Mexican style tacos are a popular food, but how healthy are they really? Tacos are typically made with a corn or flour tortilla that is filled with ingredients like meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, beans, rice, and more. While tacos can be a tasty meal or snack, their nutrition profile varies widely depending on what fillings and toppings you choose.
Some key questions when evaluating the healthiness of tacos are:
- Are you using whole grain or processed tortillas?
- Is the meat lean or high fat?
- Are you loading up on veggies or heavy on cheese/sauces?
- Are you eating a reasonable portion or overstuffing your tacos?
With the right ingredients and portion control, tacos can be a nutritious choice full of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. However, tacos high in saturated fat, sodium, and calories can end up being more of a nutritional sinkhole.
This article reviews the nutrition profile of different styles of tacos, healthier taco filling options, and tips for keeping your tacos nutritious.
Carbohydrates in Tacos
The base of any taco starts with the tortilla. Here’s a look at how the typical flour and corn tortillas compare:
A 6-inch flour tortilla contains approximately:
- Calories: 150
- Total Carbohydrates: 24g
- Dietary fiber: 1g
- Protein: 3g
Flour tortillas contain moderate amounts of carbohydrates, but are relatively low in fiber. Refined flour tortillas lack the beneficial bran and germ portion of the grain, resulting in a less nutritious option.
Look for whole wheat flour tortillas for a fiber boost, providing around double the fiber. Sprouted grain tortillas are also higher in protein and fiber compared to white flour.
A 6-inch corn tortilla contains approximately:
- Calories: 60
- Total Carbohydrates: 12g
- Dietary fiber: 2g
- Protein: 2g
Corn tortillas offer a few nutritional advantages over flour. They are lower in calories and higher in fiber, since corn contains the whole grain. Fiber is important for digestive health, blood sugar regulation, and cholesterol management.
Corn also has a lower glycemic index, meaning it does not raise blood sugar as quickly compared to flour-based tortillas. For those with diabetes or trying to manage carb intake, corn tortillas can be a great pick.
Tortilla Calories and Carbs
Based on a smaller 6-inch size, tortillas are relatively low calorie. However, giant burrito-sized tortillas can contain 300 calories or more just for the tortilla alone.
Sticking with a reasonably sized tortilla and loading it up with healthy fillings and toppings is key for keeping tacos nutritious. Giant tortillas overloaded with high calorie meats, cheese, salsa and sour cream can turn into a calorie bomb.
Protein in Tacos
The protein you choose to put in your tacos is where nutrition can vary tremendously. Some healthier options provide protein and nutrients, while high fat meats add mostly calories and saturated fat.
Healthy Lean Protein Options
Some of the most nutritious options for taco protein include:
- Shredded chicken breast
- Ground turkey breast or chicken breast
- Lean cuts of steak
- Grilled shrimp
- Black beans or pinto beans
- Tofu or tempeh
- Seitan or textured vegetable protein (vegan options)
- Eggs or egg whites
These options are lower in saturated fat and calories while still providing an excellent source of protein. Fillings like pinto beans also add fiber.
High Fat Meat Choices
While tasty, the following meats add more saturated fat and calories:
- Ground beef or pork
- Ribeye, porterhouse, T-bone steaks
Choosing lean cuts of beef and pork with excess fat trimmed, limiting portion sizes, and pairing with healthy toppings is one way to still enjoy these higher fat options.
Managing Protein Portions
Even with leaner proteins, portions matter for keeping tacos reasonable calorie. Here are some protein portioning tips:
- Limit meats to about 4 ounces max per few tacos
- Use beans, veggies, rice to add extra volume
- Choose smaller corn tortillas which require less filling
- Use lettuce leaves or shells for overstuffed tacos
Getting a good protein source in your tacos is important, but keeping portions balanced is key.
Healthy Taco Toppings
Adding more veggies and less fatty toppings is an easy way to boost the nutrition in tacos without sacrificing flavor.
Load up tacos with these healthy toppings:
- Lettuce – Romaine, cabbage, spinach
- Fresh tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Jalapenos, chili peppers
- Black olives
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Lime juice
Not only do these ingredients add lots of flavor, they also supply fiber, vitamins A, C, B6, and various minerals like potassium and magnesium.
High Fat Toppings
While tasty, the following should be used more sparingly:
- Sour cream
- Ranch dressing
Ingredients like cheese, sour cream and guacamole quickly add saturated fat and calories. Plain Greek yogurt can be used instead of sour cream for a protein boost. Oils can also be swapped for lime juice as a taco topping.
Salsa can be enjoyed liberally to add lots of flavor without the excess calories.
A 1⁄4 cup of pico de gallo salsa provides approximately:
- 15 calories
- 3g carbohydrate
- 1g fiber
- 1g protein
- 230mg sodium
Just watch added sodium in store-bought salsas by choosing low or reduced sodium varieties. Or make your own fresh salsa at home with just tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and a squeeze of lime.
Putting it All Together
Now we know what makes a healthy or unhealthy taco. Here are some examples of different nutrition tacos using the tips above:
Recipe 1: Healthy Ground Turkey Tacos
- Corn tortillas
- 4oz 93% lean ground turkey
- Toppings: lettuce, tomato, red onion, salsa, plain Greek yogurt
This version uses lean ground turkey, smaller corn tortillas, and fresh produce to create a nutritious lower carb option.
Recipe 2: Shrimp Avocado Tacos
- Whole wheat tortillas
- Grilled shrimp
- Toppings: shredded cabbage, avocado, cilantro, lime juice
In this recipe, we swap flour for fiber-rich whole wheat tortillas and use lean shrimp. Avocado adds nutrients like vitamin K, folate and potassium.
Recipe 3: Steak Fajita Tacos
- Corn tortillas
- Grilled skirt or flank steak
- Onion, bell pepper fajita veggies
- Toppings: cilantro, salsa, lime
Marinated, grilled steak provides a stellar protein source. Serve in corn tortillas with sautéed veggies for a Mexican restaurant favorite.
Recipe 4: Breakfast Egg Tacos
- Whole wheat tortillas
- Scrambled eggs
- Toppings: salsa, spinach, black beans
Eggs deliver protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Paired with fiber-rich beans and spinach, this makes a super nutritious breakfast taco.
Are Mexican Tacos Healthy? The Bottom Line
Tacos can range from healthy to indulgent depending on the types of ingredients used. Choosing whole grain over refined tortillas, controlling portions of meats/fillings, and loading up on veggies are some ways to build a more nutritious taco.
While an occasional indulgent taco with giant tortillas and high fat meats isn’t going to doom your diet, making tacos loaded with lean proteins, fresh produce, beans, and whole grain options like corn tortillas or whole wheat the majority of the time is a smart strategy. Tacos are a great blank slate you can truly customize to fit your nutrition goals.
So can Mexican style tacos be healthy? Absolutely! Just be mindful of your choices when it comes to tortillas, meats, cheeses, and toppings. With the right balance of vegetables, lean protein, fiber from whole grains and beans, and healthy fats from ingredients like avocado, tacos can be a regular part of an overall healthy eating plan.