Latin food can still be delicious if we select healthier ingredients to cook it with.
Having a hearty appetite has long been perceived at Latino tables as the equivalent to “good health”. Seeing how large quantities of food disappear at family reunions has made countless generations of Latina matriarchs happy. This holiday season, when we join family and friends to celebrate, most of us will overeat our delicious Latin food despite any previous good intentions. And why not? Christmas only comes once a year!
Food plays a key role in preserving Hispanic heritage and every family has special traditional recipes passed from one generation to the next. While many ingredients in traditional Latin food cooking are healthy, cooking methods that involve deep-frying or even refrying, are not. To make matters worse, acculturation results in lower consumption of the healthier ingredients in Latino diets: fruits, vegetables and legumes.
With weight-related health problems becoming more prominent among Hispanics, it is time to learn healthy cooking methods and to rediscover the benefits of traditional diets.
Adult Hispanics have higher obesity rates than non-Hispanic whites, but disparities are even greater at a younger age: 27 percent of Mexican American boys are obese compared to less than 17 percent of non-Hispanic white boys. These astounding figures are linked to the rise in chronic disease seen among Latinos in the United States. Obesity-related conditions include: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
Adopting a healthy diet and engaging in physical activity are key in reversing this trend. So what if you could eat the same family dishes with less of a guilty conscience? Slightly tweaking your proven recipes may be the path to a healthier diet. For your sake and your family’s health, this may be your New Year’s resolution.
If you are hosting Christmas lunch, it is probably not the best time to experiment in the kitchen! But in your daily cooking, you can try the following tips and substitutes.
Latin food – the healthy way
Switch to good fats
It is not only the amount, but also the type of fat that affects your health. Good unsaturated fat lowers the risk of heart disease and is found in vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Saturated and trans fat, which increase the risk of heart disease, are found in red meat, cheese, butter and processed foods made with partially hydrogenated oil.
Avoid lard—present in many traditional Latin food dishes—and butter, which are high in saturated fat.
Use soft margarine or, better yet, olive oil, a good source of unsaturated fat. For baking, a light olive oil or other vegetable oil such as canola or sunflower will do just fine.
Replace deep-frying in a skillet with “oven frying”: spray or brush oil lightly over the food, spread it out on a cooking sheet and bake in the oven.
Use non-stick cookware and add very little oil when sautéing your ingredients: Drain excess oil.
Select your carbohydrates
Vegetables, beans, grains and fruit, all of which are good carbohydrates, are packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and a good source of fiber. Fiber is known to protect us from heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Refined carbohydrates, such as white flour, rice and pasta are digested faster and cause blood sugar to spike. This is linked to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and weight gain.
Increase the vegetable content in your recipes to make the dish instantly healthier. Lycopene and other carotenoids, found in tomatoes and bright-colored vegetables may protect against some types of cancer.
Choose fresh or frozen vegetables over canned, whenever possible, to avoid preservatives and exposure to BPA from the lining of the cans.
Rice, a staple in Latin food dishes, should be replaced with brown rice. Some studies suggest eating five or more servings of white rice per week increases the risk of diabetes.
Quinoa and amaranth are other whole grains packed with health benefits.
Balance your carbs – in many Latin food traditions, we eat rice, potatoes and bread or pasta, for example, all in the same serving. Pick one, if any, refined carbohydrate and replace the other ones with a serving of veggies.
Choose poultry and lean meats
Latin food recipes, from different countries, usually use lots of red meat. Try replacing beef with chicken or fish a few times a week, to give your heart a rest.
Red meat—beef, pork and lamb—used to be reserved for special occasions and should not be the primary source of protein. Bacon and other processed meats – often used in Latin food to add flavor to soups, beans and rice – are linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Use less meat in your recipes, as a general rule, and select leaner cuts of beef to limit the content of saturated fat.
Replace red meat with chicken or turkey; choose ground turkey over ground beef.
Drain excess fat when cooking meat to lower cholesterol.