulin, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and oxidative stress. Also, legumes such as black and pinto beans satisfy hunger better than higher glycemic foods i.e. corn chips, flour tortillas and white rice. You can further enhance the quality of your meal by ordering a generous side of guacamole. This creamy, flavorful dip is a dietary powerhouse that not only contributes valuable nutrients (carotenoids, fiber, monounsaturated fat, potassium and Vitamin K), but likewise assists with the absorption of nutrients from other foods eaten alongside it. In addition, avocado intake has been linked to lower rates of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and vascular dysfunction. So, for starters, you might consider upping your intake of beans and guacamole and crowding out chips, rice and tortillas. As far as drinks go, opt for red wine, unsweetened coffee or tea and water. If you absolutely can’t live without a margarita, you can order them like my wife does, without added sugar and sweeten it yourself – preferably with monk fruit, stevia or other natural, non-caloric sweeteners.

When preparing Mexican food at home you have many additional options. For instance, you can stuff roasted (peeled and seeded) Pasilla peppers instead of tortillas. In some health food stores and specialty markets, you can also find small, organic corn tortillas (“Taco Sliders”) that contain only 6-7 grams of carbohydrates per serving. The gluten-free, non-GMO brand we use is MiRancho. On the chip front, a few better options are chicharrones (pork rinds) or chips made from beans and a small amount of brown rice (Beanitos is a popular brand). As a main course, we center many of our homemade Mexican meals around healthy protein sources, such as grass-fed beef, organic chicken or pork and wild caught fish with plenty of grilled veggies on the side (multi-colored bell peppers and onions). Lastly, you can delight guests and your family by brewing some hibiscus tea, an antioxidant-rich, traditional Mexican drink which supports healthy blood pressure and sugar. In our household, we steep organic hibiscus flowers with lots of fresh ginger root and serve it on ice – with or without a splash of tequila!

Trust me when I tell you that I have a huge appetite for Mexican food. Mrs. Healthy Fellow has often commented that I must have been Mexican in a previous life! I don’t know about that, but I can assure you that these substitutions are very delicious and satisfying while at the same time quite healthful indeed. Buen provecho!

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

To learn more about the studies referenced in today’s column, please click on the following links:

Study 1 – Diabetes in Mexico: Cost & Management of Diabetes & Its Complications (link)

Study 2 – Replacing With Whole Grains and Legumes Reduces LP-PLA2 Activities (link)

Study 3 – Bean and Rice Meals Reduce Postprandial Glycemic Response in Adults(link)

Study 4 – Comparative Studies On the Antioxidant Activities of Nine Common (link)

Study 5 – Total Phenolic Content & Antioxidant Properties of Eclipse Black Beans (link)

Study 6 – Pinto Bean Consumption Changes SCFA Profiles in Fecal Fermentations (link)

Study 7 – A Randomized 3×3 Crossover Study to Evaluate the Effect of Hass ... (link)

Study 8 – Hass Avocado composition and Potential Health Effect (link)

Study 9 – Avocado Consumption Is Associated with Better Diet Quality & Nutrient (link)

Study 10 – Hass Avocado Modulates Postprandial Vascular Reactivity and (link)

Black & Pinto Beans Moderate the Effect of Rice on Blood Sugar

Source: Nutr J. 2012 Apr 11;11:23. (link)

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Posted in Diabetes, Food and Drink, Nutrition

13 Comments & Updates to “Healthier Mexican Food”

  1. Anne Kim Says:

    My partner and I eat Mexican food possibly twice a week, usually at home. In our California city, taco trucks are everywhere. I love being reminded about what’s on a usual Mexican menu that is healthy and that which isn’t, especially the beans and guacamole. What you don’t address that I’m curious about is the use of corn especially in tacos. Isn’t most of our non-organic corn GMO? Are you concerned about GMO products? Thank you for having posts on a blog that I would enjoy returning to again and again. Anne

  2. JP Says:

    Hi, Anne.

    Yes, that’s my understanding. Personally, I try to avoid GMOs whenever possible. The best way to accomplish this is eat/use organic avocados, beans and corn. However, even some non-organic foods products can be certified as Non-GMO. Such products are typically labeled as such. One example is the aforementioned Beanitos.

    Be well!


  3. JP Says:

    Update – Beans may benefit blood sugar, lipid profile management:


    Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Oct 29. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2014.228.

