Let’s face it, eating out is something we all like to do. It’s relaxing, convenient, and fun to let someone else worry about what to cook. For people with diabetes, it’s important to keep an eye on your plate – whether you’re at home or at a restaurant. It can be a challenge to find healthy options, but it’s not impossible.
Mexican Dining: Learn the Language
Should you order the Grande Chicken Taco Salad or the Chicken Fajita Salad? Or maybe you should you try the Chimichanga? The salads basically sound the same, right? No, not exactly. Both of the salads, from On the Border, are made with chicken and lettuce, but one of them comes in a big (grande) taco shell. The Grande Chicken Salad has about 1280 calories and 75 grams of carbs, while the Fajita Chicken Salad has about 750 calories and 25 grams of carbs. The fried tortilla shell makes a big difference in calories! Otherwise, a chicken salad with veggies and even beans is a healthy meal option. Chimichangas (1350 calories and 130 grams of carbs), along with their smaller relatives empandas and taquitos, are deep fried tortillas that are filled with meat, cheese, and some veggies. They can be much higher in calories, carbs, and fats than regular tacos and burritos.
At Taco Bell, the Gordita (Spanish for “little fat one”) is wrapped in a thicker pita-style tortilla, which has 340 calories and 30 grams of carbs vs 200 calories and 15 grams of carbs in a regular crunchy taco. Avoid items with mega, grande, double-decker or supreme in their names – you will usually end up with at least 100 more calories per serving than the regular version. Familiarize yourself with descriptions of entrees before you order, as this way you can avoid extra calories and carbs.
The Icing on the Taco
Toppings at Mexican restaurants can add lots of calories and carbs to otherwise healthy meal options. Taco Bell offers an alternative to high-calorie toppings like cheese/queso and sour cream. Their new fresco menu has tacos, burritos, and salads made with fresh tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. You get great flavor with fewer calories. Likewise, places such as Moe’s Southwestern Grill and Chipotle have “salad bars” where you can pick what goes in and on your food. You have more control over how your food is prepared. So go ahead and eat your grilled chicken taco with a side of black beans, but don’t go overboard with the “icing.”
Diabetes Eating: Does Alcohol Count as a Side?
Yes, alcohol has calories and needs to be included in your meal plan. Some drinks are going to have fewer calories than others. A light Mexican beer (for example, Corona Light) has about 110 calories, but a Margarita could have up to 350 calories. It may not be worth the “cost” if you have to give up a food option. If you choose to have a drink, drink with your meal to prevent hypoglycemia. The American Diabetes Association recommends that, in general, people with diabetes should have only 1 to 2 drinks per day.
The Bottom Line
Mexican restaurants can definitely be a good option for people with diabetes. They offer low-calorie and low-carb options like beans, grilled veggies, and chicken, not to mention flavorful salsas made with fresh tomatoes, herbs, and spices. Use the following checklists to guide your way.
Avoid the following diabetes meal plan busters:
- dishes made with fried tortillas (chimichangas, taquitos, empanadas)
- refried beans with cheese/queso
- sour cream
- excess tortilla chips
- “sweet” alcohol drinks like cocktails
- ground beef dishes
- large platters of nachos
Enjoy these Mexican items instead:
- beans, grilled chicken, or steak (not ground beef) fillings
- entrees made with soft flour tortillas (burritos, tostadas, carnitas)
- grilled lime-flavored shrimp
- bean enchiladas with cilantro and onions on top
- tasty salsas
- fresh sauteed veggies
- a small amount of guacamole or fresh avocado salad
- grilled chicken or steak fajitas – lunch portions are great options
- fresh salads with grilled chicken (skip the giant tortilla shell)
- tortilla soup
Sejal is a registered dietitian, a certified diabetes educator and she holds a masters degree in nutrition and health. Sejal was the project coordinator for the Veteran’s Administrations (VA) national weight loss program and previously worked for the VA hospital in Tampa, FL as a Spinal Cord Injury dietitian.
Sejal has had numerous clinical and community education experiences, including pediatric and intensive care nutrition support. She has also had the opportunity to teach nutrition courses at the community college level to students interested in pursuing health professions. One of her favorite areas of education is diabetes management.