Mexican carnitas are a delicious and popular pork dish that is slow-cooked and then fried to create irresistibly tender, juicy, and flavorful meat. Carnitas translates to “little meats” and is made by simmering pork in lard or oil until tender and then crisping the exterior in the fatty cooking liquid. While absolutely mouthwatering, many people wonder just how many calories are packed into those tasty bites of carnitas. As with any food, the number of calories in carnitas depends on the ingredients, cooking method, and portion size. By looking at the calorie counts of common carnitas ingredients, typical nutrition information, and reasonable serving sizes, we can estimate the calorie content of this fabulous Mexican pork dish.
Calories in Main Carnitas Ingredients
Carnitas are comprised of just a few main ingredients: pork, oil or lard, and seasonings. By examining the calories per gram of the key components, we can get an idea of the calorie foundation for carnitas.
Pork: Lean boneless pork contains about 40 calories per ounce or 160 calories per 100g. The cuts used for carnitas are often higher in fat, such as pork shoulder which has about 45 calories per ounce or 180 calories per 100g.
Lard: Lard contains about 115 calories per tablespoon or 907 calories per 100g. The amount used can vary greatly based on the recipe.
Oil: Common cooking oils like canola or vegetable oil contain about 120 calories per tablespoon or 100 calories per 100g. Oil is sometimes used instead of lard for making carnitas.
Seasonings: Herbs, spices, garlic, onion and other flavor boosters add minimal calories, averaging around 5-10 calories per tablespoon of seasoning blend.
So the high calorie ingredients in carnitas are the pork itself and the cooking fat or oil. A 3 oz serving of pork ranges 130-170 calories depending on the cut and fat content. Using 2 tablespoons of lard or oil for cooking adds about 240 calories. Seasonings add only negligible calories.
Calories in Typical Carnitas Recipes
Now that we know the calories in the main components, we can estimate the calories in a full carnitas recipe based on typical ingredient amounts.
A common carnitas recipe uses:
– 1 1⁄2 lbs pork shoulder or pork butt = about 960 calories
– 1⁄4 cup lard or oil = about 480 calories
– 2 tablespoons seasoning blend = about 20 calories
So a total recipe before cooking would contain about 1460 calories. After cooking, some of the fat melts off, so the finished carnitas dish would have around 1000-1300 calories total depending on the amount of oil absorption and how much fat renders out.
For recipes using less pork and fat, or leaner cuts of meat, the calorie count would be lower. For recipes with more generous amounts of oil or pork shoulder, the calories would be higher. But a typical full recipe of carnitas contains approximately 1000-1300 calories before dividing into servings.
Calories in Standard Carnitas Servings
To determine the calories in a serving of carnitas, we need to divide the total recipe calories by the number of portions.
A common serving size for carnitas is about 3-4 ounces of the finished pork. If we take a recipe with 1200 calories total and divide into 4 equal 3 ounce servings, that gives us approximately 300 calories per serving.
For smaller or larger servings:
– 2 oz serving = about 200 calories
– 6 oz serving = about 450 calories
– 8 oz serving = about 600 calories
So as a general guideline for carnitas from a standard recipe:
– 2 oz serving is around 200 calories
– 3-4 oz serving about 300 calories
– 6 oz serving around 450 calories
– 8 oz serving about 600 calories
This puts carnitas in the same calorie ballpark as chicken breast or other lean protein sources per serving. Of course, this can vary based on specific ingredients, cooking methods, and portion sizes as we’ll explore next.
Factors Affecting Carnitas Calories
While the estimates above provide a general calorie range for carnitas, several factors can affect the actual numbers:
Type of pork: Leaner cuts like pork tenderloin have less fat and fewer calories than higher-fat shoulder or butt. Boneless pork loin has about 140 calories per 3 oz, while pork butt can have up to 200 calories.
Amount of added fat: Less oil or lard means fewer calories. Limiting added fat to just 1-2 tablespoons can save over 200 calories per serving.
Cooking method: Frying adds more oil and calories than oven roasting. Braising uses less added fat than searing.