    Substitution of red meat with legumes in the therapeutic lifestyle change diet based on dietary advice improves cardiometabolic risk factors in overweight type 2 diabetes patients: a cross-over randomized clinical trial.

    Hosseinpour-Niazi S1, Mirmiran P2, Hedayati M3, Azizi F4.

    Background/Objective: The objective of this study was to determine the effects of substitution of red meat with legumes in the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC) diet on cardiometabolic risk factors in type 2 diabetes patients based on dietary education.

    Subjects/Methods: This study was a randomized, controlled, cross-over trial. Thirty-one participants (24 women and 7 men; age: 58.1±6.0 years) with type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to consume a control diet (legume-free TLC diet) and legume-based TLC diet for 8 weeks. Legume-based TLC diet was the same as the control diet, but the legume-based TLC group was advised to replace two servings of red meat with legumes, 3 days per week. After the interventional period, a washout period was conducted for 4 weeks. The groups were then advised to follow the alternate treatment for 8 weeks. Cardiometabolic risk factors were measured.

    Results: Compared with the legume-free TLC diet, the legume-based TLC diet significantly decreased fasting blood glucose (P=0.04), fasting insulin (P=0.04), triglyceride concentrations (P=0.04) and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (P=0.02). Total cholesterol concentrations decreased after consumption of both TLC diet and legume TLC diet; however, the data did not differ significantly between the two diets. body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressures did not change significantly after consumption of either the legume-free TLC diet or the legume-based TLC diet.

    Conclusions: Dietary advice given for substitution of red meat with legume intakes within a TLC diet-improved lipid profiles and glycemic control among diabetes patients, which were independent from BMI change.

    Be well!


  4. JP Says:

    Update: More support for the inclusion of avocado as part of a heart healthy diet …


    J Am Heart Assoc. 2015 Jan 7;4(1).

    Effect of a moderate fat diet with and without avocados on lipoprotein particle number, size and subclasses in overweight and obese adults: a randomized, controlled trial.


    Avocados are a nutrient-dense source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) that can be used to replace saturated fatty acids (SFA) in a diet to lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C). Well-controlled studies are lacking on the effect of avocado consumption on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors.


    A randomized, crossover, controlled feeding trial was conducted with 45 overweight or obese participants with baseline LDL-C in the 25th to 90th percentile. Three cholesterol-lowering diets (6% to 7% SFA) were fed (5 weeks each): a lower-fat diet (LF: 24% fat); 2 moderate-fat diets (34% fat) provided similar foods and were matched for macronutrients and fatty acids: the avocado diet (AV) included one fresh Hass avocado (136 g) per day, and the moderate-fat diet (MF) mainly used high oleic acid oils to match the fatty acid content of one avocado. Compared with baseline, the reduction in LDL-C and non-high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol on the AV diet (-13.5 mg/dL, -14.6 mg/dL) was greater (P<0.05) than the MF (-8.3 mg/dL, -8.7 mg/dL) and LF (-7.4 mg/dL, -4.8 mg/dL) diets. Furthermore, only the AV diet significantly decreased LDL particle number (LDL-P, -80.1 nmol/L, P=0.0001), small dense LDL cholesterol (LDL3+4, -4.1 mg/dL, P=0.04), and the ratio of LDL/HDL (-6.6%, P<0.0001) from baseline.


    Inclusion of one avocado per day as part of a moderate-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet has additional LDL-C, LDL-P, and non-HDL-C lowering effects, especially for small, dense LDL. Our results demonstrate that avocados have beneficial effects on cardio-metabolic risk factors that extend beyond their heart-healthy fatty acid profile.

    Be well!


  5. JP Says:

    Updated 07/22/15:

    Note: This is an animal study, but a rather compelling one!


    J Diabetes Res. 2015;2015:485759.

    Avocado Oil Improves Mitochondrial Function and Decreases Oxidative Stress in Brain of Diabetic Rats.

