The diets of peoples in Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Costa Rica) have several commonalities, though within the region great differences in methods of preparation and in local recipes exist. The basis of the traditional diet in this part of the world is corn (maize) and beans, with the addition of meat, animal products, local fruits, and vegetables. As in other parts of the world, the diet of people in this area has expanded to include more processed foods. In many parts of Mexico and Central America, access to a variety of foods remains limited, and undernutrition, particularly among children, is a major problem. Although access to an increased variety of foods can improve the adequacy of both macronutrient and micronutrient status, there is evidence that the use of processed foods is contributing to the rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Traditional Dietary Habits
The central staple in the region is maize, which is generally ground and treated with lime and then pressed into flat cakes called tortillas. In Mexico and Guatemala, these are flat and thin, while in other Central American countries tortillas are thicker. In El Salvador, for example, small, thick cakes of maize, filled with meat, cheese, or beans, are called pupusas. Maize is also used in a variety of other preparations, including tacos, tamales, and a thin gruel called atole. The complementary staple in the region is beans (frijoles), most commonly black or pinto beans. Rice is also widely used, particularly
A Tzotzil mother makes tortillas with her daughters. The Tzotzil live in Chiapas, Mexico, near Guatemala. Central Americans traditionally have simple diets that depend on corn, beans, and local fruits and vegetables.
in the southernmost countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Historically, major changes in the traditional diet occurred during colonial times, when the Spaniards and others introduced the region to wheat bread, dairy products, and sugar. Wheat is commonly consumed in the form of white rolls or sweet rolls, or, in the northern part of Mexico, as a flour-based tortilla. Noodles (fideos), served in soups or mixed with vegetables, have also become popular.
The consumption of meat and animal products, although popular, is often limited due to their cost. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs are all used. Traditional cheeses are prepared locally throughout the region as queso del pais, a mild, soft, white cheese, and milk is regularly used in café con leche and with cereal gruels.
Commonly Used Fruits and Vegetables
The region is a rich source of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Best known among these are the chile peppers, tomatoes, and tomatillos that are used in the salsas of Mexico. Avocado is also very popular in Mexican and Central American cuisines. Other commonly used vegetables include calabaza (pumpkin), carrots, plantains, onions, locally grown greens, and cacti. Fruits are seasonal but abundant in the rural areas and include guavas, papayas, mangoes, melons, pineapples, bananas, oranges, and limes, as well as less-known local fruits such as nances, mamey, and tunas (prickly pears from cacti). Traditional drinks (frescos, chichas, or liquados) are made with fruit, water, and sugar.
Methods of Cooking
The traditional preparation of maize involves boiling and soaking dried maize in a lime-water solution and then grinding it to form a soft dough called masa. Soaking in lime softens the maize and is an important source of calcium in the diet. The masa is shaped and cooked on a flat metal or clay surface over an open fire. In some areas, lard or margarine, milk, cheese, and/or baking powder may be added to the tortilla during preparation. Beans are generally boiled with seasonings such as onion, garlic, and sometimes tomato or chile peppers. They are served either in a soupy liquid or are "refried" with lard or oil into a drier, and higher fat, preparation.
Meat, poultry, and fish are commonly prepared in local variations of thin soup (caldo or sopa), or thicker soups or stews (cocido) with vegetables. In Mexico and Guatemala, grilled meats are cut into pieces and eaten directly on corn tortillas as tacos.
These are often served with a variety of salsas based on tomato or tomatillo with onion, chile, coriander leaves (cilantro), and other local seasonings. Tamales are made with corn (or corn and rice) dough that is stuffed with chicken and vegetables. The tamales are steamed after being wrapped in banana leaves. Salvadorian pupusas are toasted tortillas filled with cheese, beans, or pork rind eaten with coleslaw and a special hot sauce.