Portion size: Getting a double serving of 6-8 oz can double the calories to 600+ depending on the recipe. Sticking with 3-4 oz portions keeps calories in check.
Add-ons: Toppings like cheese, sour cream, guacamole, rice, beans and tortillas can add 100+ calories per item. Going light on extras keeps carnitas calories lower.
Restaurants vs homemade: Dining out carnitas tend to use more oil and salt. Homecooked versions allow more control over ingredients. Compare nutrition info to find lower cal options.
So by selecting leaner cuts of pork, trimming excess fat, using less added oil, cooking in the oven or Instant Pot, sticking to reasonable portions, and limiting high-cal add-ons, you can enjoy delicious carnitas while keeping calories in a healthy range.
Low Calorie Carnitas Tips
Here are some easy tips for lightening up carnitas to enjoy the fantastic flavor without all the extra calories:
– Choose center cut pork loin or tenderloin over shoulder or butt
– Remove excess visible fat from pork before cooking
– Use just 1-2 tbsp oil max instead of immersing in lard
– Cook in oven or Instant Pot instead of deep frying
– Chop or shred pork then strain out excess fat after cooking
– Skip the refrying step or quick pan fry instead of deep frying
– Stick to 3-4 oz portion sizes, use a food scale for accuracy
– Load up on veggies like lettuce, salsa, tomatoes rather than fatty toppings
– Choose corn tortillas instead of flour to save about 60 calories per tortilla
– Rinse black beans to remove some of the oil/salt from canned versions
– Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream for a protein boost
– Guacamole adds nutrients, but limit to 2 tbsp to save 50 calories
– Enjoy carnitas as is or in healthy bowls rather than heavy tacos or tortas
Getting creative with lower calorie substitutions and reasonable portions allows you to savor the mouthwatering Mexican flavors of carnitas without going overboard on calories.
Healthy Carnitas Bowls
For a satisfying carnitas meal that doesn’t pile on the calories, build a healthy carnitas bowl:
– Start with a base of shredded lettuce or cabbage for crunch
– Add 1⁄2 cup brown rice or quinoa for healthy grains
– Top with 3-4 oz carnitas made with lean pork and minimal oil
– Load up on salsa, pico de gallo and shredded fresh veggies like zucchini or jicama
– Mix in black beans rinsed of salt and oil from the can for fiber
– Sprinkle on chopped cilantro, jalapenos or radishes for extra flavor
– Drizzle with 1 tbsp Greek yogurt mixed with lime juice and spices
This hearty but healthy bowl provides portions of lean protein, whole grains, fresh veggies and spicy toppings all while keeping calories around 500-600 for the entire meal.
Swapping out fatty toppings for fresh produce and minimizing heavy tortillas or fried chips allows you to maximize nutrition and enjoyment without overdoing the calorie count.
Low Calorie Carnitas Recipes
Here are some examples of leaner carnitas recipes to enjoy the fantastic Mexican flavors for around 300 calories per serving:
Instant Pot or Slow Cooker Carnitas
– 1 lb pork tenderloin, trimmed
– 1 tbsp avocado oil
– 1 packet reduced sodium taco seasoning
– 1 onion, sliced
– 1 cup chicken broth
– Juice of 1 lime
– Chili powder, cumin, garlic powder to taste
Cook on low for 6-8 hours in a slow cooker or high pressure for 30-40 minutes in an Instant Pot. Shred pork and top with pico de gallo. Serves 4.
Roasted Carnitas Sheet Pan Dinner
– 1 lb pork tenderloin, diced
– 1 lb potatoes, chopped
– 1 red bell pepper, chopped
– 1 yellow onion, sliced
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– Chili powder, cumin, oregano to taste
Toss ingredients on a sheet pan and roast at 400F for 30 minutes until pork is cooked through. Serve with salsa and guacamole. Serves 4.
Baked Carnitas Lettuce Wraps
– 1 lb pork loin, diced
– 2 tsp canola oil
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 tsp chipotle powder
– 1 tsp oregano
– juice of 1 lime
– Bibb or butter lettuce leaves
Saute pork in oil and seasonings. Bake at 350F for 20 minutes until browned and cooked through. Place in lettuce leaves and top with pico, avocado and queso fresco. Serves 4.