    Diabetic encephalopathy is a diabetic complication related to the metabolic alterations featuring diabetes. Diabetes is characterized by increased lipid peroxidation, altered glutathione redox status, exacerbated levels of ROS, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Although the pathophysiology of diabetic encephalopathy remains to be clarified, oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction play a crucial role in the pathogenesis of chronic diabetic complications. Taking this into consideration, the aim of this work was to evaluate the effects of 90-day avocado oil intake in brain mitochondrial function and oxidative status in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats (STZ rats). Avocado oil improves brain mitochondrial function in diabetic rats preventing impairment of mitochondrial respiration and mitochondrial membrane potential (ΔΨ m ), besides increasing complex III activity. Avocado oil also decreased ROS levels and lipid peroxidation and improved the GSH/GSSG ratio as well. These results demonstrate that avocado oil supplementation prevents brain mitochondrial dysfunction induced by diabetes in association with decreased oxidative stress.

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Updated 07/22/15:


    Note: A reason to add hot sauce to the mix …

    Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015 Feb 12:0.

    Biological Activities of Red Pepper (Capsicum annuum) and Its Pungent Principle Capsaicin: A Review.

    Capsaicin, the pungent alkaloid of red pepper (Capsicum annuum) has been extensively studied for its biological effects which are of pharmacological relevance. These include: cardio protective influence, anti-lithogenic effect, anti-inflammatory and analgesia, thermogenic influence, and beneficial effects on gastrointestinal system. Therefore, capsaicinoids may have the potential clinical value for pain relief, cancer prevention and weight loss. It has been shown that capsaicinoids are potential agonists of capsaicin receptor (TRPV1). They could exert the effects not only through the receptor-dependent pathway but also through the receptor-independent one. The involvement of neuropeptide Substance P, serotonin, and somatostatin in the pharmacological actions of capsaicin has been extensively investigated. Topical application of capsaicin is proved to alleviate pain in arthritis, post-operative neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis, etc. Toxicological studies on capsaicin administered by different routes are documented. Capsaicin inhibits acid secretion, stimulates alkali and mucus secretion and particularly gastric mucosal blood flow which helps in prevention and healing of gastric ulcers. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of capsaicin are established in a number of studies. Chemopreventive potential of capsaicin is evidenced in cell line studies. The health beneficial hypocholesterolemic influence of capsaicin besides being cardio protective has other implications, viz., prevention of cholesterol gallstones and protection of the structural integrity of erythrocytes under conditions of hypercholesterolemia. Beneficial influences of capsaicin on gastrointestinal system include digestive stimulant action and modulation of intestinal ultra structure so as to enhance permeability to micronutrients.

    Be well!


  7. JP Says:

    Updated 09/01/15:


    Nutrients. 2015 Jul 27;7(8):6139-54.

    Black Beans, Fiber, and Antioxidant Capacity Pilot Study: Examination of Whole Foods vs. Functional Components on Postprandial Metabolic, Oxidative Stress, and Inflammation in Adults with Metabolic Syndrome.

    Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) contain bioactive components with functional properties that may modify cardiovascular risk. The aims of this pilot study were to evaluate the ability of black beans to attenuate postprandial metabolic, oxidative stress, and inflammatory responses and determine relative contribution of dietary fiber and antioxidant capacity of beans to the overall effect. In this randomized, controlled, crossover trial, 12 adults with metabolic syndrome (MetS) consumed one of three meals (black bean (BB), fiber matched (FM), and antioxidant capacity matched (AM)) on three occasions that included blood collection before (fasting) and five hours postprandially. Insulin was lower after the BB meal, compared to the FM or AM meals (p < 0.0001). A significant meal × time interaction was observed for plasma antioxidant capacity (p = 0.002) revealing differences over time: AM > BB > FM. Oxidized LDL (oxLDL) was not different by meal, although a trend for declining oxLDL was observed after the BB and AM meals at five hours compared to the FM meal. Triglycerides and interleukin-6 (IL-6) increased in response to meals (p < 0.0001). Inclusion of black beans with a typical Western-style meal attenuates postprandial insulin and moderately enhances postprandial antioxidant endpoints in adults with MetS, which could only be partly explained by fiber content and properties of antioxidant capacity. Be well! JP

  8. JP Says:

    Updated 09/24/15:


    Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015 Sep 23.

    Intake of legumes and the risk of cardiovascular disease: frailty modeling of a prospective cohort study in the Iranian middle-aged and older population.

    BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVES: The purpose of this study was to explore the association of legume intake (beans, chickpeas, lentils and so on), as part of a low-glycemic index diet, with the risk of cardiovascular events in the Iranian middle- and old-aged people.

