Empanadas. Burritos. Churros. Little wonder Latin American cuisine is always high on the list in any conversation about favorite foods. But the foods we associate with Latino cooking — smothered in cheese, guacamole and sour cream — are a far cry from the traditional dishes that inspired them.
“We’ve Americanized ethnic foods, added butter and meat, and serve them in giant portions,” said Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte. “Historically, the real Latino eating pattern was lighter and much more plant-based.”
Of course, some Latino foods, including fried foods like empanadas and dishes made with lard or other solid fats, can also raise the risk for major health problems. But the unmistakable influence of the Standard American Diet, with its reliance on red meat, cheese, salt and sugar, has had an unfortunate impact, as well.
Latino health challenges
The Americanization of traditional Latin American cuisine has resulted rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases like nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes among Latinos in the U.S. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Latinos in the U.S. are 50% more likely to die from diabetes than non-Latino whites.
Often facing a lack of access to nutritious ingredients in neighborhoods deemed “food deserts” (areas with little access to nutritious, affordable food), many Latinos in the U.S. are also vulnerable to financial hardship, which exacerbates the problem. For example, the U.S. Census bureau reported that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 37% of U.S. Latino households with children experienced food insecurity, up from 17% in 2018.
But healthier eating is almost always within reach, even on a tight budget.
“There’s a general perception that eating healthy is expensive, and it certainly can be if you’re buying processed foods and doing all your shopping at Whole Foods,” she said. “But, historically speaking, plant-based eating has always been most cost-effective. And it still can be.” It’s often more filling, she added, and can be just as delicious.
To keep food affordable, however, there is a trade-off. Less expensive foods require more preparation. For example, dried beans are cheaper than canned, but require time for soaking and cooking. And frozen or freeze-dried instant rice costs much more per serving than a large bag of regular brown rice.
“Basing meals on dried beans, regular brown rice and produce, as in a more traditional Latino diet, can be very easy on the budget,” Anderson said. “For the same price or less, you get a ton of food!”
To offset the extra time and effort involved in giving up processed foods and making meals from scratch, she suggests planning ahead for a week’s meals and cooking in larger batches. Leftovers can be frozen or stored in the fridge and eaten for several days.
Elements of a healthier lifestyle
The traditional Latino eating pattern shares many similarities with the popular, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, including the elements of a healthier lifestyle:
- Preparing and enjoying meals with family or other loved ones.
- Staying in relationship with your community. Farmers markets provide farm-fresh foods and a sense of connection.
- Walking more, gardening and otherwise connecting with nature.
Like their Mediterranean counterparts, traditional Latino cuisines also focus on colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean (often plant-based) proteins, and healthy fats like nuts, seeds and avocados.
To ensure you’re getting all the benefits of healthy Latino foods, Anderson said, avoid Americanized versions of traditional cultural favorites (this applies to Asian, Italian and other ethnic cuisines, as well). And at mealtimes, fill half your plate with vegetables, one quarter with whole grains and one quarter with a lean or plant-based protein.
Anderson also offers the following tips, to help you shop, prepare and enjoy Latino foods while safeguarding your health and stretching your budget:
In the kitchen…
- Be mindful of preparation methods. Instead of deep-frying tostones or making pollo (or pescado) frito, try baking, grilling or roasting. Or, use an air fryer for crispiness without all the oil.
- Maintain the cultural integrity of the food, while swapping in healthier ingredients. For example, prepare frijoles, tamales and tortillas with vegetable oil instead of lard (manteca) or butter to reduce saturated fats.
- Reduce salt and flavor your meals with spices. Remember, prepackaged seasonings are often laden with sodium. Try traditional favorites like chili powder, cilantro, allspice, coriander, cinnamon, annatto seeds, cumin and epazote. Onions and garlic are key ingredients in many Latino foods, as is fresh lime juice.
- Stay lean with protein. Base most meals on beans, fish or seafood, and skinless poultry. Choose fewer red meats (beef, pork, goat, lamb). If you do use them, opt for lean cuts.
Shopping and meal planning…
- Include whole grains with your meals instead of white rice. Whole grains provide fiber which can help balance blood sugars, lower cholesterol and control appetite by keeping you full longer. Try these Latin American staples: brown rice, wheat, maize (corn), and ancient grains like quinoa and amaranth.
- Look for fiber-rich whole grain or corn tortillas at the grocery store. The first ingredient should include the word “whole” (such as ”whole wheat," "whole corn,” etc.). You can even find tortillas made with healthier ingredients, like almond meal.
- Buy lower-fat dairy products like low-fat milk and yogurt, and choose lighter cheeses made with reduced-fat 2% milk, such as: light queso fresco and queso blanco; queijo minas (a Brazilian cheese that’s great in sandwiches) and cotija (a crumbly, salty cheese similar to feta).
- Focus on colorful vegetables, including nopales (prickly pear cactus), tomatillos (which look like green tomatoes), chilies, peppers and squashes (like chayote and calabaza).
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruits popular in Latin American countries, including fresh or dried bananas, plantains, coconut, papaya, mangos and pineapple.
- Enjoy more nuts and seeds, which provide heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fiber. Try cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), or sunflower seeds.
- Try veggies with salsa or guacamole, low-fat yogurt and hard-boiled eggs instead of processed snacks loaded with sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.
- Drink lots of water instead of sugary sodas and juices, which can wreak havoc on your blood sugar.
Baked chicken empanadas
8 ounces chicken breasts (boneless, skinless)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (fat-free)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 small yellow onion (finely diced)
1 red bell pepper (finely diced)
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons cilantro (finely minced)
1 egg (for egg wash)
1 tablespoon water
Nonstick cooking spray
Empanada dough (Goya empanada dough shells, pre-made whole wheat pizza dough or homemade empanada dough)
For filling: Combine the chicken breasts and chicken broth in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from heat and let rest until the chicken (in broth) is cool to the touch (about 20 minutes). Once cool, shred the chicken into small pieces and mix in 2 tablespoons of chicken broth from the pan; reserve broth and set aside.
- Add canola oil to a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, paprika, cumin, chili powder and 1/2 cup of the chicken broth. Reduce heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes, until onions and bell pepper are soft and the liquid has evaporated. Add the garlic and cilantro and stir until fragrant (about two minutes). Stir in the chicken to yield around 2 cups of filling.
To make empanadas:
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Separate the dough into 16 golf ball-size pieces, and shape each one into a smooth ball. Using a rolling pin, roll each ball of dough into a 6-inch circle.
Spoon 2 tablespoons of the filling into the middle of each dough circle. Lightly brush the edge of the dough with water along one half of the circle. Fold the top half of the dough over the filling to form a semi-circle (like a turnover), and press edges firmly together. Crimp the edges with a fork to seal in the filling.
Place the empanadas on a baking sheet. Lightly beat the egg with 1 tablespoon water and brush a thin layer of the egg wash mixture over the top surface of each empanada. Bake the empanadas for 25 minutes, until lightly browned.
To cook empanadas in an air fryer: Heat the air fryer to 350 degrees and spray the basket generously with cooking spray. Place two to four empanadas in the air fryer basket (how many you can fit depends on the size of your air fryer). Cook for 10 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Flip each empanada over and cook for another two to five minutes.
Nutrition (per empanada): 132 calories, 4 grams total fat, 163 milligrams sodium, 13 grams total carbohydrates (1 gram fiber, no added sugars), 9 grams protein