San Antonio’s cultural and ethnic diversity includes 59% of people identifying as either Hispanic or Latino, ethnic groups that carry an unequal share of the chronic disease burden. Hispanic and Latinos are affected by obesity at a rate of 35.8% which is even higher than the Bexar County rate of 32.1%, according to the newly released 2014 Behaviorial Risk Factor Surveillance System data.
A look at diabetes tells a similar story, with Hispanics and Latinos living with diabetes at a rate of 15%, also above the Bexar County rate of 14.2%. Both rates are far above the national diabetes rate of 9.3%, recorded by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity and diabetes are complex health conditions, resulting from a perfect storm genetic factors, too many calories, and not enough physical activity that has swept the nation as well as trickling into other countries and continents as the world becomes more tightly woven into the industrialized web of progress. Often this complex issue is oversimplified to only food being blamed for the high rates of obesity and diabetes and that can have a troublesome side effect of people believing that their cultural foods are to blame for their state of health.
During my time providing nutrition counseling for weight loss, I often heard folks tell me that their cultural food is not healthy, and that is just not the case.
So often cultural foods have been “Americanized” in such a way that they are no longer healthy, such as deep-fried or served in portions that are much beyond our calorie needs and lacking the fresh fruits and vegetables that you see in traditional preparations of the same kinds of food in the country of origin.
Lupita Rivero and Silvia Alcaraz, sisters and owners of Cocina Heritage are proving to San Antonio that the cultural foods of Central and Southern Mexico can be nutritious and fit into a healthy lifestyle. Cocina Heritage joined the ¡Por Vida! program in 2015, a program offered by the City of San Antonio designed to pair a registered dietitian with chefs and restaurant owners to identify and promote the healthiest options on a restaurant’s menu.
“We want to show the community that Mexican food can be healthy,” Lupita said. “Our use of fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and traditional Mexican food preparation methods will give you complex layers of flavor while keeping the calories and salt in check.”
Some of Cocina Heritage’s ¡Por Vida! menu items include Tinga de Pollo, Chicken Vegetable Tamale, Vegan Tamale, Pollo Pibil, Cochinita Pibil, Huitlacoche, and Mole Poblano. All items fit strict ¡Por Vida! nutritional criteria where an entrée item cannot exceed 300 calories, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 5 grams added sugar, and 325 mg of sodium. A ¡Por Vida! side item cannot exceed 200 calories, 2 grams of saturated fat, 3.5 grams added sugar, and 215 mg sodium. Also ¡Por Vida!-approved items may not be fried or contain hydrogenated oils (trans-fat).
The Cocina Heritage sisters pride themselves on using the original recipes of their regional native cuisine as far back in time as possible. Mexican cuisine is not only extremely diverse but it has maintained its traditional processes thanks to the passing of recipes from generation to generation.
In addition to Cocina Heritage, two other ¡Por Vida! restaurant partners serve Mexican cuisine with a healthy twist. Delicious Tamales has been a ¡Por Vida! partner since 2010. Owner Valerie Gonzalez is pillar of the community, starting her business in 1985, and now has 10 San Antonio locations and ships tamales nationwide. The Vegetarian Tamales are ¡Por Vida!-approved and come in at 190 calories, zero grams saturated fat, and zero grams trans-fat per every two-tamale serving.
Estela’s Mexican Restaurant joined ¡Por Vida! in 2013, offering Chicken Chalupas, a dish featuring two baked, never fried, tortillas topped with shredded chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Believing that a traditionally prepared food is unhealthy can be harmful to a person’s cultural self-identity and we need to dispel this myth. Instead let’s get back to the basics and take inspiration from the fresh ingredients and traditional food preparations being used in homes just across the border. This is the key to unlocking the healthfulness of Mexican cuisine.
Certainly this doesn’t mean modern influences can’t be healthy as well, but caution needs to be used when using packaged foods and highly processed food products, as this is where the majority of calories, trans-fats, and salt are creeping onto our plates – and our waistlines.
Cocina Heritage, Delicious Tamales, and Estela’s Mexican Restaurant are redefining Mexican-style cuisine as food that can complement a person’s health goals and prevent the types of chronic diseases that are running rampant in San Antonio and Bexar County.
Top image: From left: Lupita Rivero and Silvia Alcaraz, sisters and owners of Cocina Heritage; Anna Macnak, Por Vida program dietitian; and Maria, Cocina Heritage staff member at a San Antonio Farmer’s Market. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.