    SUBJECTS/METHODS: A total of 6504 subjects living in the three counties of Iran participated in the Isfahan Cohort Study. Totally, 6323 were free of cardiovascular disease (CVD) at their baseline examination. Of the 6323 individuals, 5398 participants remained in the study for 7 years of follow-up. They have been contacted every 2 years for possible occurrence of CVD events including fatal and non-fatal myocardial infarction, unstable angina, fatal and non-fatal stroke, and sudden cardiac death. The frequency of legume intake was estimated using a food frequency questionnaire. Cox proportional hazards models with shared gamma frailty terms were used to model time to event outcomes.

    RESULTS: After a median follow-up of 6.8 years, 427 cardiovascular events occurred. The intake of legumes in different tertiles of consuming measure was associated with 34% lower risk of CVD in old-aged people, after controlling for the other probable confounders (hazard ratio and 95% CI: 0.66 (0.45, 0.98), P-value=0.039). However, there was no significant association between the frequency of consuming legumes and CVD events in the middle-aged people.

    CONCLUSIONS: The present study indicated a strong inverse relationship between legume intake and the risk of cardiovascular events in old-aged Iranian people.

    Be well!


  9. JP Says:

    Updated 10/24/15:


    J Nutr. 2015 Oct 21.

    Development and Use of a Traditional Mexican Diet Score in Relation to Systemic Inflammation and Insulin Resistance among Women of Mexican Descent.

    BACKGROUND: Women of Mexican descent are disproportionally affected by obesity, systemic inflammation, and insulin resistance (IR). Available approaches used to give scores to dietary patterns relative to dietary guidelines may not effectively capture traditional diets of Mexicans, who comprise the largest immigrant group in the United States.

    OBJECTIVES: We characterized an a priori traditional Mexican diet (MexD) score high in corn tortillas, beans, soups, Mexican mixed dishes (e.g., tamales), fruits, vegetables, full-fat milk, and Mexican cheeses and low in refined grains and added sugars and evaluated the association of the MexD score with systemic inflammation and IR in 493 postmenopausal participants in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) who are of Mexican ethnic descent.

    METHODS: The MexD score was developed from the baseline (1993-1998) WHI food frequency questionnaire, which included Hispanic foods and was available in Spanish. Body mass index (BMI) was computed from baseline measured weight and height, and ethnicity was self-reported. Outcome variables were high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), glucose, insulin, homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance (HOMA-IR), and triglyceride concentrations measured at follow-up (2012-2013). Multivariable linear and logistic regression models were used to test the associations of the MexD score with systemic inflammation and IR.

    RESULTS: The mean ± SD MexD score was 5.8 ± 2.1 (12 maximum points) and was positively associated with intakes of carbohydrates, vegetable protein, and dietary fiber and inversely associated with intakes of added sugars and total fat (P < 0.01). Women with high compared with low MexD scores, consistent with a more-traditional Mexican diet, had 23% and 15% lower serum hsCRP (P < 0.05) and insulin concentrations, respectively (P < 0.05). Baseline BMI modified these associations such that lower MexD scores were associated with higher insulin and HOMA-IR in overweight/obese women (P-interaction <0.05). CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that greater adherence to a traditional Mexican diet could help reduce the future risk of systemic inflammation and IR in women of Mexican descent. Be well! JP

  10. JP Says:

    Updated 03/24/16:


    J Complement Integr Med. 2016 Mar 15.

    Evaluation of the effects of roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) on oxidative stress and serum levels of lipids, insulin, and hs-CRP in adult patients with metabolic syndrome: a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.

    BACKGROUND: Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa L.) is a plant with antihyperlipidemic and antihypertensive effects. This study aimed to evaluate the effects of roselle calyces on the serum levels of lipids and insulin, inflammation, and oxidative stress in patients with metabolic syndrome (MetS).

    METHODS: Forty adult patients with MetS were randomly assigned to receive either 500 mg of H. sabdariffa calyx powder or placebo once daily for 4 weeks. Systolic and diastolic blood pressures (SBP and DBP) and BMI (body mass index) as well as fasting serum levels of glucose (FPG; fasting plasma glucose), insulin, lipoproteins, triglycerides (TG), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), and malondialdehyde (MDA) were determined pre- and post-intervention and compared.

    RESULTS: H. sabdariffa significantly reduced serum TG (p=0.044) and SBP (p=0.049) compared to placebo. All other variables were not significantly affected by the interventions.