Central American and Mexican Dishes
Beyond the basic staples, the cuisine of Mexico and Central America is rich with many regional variations. The tortilla-based Mexican preparations familiar in the United States are generally simpler in form in Mexico. Tacos are generally made with meat, chicken, or fish grilled or fried with seasoning and served on tortillas; enchiladas are filled tortillas dipped in a chile-based sauce and fried; and tostadas are fried tortillas topped with refried beans or meat, and sometimes with vegetables and cream. Chiles rellenos are made with the large and sweet chile poblano and filled with ground meat. Examples of specialty dishes include mole, a sauce made with chocolate, chile, and spices and served over chicken, beef, or enchiladas; and ceviche, raw marinated fish or seafood made along the coast throughout Central America and Mexico.
The staple diet of the region—corn and beans, supplemented with meat, dairy products, and local fruit and vegetables—is nutritionally complete and well suited to a healthful lifestyle. The proper combination of tortilla and beans provides an excellent complement of amino acids, thus supplying the necessary amount of complex protein. The process of liming the maize makes the calcium and the niacin in the tortilla more bioavailable, and this food is a major source of these nutrients. In addition, the traditional preparation of tortillas with a hand mill and grinding stones appears to add iron and zinc to the tortilla. Beans are excellent sources of B vitamins, magnesium, folate, and fiber. The tomato and chile-based salsas, along with several of the tropical fruits such as limes and oranges are important sources of vitamin C, and the variety of vegetables and yellow fruits such as papaya, melon, and mango provide excellent sources of carotenoids, which are precursors of vitamin A.
Unfortunately, limited financial access to this variety of foods for many people in Central America and Mexico means that the diet often does not include sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals. For low-income groups, lack of access to animal products contributes to deficiencies in iron, zinc, vitamin A, and other nutrients. When animal products are included, there has been a tendency to choose high-fat products such as sausage and fried pork rinds (chicharron). The use of lard and a preference for fried foods also contributes to high intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol among subsets of the population.
Influence of Central American and Mexican Culture
As two cultures intermingle, foods and preparations from each tend to infiltrate the other. This is clearly the case near the U.S.-Mexican border, where Mexican immigrants and return immigrants have incorporated foods from U.S. diets into their traditional diets. The result has been a modified form of Mexican cuisine popularly known as "Tex-Mex." Beyond the border, this Americanized version of popular Mexican foods has spread throughout the United States through the popularity of Mexican restaurants. In the United States, tacos and tostadas tend to have less Mexican seasoning, but include lettuce and shredded processed cheese. Flour, rather than corn, tortillas are more widely used along the border. Many foods, such as soups and chiles, prepared along the border have become known for their spicy hotness, due to the Mexican-influenced use of chiles and chile powder.
Changes in Dietary Practices
Throughout the world, the diets of traditional cultures have experienced what has been called the "nutrition transition," particularly during the last few decades of the twentieth century. In Mexico and Central America, as elsewhere, this transition has been fueled by globalization and urbanization. Major dietary changes include an increased use of animal products and processed foods that include large amounts of sugar, refined flour, and hydrogenated fats. At the same time, a decline in the intake of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables has been documented. While the increased variety has improved micronutrient status for many low-income groups, the inclusion of more animal fat and refined foods has contributed to a rapid increase in obesity and chronic disease throughout the region.
These changes are more evident among immigrants to the United States, where adoption of U.S. products has been shown to have both positive and negative impacts on nutritional status. Studies that compared diets of Mexican residents to newly arrived Mexican-American immigrants and to second-generation Mexican Americans have documented both nutritionally positive and negative changes with acculturation. On the positive side, acculturated Mexican Americans consume less lard and somewhat more fruit, vegetables, and milk than either newly arrived immigrants or Mexican residents. On the negative side, they also consume less tortilla, beans, soups, stews, gruels, and fruit-based drinks, with greater use of meat, sweetened ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, soft drinks, candy, cakes, ice cream, snack chips, and salad dressings.
The traditional diet of Mexico and Central America is based on corn and beans, but offers a wide diversity of preparations. Coupled with locally available fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products, the diet can be highly nutritious. However, poverty frequently limits access to an adequate variety of quality foods, resulting in malnutrition. At the same time, the increasing use of processed foods is contributing to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions in this region. The balance between improving access to variety and maintaining dietary quality poses a challenge for public health.
Katherine L. Tucker
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