Mexican food is widely known for its flavor and spices, but there can often be confusion about where Mexican food fits into a balanced diet.

It may be common to think that Mexican food should be reserved for special occasions or to think that traditional Mexican meals are incompatible with a healthy diet — but this is mostly due to misconceptions.

In fact, Mexican cultures offer a wide variety of foods that have a lot to teach us about nutrition.

That goes beyond the basic staples too. While Mexican staple ingredients like tomatoes, squash, and corn are typically accepted as healthy, there is a whole additional category of healthy Mexican foods to consider.

Some Mexican ingredients, such as chia seeds, pumpkin, and cactus, are very popular in the health-food world, but many shoppers may not think of them as Mexican.

Here are 10 Mexican foods with nutritional benefits that you’ll want to stack on your plate.

You may not think of chiles as a vegetable, but whether you like jalapeños or the more mild poblanos, all chiles can count toward your vegetable intake for the day.

Just like other vegetables, chiles provide a wide variety of vitamins, such as vitamin C and vitamin A (1, 2).

While a whole chile can be a rich source of these vitamins, it may be difficult to eat a large enough serving of the spicier varieties to obtain a significant amount of micronutrients.

If this is the case, you can still get the vitamin benefits of chiles from milder varieties such as poblanos.

Additionally, the compound that makes chiles spicy — called capsaicin — has been associated with reduced levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol (3).

Beans and other legumes have long been associated with reduced LDL cholesterol and lower risk of cardiovascular disease (4).

Beans may also be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes, as they’re associated with improved insulin sensitivity and may help decrease postmeal blood sugar response to foods such as rice when eaten at the same time (5).

While beans are packed with health benefits, many people think of them just as meat alternatives and may be unsure how to incorporate beans into their diets.

Mexican food can help us incorporate beans on a regular basis, as they’re commonly served with Mexican meals, either as a side or as part of the main dish. A simple side of rice and beans is a classic and can add a boost of nutrition to a meal.

Here are 10 easy ways to use beans.

Chia seeds have quickly risen in popularity in the United States over the last few decades. They’re often incorporated into smoothies, puddings, and quick jams.

These little seeds are popular as a neutral-tasting and easy way to add a boost of fiber, calcium, and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats (6, 7).

What you may not know is that these seeds are a traditional part of Mexican food. In Mexican cuisine, chia seeds are typically consumed in drinks, combined when water or fruit juice.

In Mexican food, pumpkin seeds are more than an autumn treat. They can be eaten year-round, with or without their hulls.

In addition to being eaten as a snack, pepitas are often used in sauces (pipian and mole, for example) or seasonings.

Pepitas are a plant-based source of protein, iron, and zinc. These nutrients are typically associated with animal products, and pepitas a great choice for vegans and vegetarians who may be looking to fill nutrient gaps (8).

It’s not just the seeds that are healthy — pumpkin is a Mexican-origin food that is a rich source of vitamin A, which may promote eye health (9, 10).

In Mexican cuisine, pumpkin may be used in soups or as a dessert. Candied pumpkin is one traditional dessert that is especially popular around holidays.

Despite the popularity of low carbohydrate diets, corn tortillas are a healthy staple derived from Mexican culture.

In addition to providing fiber, the processing technique — called nixtamalization — that turns corn into tortillas increases the amount of calcium in the tortillas and reduces the levels of compounds that prevent the absorption of vitamin B3 (11).

Jicama is a root vegetable that’s commonly served fresh with lime and chile as a refreshing snack.

Researchers are studying jicama for its potential ability to support blood sugar management, thanks to its status as a high fiber, low glycemic index root vegetable (12).

This spice is an important ingredient in Mexican desserts and beverages, and researchers are exploring its possible benefits for people with diabetes.

For example, consuming cinnamon may potentially lower blood sugar and triglyceride levels (13).

Prickly pear cactus, in particular, is popular in Mexican cuisine. The cactus paddles can be sauteed, grilled, or even pickled and served in a salad.

Prickly pear cactus is a rich source of fiber and may have benefits for people with diabetes. Eating prickly pear cactus with meals may lower the blood sugar increase that can occur after eating (14).

Unsweetened chocolate, made from cacao beans, is a rich source of antioxidants and polyphenols (15).

It may also have a triglyceride-lowering effect (16).

Chocolate is more than just a dessert in Mexican food — it can be used in drinks, as well as in sauces such as mole, to provide a rich depth of flavor in a variety of meals.

Learn more about the health benefits of chocolate.

While many people may think of Mexican food as a treat that should not be eaten often, the truth is that Mexican food is a rich and varied cuisine featuring plenty of nutritious foods.

Many of today’s most popular health food ingredients in the United States — including pumpkin, chia seeds, cactus, and chocolate — actually originate from Mexico.

If you’re unsure how to incorporate these popular ingredients into your routine, you may want to take inspiration from their Mexican origins and try out some traditional recipes.

Furthermore, basic Mexican staples like beans and corn tortillas are very nutritious and can form a great foundation for a balanced diet.

Just one thing

Try this today: Want to learn more about Mexican, Latinx, and Latin American cultural foods? You can check out these five ingredients that one multicultural food writer eats to support good health, and follow these dietitians of color to diversify the recipes in your social media feed.

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