- Traditional Latin American dishes can be made healthier without compromising their authenticity, by controlling ingredients and portion sizes, especially when cooking at home.
- Cooking methods also play a crucial role in the nutritional value of the food. Reducing salt and oil usage, and minimizing the use of frying are suggested strategies.
- Arepas and pupusas, popular Latin American dishes, can be made healthier through baking instead of frying and using lean, healthy stuffing.
- The Mediterranean-style diet can be a beneficial framework for preparing Latin American dishes, emphasizing the use of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
- Challenges regarding the access, availability, and affordability of fresh ingredients are prevalent, but nutritious alternatives like rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables are usually more accessible and healthier than dining out.
Traditional Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, celebrated for its rich and diverse flavors, has captivated the admiration of food lovers across the United States. This culinary world brings a bounty of food associated with cultural heritage, much of which offers delectable delights to the gastronomically adventurous.
However, popular staples such as tacos, enchiladas, arepas, empanadas, pupusas, and tamales, are sometimes overshadowed by concerns about excessive salt, unhealthy fats and high-caloric content—ingredients that could potentially lead to cardiovascular diseases. Still, embracing a healthier approach to these culinary classics without compromising authenticity is entirely feasible.
Healthier Home-Cooked Meals
Maggie Jiménez, a recognized cooking and lifestyle personality on Univision, advocates for home cooking to maintain control over ingredients used, as well as the salt and oil content. Gabby Puche, a registered dietitian nutritionist, concurs, suggesting that dining at home can help manage portion sizes, avoiding the superabundance of starchy foods often served at restaurants.
In addition, traditional Latino dishes are rich in healthy ingredients, and sticking to their roots can effectively improve their nutritional value. For instance, inhabitants of Nicoya, Costa Rica—one of the five existing “blue zone” communities globally known for health and longevity—primarily consume plant-based food.
The diet in these regions abounds in beans, legumes such as black and red kidney beans, avocados, colorful vegetables, yam, plantains, and lean proteins like fish and chicken. These components are intrinsic to Costa Rican cuisine, and similarly represent the broad spectrum of Latin American cuisine.
The Impact of Cooking Methods
How food is prepared also plays a crucial role. Prioritizing natural, unprocessed ingredients and home cooking methods can make a noticeable difference in the food’s nutritional value.
Maggie Jiménez can testify on transitioning to healthier ingredients. She once experienced a medical scare due to excessive salt usage, which prompted her to substitute the salt with herbs and spices like powdered garlic, onion, cilantro, and oregano.
Latin cuisine can also be made healthier by reducing the use of frying methods—often associated with excessive amounts of saturated fats that may increase cholesterol levels and heart disease risk—if possible, use an air fryer instead. When using oil becomes necessary, olive, avocado and canola oils are recommended, but quantity should always be kept in check.
Take arepas—a corn-based cake popular in South America—for example, which can be healthier when baked instead of fried and stuffed with lean meats and vegetables. They are high in fiber, thereby potentially reducing cholesterol levels. Portion control, according to Puche, can further enhance the health benefits of traditionally healthy foods.
To cater to these requirements, she advises her online clients to enjoy a reina pepiada—an arepa with lean chicken breast, avocado, tomato, cilantro, and onion. Pupusas, a nutritive, corn-based national dish from El Salvador, offer a similar opportunity to experiment with lean, healthy stuffing.
Embracing the Mediterranean-Style Diet
Quality and quantity of fat are important to consider. While research has increasingly highlighted the benefits of healthy fats, their consumption should be moderated. Notably, the Mediterranean-style diet—endorsed by the American Heart Association for its emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, plant-based fats, and protein from lean meats, fish, and seafood—provides a beneficial framework.
Adopting this approach can notably improve the nutritional content of tacos, even more so when cheese and sour cream are forgone for more plant-based ingredients.
Yet, challenges regarding the access, availability, and affordability of fresh ingredients remain. It may not always be feasible to procure top cuts of lean meat but nutritious alternatives like rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables are typically more accessible and healthier than dining out.
Finally, those seeking flavors from Puerto Rican food can experiment with sofrito—a mixture of garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and fresh herbs used in various dishes—as a healthier replacement for salt. As Puche emphasizes, cooking at home can not only be nutritious but also economical.
By Lourdes Medrano