Mexican Food Is Actually The Original Health Food: Say Goodbye To Cheesy Fried Tex-Mex And Hello To Whole Grains, Fruits, & Vegetables

It may sound strange, but you should be eating Mexican food for your health. I'm not referring to a cheese smothered chimichanga from Chevy's, but true, native Mexican food: "beans and tortillas, supplemented with many fruits and vegetables: avocado, corn, tomatoes, chiles, wild greens like quelites and verdolagas, pumpkins, squash, chocolate, vanilla, wild herbs, berries, pineapples, mangos and more."

The assertion that Mexican food is healthy may seem crazy in light of Mexico's recent status as the most obese country in the world, even fatter than the United States, the former fattest nation. But if you take a look at a few other factors, you'll see Mexicans, especially children, are getting fatter and unhealthy not from eating Mexican food, but from eating processed and fast-food from the US. It's this Americanized diet that has resulted in diabetes being Mexicans' biggest killer.

Obesity In Mexico

In 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement, an agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico designed to make trade in North America easier by eliminating duties, was enacted. Following the agreement, production of processed food by foreign countries increased in Mexico, which resulted in an increase in processed food sales. Between 1995 and 2003 processed food sales grew between 5% and 10% per year. Additionally, in 1998 American fast-food giant, McDonald's, invested $3 million to expand an additional 100 McDonald's stores; that's a 76% increase. This all resulted in fast food being much more readily available to the Mexican public, who didn't necessarily know the health risks attached to it. 

David Sterling is a James Beard Award winning chef for his new cookbook Yucatán, which focuses on traditional Mexican cuisine form the Yucatán Region. As he says:

 "There is a serious lack of food education here in Yucatán, and the peninsula has the dubious honor of being the biggest consumer of Coca-Cola in the country. Without making any sort of commentary about economics or class, in truth the poorer people in rural areas eat better than folks in the cities simply because they can't afford Coke and potato chips."

The Beginning Of The Bad Stuff

But some may argue that the infiltration of unhealthy influences into the healthy Mexican diet began long before America's processed and fast-food expanded into the country. It started when the Spanish arrived in the Americas and brought along with them glutenous wheat - that's right; gluten didn't even exist in Mexico until the Spanish brought it over- and a whole host of other less healthy ingredients.

Sterling explains: 

"Many of the foods introduced by the Spanish and other Europeans and assimilated into the local cuisines – those dishes that we now think of as "mestizo" – may not be so healthy. Lots of pork or beef, fried foods, low emphasis on vegetables."

Healthy Hispanics

Dr.Luz Calvo, a professor at California State University who teaches a class called "Decolonize Your Diet" and wrote a book of the same name, sites some interesting medical research that concludes that ancestral Mexican food is inherently healthy. 

The first piece of information that lead Dr.Calvo to her conclusion came after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and discovered a study that concluded that "foreign-born Hispanics who immigrated to the United States appear to be particularly healthy." Foreign-born Hispanics outlive their white counterparts despite lower incomes- often an indication of better health outcomes. However, US born Hispanics don't fare as well, averaging shorter lives than Non-hispanic whites.

Calvo's conclusion comes down to diet. "Folks when they first come over are able to maintain their health with so few resources and with so much stress." This is because they have the knowledge of their traditional healthy heritage food. Americanized Hispanics don't have the knowledge of their cultural cuisine and the results are poorer health outcomes.

An Affordable Plant-Based Diet

All the health trends that the health world is practicing: gluten-free, plant based, low in sugar, low in preservatives and processed food, and a focus on plants like corn, beans, squash, greens, herbs, and seeds, are built right into the traditional Mexican diet. Once you remove the American and European Influences, you have a nutritious, healthy diet that is also delicious.

"The "farm-to-table" movement – so trendy now in the U.S. – is nothing new here but is actually hundreds if not thousands of years old, and still very much a part of daily life in the pueblos," says Sterling.

"When you delve into the foods of indigenous peoples you will find many more vegetables, foods fresh from the garden or milpa (crop field), a lot less meat and dairy. Simple soups and stews with lots of vegetables, pots of beans – these are the daily fare of the people in the villages.
Also our most important comestible – masa – could almost be thought of as a health food. Masa is the basis of our diet: we use it for beverages, tamales, tortillas, and a host of other maize breads. Masa is made by grinding nixtamal – field corn that has been treated with slaked lime. This increases the calcium content of the corn by something like 750%, and it further unlocks niacin so that it is accessible to our bodies; masa is also high in iron. In Yucatán we also consume a lot of chaya – a green leafy vegetable – that is considered by some to be a "super food."

So enough with the cheese smothered nachos that have somehow come to represent Mexican food in this country. Let's eat more real traditional Mexican food for the sake of our health and make it the next big trendy "health" food.