The Diet Detective: Are Latin American Foods Healthy?

Latin American foods are very diverse because they originate in many different countries--including Peru, Argentina, Columbia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Cuba--and many different cultures. While the cooking methods are not always the healthiest, the foods themselves often are. Take a look at the following food choices and try to pick the healthier alternatives.

Salsa vs. Guacamole vs. Sour Cream

In terms of calories, salsa is always the best choice--2 tablespoons (1 ounce) have about 10 calories. Guacamole is great, with heart-healthy fat, but just 2 tablespoons have 40 calories. However, sour cream is the worst of the three at 60 calories for 2 tablespoons.

Yellow vs. White Rice 

One cup of regular white rice has about 170 calories, while Goya Yellow Rice Spanish Style Arroz Amarillo has 640 calories per cup. Yellow rice is typically made with the addition of oil and/or butter, some vegetables and annatto powder or saffron. The best choice would be brown rice, which has 220 calories per cup but is packed with 3.5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein.

Black or Pinto Beans vs. Refried Beans vs. Fried Plantains 

Black beans or pinto beans are a staple in many Latin American cultures, and in terms of health, when prepared in a healthy way (which they're typically not) they are very strong nutritionally. Beans, in general, are rich in protein, fiber, folate, manganese, magnesium, thiamin, phosphorus, iron and phytochemicals. The difference between black and pinto beans is minuscule: about 10 calories. One cup of boiled black beans is about 228 calories with 16 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber, while pinto beans have 236 calories, 14 grams of protein and 12 grams of dietary fiber. Additionally, a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition has reported that eating just a half-cup of pinto beans daily dropped total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol by more than 8 percent. Think about this: A half-cup of oatmeal eaten daily will reduce cholesterol 2 percent to 3 percent. Just make sure the beans are not prepared with lard (fat), as they often are in restaurants. Refried beans, at more than 240-280 calories per cup, are not a very good choice.
Plantains are a staple food in Latin America because of their versatility and availability. They're actually similar to bananas (except that you don't eat plantains raw), and one medium plantain (about 6.5 ounces) has about 218 calories, very little fat and almost 3.5 grams of fiber--nice. Plantains are rich in potassium and vitamins C and B6.
The problem begins when you start frying the plantains. Just as with any other food, frying turns good into bad. A 1-ounce strip of fried plantain can have as many as 70 calories. Green or "unripe" plantains contain a lot of starch and very little sweetness, so they are most often used as a vegetable (like a potato) rather than a fruit. In some cultures when plantains are prepared like mashed potatoes, fried eggs, salami and even bacon are mixed in. When the plantain is very ripe it becomes sweet and can easily be baked instead of fried for a tasty side dish.

Paella vs. Ceviche 

Paella is a one-dish meal composed of rice, seafood (mussels, clams, shrimp, etc.), chicken and chorizo and cooked with saffron and oil. Paella originated in Spain and is typically served to large groups because it's so easy to make, but it's also very high in calories--600 to 1,000 for an 8- to 10-ounce serving.
Ceviche is a much better choice, but it's most often served as an appetizer rather than an entrée. It's composed of a variety of raw fish and/or shellfish "cooked" by marinating it in fresh citrus juice and often flavored with cilantro. A low-calorie treat, it has about 100 to 150 calories for an 8-ounce serving. Keep in mind, you really need to be careful about how you prepare ceviche or where you order it because if it isn't done right you can get really sick.

Dulce de Leche vs. Flan

Dulce de leche is a dessert very similar to caramel that's prepared by heating sweetened condensed milk until it thickens to a kind of pudding texture. Just 1 tablespoon has 90 calories--wow! Flan is a custard dessert made with milk, cream, sugar, eggs and syrup that's basically the same as crème caramel, and it is also very high in calories--about 230 calories for half a cup. If you plan on eating just a tablespoon of the dulce de leche, obviously that's your better choice, but I would suggest cutting up a mango, which has only 107 calories per cup and is also packed with 3 grams of fiber, potassium and loads of other great nutrients. 

Cafe Con Leche vs. Cuban Coffee (Cafecito)

Cafe con leche, known as café au lait in France or café misto in Italy, is basically coffee made with a lot of very hot, frothy milk. A 16-ounce cup has about 130 calories. Cuban coffee (when served in a group it's called a colada) is considered a very social drink and is usually served "shot" style. It's actually an espresso shot that's sweetened with sugar as it is being brewed. Cuban coffee can have as many as 30 calories per shot, and it tends to be very sweet and very strong; however, it's clearly the lower-calorie choice if you have just one or two.

Charles Stuart Platkin is an Active Expert , nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at

Copyright 2009 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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