    CONCLUSIONS: Daily consumption of 500 mg of H. sabdariffa L. calyx powder can decrease SBP and serum TG in MetS patients.

    Be well!


  11. JP Says:

    Updated 12/15/16:


    Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Dec 14.

    Genetic ancestry in relation to the metabolic response to a US versus traditional Mexican diet: a randomized crossover feeding trial among women of Mexican descent.

    BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVES: Certain populations with a large proportion of indigenous American (IA) genetic ancestry may be evolutionarily adapted to traditional diets high in legumes and complex carbohydrates, and may have a detrimental metabolic response to US diets high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars. We tested whether IA ancestry modified the metabolic response to a US versus traditional Mexican diet in a controlled dietary intervention.

    SUBJECTS/METHODS: First and second generation Mexican immigrant women (n=53) completed a randomized crossover feeding trial testing the effects of a US versus traditional Mexican diet. The metabolic response to the diets was measured by fasting serum concentrations of glucose, insulin, insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), IGF-binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3), adiponectin, C-reactive protein, interleukin-6 and computed homeostasis model assessment for insulin resistance (HOMAIR). Blood collected at baseline was used for genotyping, and estimation of African, European and IA ancestries with the use of 214 ancestry informative markers.

    RESULTS: The genetic ancestral background was 56% IA, 38% European and 6% African. Women in the highest IA ancestry tertile (>62%) were shorter in height, less educated and less acculturated to the US lifestyle, and tended to have higher waist-to-hip ratio compared with women in the middle and lowest IA ancestry tertiles, respectively. Compared with the US diet, the traditional Mexican diet tended to reduce glucose, insulin, IGF-1, IGFBP-3 and HOMAIR among women in the middle IA ancestry group (IA ancestry ⩽45-62%), whereas having no effect on biomarkers related to inflammation.

    CONCLUSIONS: We observed modest interactions between IA ancestry and the metabolic response to a US versus traditional Mexican diet among Mexican immigrant women.

    Be well!


  12. JP Says:

    Updated 07/09/17:


    J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jul 3.

    Acute capsaicin supplementation improves resistance training performance in trained men.

    The purpose of this study was to investigate the acute effect of capsaicin supplementation on performance, rate of perceived exertion and blood lactate concentrations during resistance exercise in healthy trained young men. Ten resistance-trained men (age= 22.7±4.0 yrs, weight= 82.3±9.6 kg, height= 1.75±0.1 cm) completed two randomized, double-blind trials: Capsaicin condition (12mg) or a placebo condition. Forty five minutes after supplement consumption, subjects performed four sets until movement failure in the squat exercise at 70% of 1RM with 90 seconds of rest interval between sets. The total weight lifted (total repetitions x weight lifted) was calculated. The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) was recorded after the last set. Blood lactate was analyzed after each set of exercise, immediately post exercise, and after three, five and at 30 minutes during recovery. The number of repetitions in each set decreased significantly after all sets compared to set-1 and after set-3 and set-4 in relation to set-2 (p<0.001), however total weight lifted was higher in capsaicin compared to placebo (3919.4 + 1227.4 kg vs 3179.6 + 942.4 kg, p=0.002). Blood lactate increased significantly following each set (p<0.001); however, there were no differences between conditions. RPE was significantly less for the capsaicin condition than placebo (17.2 + 1.0 vs 18.3 + 1.7, p=0.048). In summary, acute capsaicin supplementation improves lower body resistance training performance in trained young men.

    Be well!


  13. JP Says:

    Updated 11/04/17:


    Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2017 Nov 2.

    Blue Corn Tortillas: Effects on Learning and Spatial Memory in Rats.

    Consumption of pigmented corn has been associated with health benefits due to its flavonoid contents (mainly anthocyanins) and antioxidant ability. Therefore, the objective of this study was to determine the effect of blue corn tortilla (BM) consumption on memory and learning ability adult rats. Eighteen adult female rats were divided into three groups and fed for 38 consecutive days with commercial food (Control group) or the commercial food plus 6 g/day of either blue corn (BM) or white corn (WM) tortillas. Memory and learning capabilities were assessed using Barnes’s labyrinth at the end of the feeding period. Short-and long-term memory was improved in the BM group, showing that consumption of blue maize tortillas improves learning and memory capabilities in adult rats.

    Be well!


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