Carnitas Nutrition Facts
To get an accurate look at calories and nutrients, check the nutrition label when dining out or for packaged versions. Here is the carnitas nutrition breakdown for some popular restaurants and brands:
Chipotle carnitas (4oz serving)
– Calories: 210
– Fat: 9g
– Carbs: 3g
– Protein: 24g
El Monterey frozen carnitas (2oz serving)
– Calories: 180
– Fat: 13g
– Carbs: 1g
– Protein: 13g
Mission carnitas street tacos (2 tacos)
– Calories: 620
– Fat: 32g
– Carbs: 48g
– Protein: 32g
When comparing nutrition info, aim for options with around 300 calories or less and at least 20g of protein per serving while limiting fat, carbs and sodium. Homemade carnitas allow the most control over ingredients and nutrition.
Healthy Carnitas Substitutions
In addition to the lightened up recipes above, you can swap in more nutritious alternatives:
– Replace pork shoulder with lean tenderloin, loin or chicken breast
– Use avocado oil or olive oil instead of lard for cooking
– Skip the cheese and sour cream or use low fat versions
– Replace tortillas with lettuce wraps or cabbage shells
– Choose fresh tomatoes, onions and chiles over heavy sauces
– Use plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream
– Try cilantro-lime brown rice or riced cauliflower as a base
– Load up on shredded lettuce, cabbage, zucchini and salsa
With some simple substitutions, you can transform heavy carnitas into a lighter low calorie meal full of flavor.
Should You Avoid Carnitas to Lose Weight?
Carnitas are high in calories, but they can be part of a healthy weight loss diet when enjoyed in moderation as part of an overall balanced eating plan. Here are some tips for eating carnitas sensibly:
– Stick to reasonable portions of 3-4 oz
– Skip the fatty extras like cheese, sour cream and chips
– Eat carnitas only occasionally, not every day
– Pair with lower calorie sides like veggies, salad and beans
– Avoid all you can eat carnitas buffets
– Order carnitas tacos on corn tortillas without rice and beans
– Choose carnitas bowls with lettuce instead of heavy tacos
– Balance out higher calorie carnitas meals with lighter options the rest of the day
– Don’t drink your calories in sugary sodas, beer or margaritas
You can absolutely still enjoy the indulgence of juicy carnitas in moderation while losing weight. Just be mindful of portions, how often you indulge, and balancing out carnitas with more calorie-conscious choices.
Healthier Carnitas Alternatives
If you are looking for lighter options with a similar flavor profile to carnitas, try these healthier Mexican-inspired alternatives:
Chicken tinga: Shredded Mexican spiced chicken breast stewed in a chipotle tomato sauce
Chicken fajita bowls: Grilled seasoned chicken with peppers and onions, served over cauliflower rice or lettuce
Shrimp diabla: Sauteed shrimp in a Mexican red chili sauce
Vegetarian chili verde: Hearty stew with tomatillos, veggies and beans but no pork
Portobello barbacoa: Shredded spiced and roasted mushrooms
Jackfruit carnitas: Shredded seasoned jackfruit with the same texture as carnitas
Sofritas: Spiced and sauteed tofu cubes
Tempeh “carne” asada: Marinated, seared tempeh for fajitas or tacos
So you can still enjoy many of the great Mexican flavors and ingredients in lighter, healthier recipes by swapping in lean proteins, vegetables, and plant-based options.
Carnitas can have anywhere from around 200 to 600+ calories depending on the specific recipe, ingredients, and portion size. Typical serving sizes range 300-450 calories. Lower calorie options include choosing lean cuts of pork, minimizing added oil, portion control, and skipping fatty toppings. While certainly a calorie indulgence, carnitas can still fit into a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation as part of an overall balanced approach to eating. With some simple substitutions and smart choices, you can still savor the mouthwatering flavors of carnitas without going overboard on calories.