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The Gift from Mexico: A Healthy Cuisine

Personal Health

By Nancy Johnston Hall

This is the fourth and final in a series about diabetes; however, it’s also relevant info for those without diabetes.

Mexico has given us a wonderful gift: plenty of fresh food, directly from the farm and not processed from a factory, and a cuisine of rich and bold flavors. That means it’s wonderfully easy to have a healthy and delicious Mexican meal in San Miguel. Whether you’re eating out or in, these tips can help you make healthy choices and avoid some Mexican minefields. Since people with diabetes are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and need to control their calorie and carb intake, the term “healthy food” used here means foods lower in calories and unhealthy saturated fats as well as “good carbs” that have a low glycemic index. (Glycemic Index is a scale of 0 to 100—pure glucose has a value of 100. Lower values are given to foods that cause a slow rise in blood sugar.)

Beans, beans, good for the heart

Ha! You can finish that rhyme any way you choose. But in spite of their gaseous properties, beans are a satisfying, healthy low-cost protein alternative to red meat—and Mexicans have used them for all those reasons for centuries. Beans are loaded with fiber, complex carbohydrates (the good kind with a low glycemic index), and minerals. And they’re low in calories. When we had a house guest who had diabetes, I made black bean soup, one of my staples. My secret is a jar of salsa (sin picante) added to the dried beans and garlic as they cook, and olive oil as a final touch to add richness. Topped with chopped tomatoes, onions, avocado, and cilantro, it’s always a big hit. Pinto beans, with their meaty flavor, are common here. Mexicans usually use pig lard in their refried beans, so choose whole beans in a restaurant; you can buy canned fat-free refried beans for home cooking.

Fresh veggies and salsas aplenty

Visiting friends are always surprised at how so many of San Miguel’s restaurant dishes include fresh vegetables. Cheesy, greasy Tex-Mex it is not! Of course there are exceptions, but we’re lucky that it’s easy to order really top-notch salads filled with interesting fresh ingredients (dressing on the side) and dishes with a side of steamed or grilled vegetables, or topped with chopped tomatoes, green and red peppers, and onions.

Jicama is nature’s low-calorie, high-fiber gift to diabetics, and it has a low glycemic index. Squeeze some lime on slices for a satisfying crunchy snack or appetizer that can replace your need for fried taco chips. Salsa, which is high in lycopene, an important nutrient, is usually made fresh here, and it’s not full of sugar or additives like some jarred salsas. So use it as a healthy condiment on main dishes rather than as a dip for chips. I like it as a dressing for my salads.

Avocados are packed with fiber and vitamin K plus significant levels of healthy monounsaturated fats. One medium avocado has about 227 calories, so try to keep to the suggested serving size of 1/5 of an avocado. And use portion control for guacamole too—1/2 cup serving is 155 calories. Although calorie-rich, avocados still have fewer calories than fatty condiments like mayonnaise, which contains 94 calories in just 1 tablespoon. So use avocados on your sandwich instead of mayo and on your salad instead of high-fat dressing.

“Grilled, not fried, por favor”

That phrase works well for those wonderful fish tacos that are ubiquitous on San Miguel’s menus. And say “grilled, please” for shrimp, fish, and chicken. Grilled brochettes are a good option, for example. If you have an irresistible craving for red meat, grilled arrechera is a lean cut of beef—although you should know the marinade is high in salt if you’re on a low-salt diet.

Mexican Minefields

Decades ago, I was part of a team that developed the concept of “Everyday Foods” and “Sometimes Foods,” with the specific purpose of not using the word “avoid” when encouraging healthy eating. That’s because nutrition research showed that “avoid” is an unhelpful turnoff for eaters. So consider the following foods “Sometimes Foods:” dishes made with fried tortillas—chimichangas, taquitos, empanadas; dishes made with cheese (queso); sour cream; excessive taco chips; chile rellenos; taco salad bowls; and ground beef dishes. Waiters here don’t blink when you ask to split a meal, dish, or dessert with someone—another way to have your “Sometimes Foods.”

A word about alcohol

A confession here: When I first came to San Miguel, I went margarita crazy. Finally, reality hit in the form of a tighter waist band. I learned that one margarita can have 350 to 500 calories depending on size and how it’s made. A light Mexican beer has about 110 calories. I’m not a beer drinker, so I switched to agua mineral con limón, and gradually I learned to enjoy it almost as much. For me now, a margarita is a “Sometimes Drink.” The American Diabetes Association (ADA) suggests nonalcoholic, zero-calorie, or very low-calorie drinks: water, unsweetened teas, coffee, diet soda, and sparkling water. The ADA says that if you have diabetes and you choose to drink alcohol, learn how your body reacts by monitoring your blood sugar before, during, and after drinking. Never drink alcohol on an empty stomach and have no more than two drinks per day if you’re a man and one if you’re a woman—the same guidelines as for those without diabetes. Also, drink with your meal to prevent hypoglycemia. And always be prepared by carrying along a source of sugar such glucose tablets.

Nancy Johnston Hall is a retired health writer with nearly 40 years of experience. She has a master’s degree in medical journalism. Two years ago Nancy and her husband became part-time residents of San Miguel.


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