The traditional diets in Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Costa Rica) have several commonalities, though great variances exist in methods of preparation and in local recipes. 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 diets in this area have 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When two cultures intermingle, the 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 with 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.
Coupled with locally available fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products, the diets of Mexico and Central America 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.
Unfortunately, limited financial access to a wide variety of foods for many people in Central America and Mexico means that their diets often do not include sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals. For low-income households, 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) over leaner meats. 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. The Central America Diabetes Initiative's 2010 Survey of Diabetes, Hypertension, and Chronic Disease Risk Factors, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, found that rates of diabetes and hypertension in Central America were 8.5% and 25.4%, respectively.
Throughout the world, the diets of traditional cultures have experienced what has been called the “nutrition transition.” In Mexico and Central America, as elsewhere, this transition has been fueled by globalization and urbanization. According to a study published in the July 2009 issue of Globalization and Health, food imports into Central America more than doubled between 1990–92 and 2000–05, due largely in part to reduced tariffs. The study found the increase in imports correlated with an increase in chronic disease. Major dietary changes include an increased use of animal products and processed foods that include large amounts of sugar, refined flour, and hydrogenated fats, with a decline in the intake of whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. While the increased variety of foods 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 cardiovascular 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 tortillas, 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.
See also Calcium ; Malnutrition ; Protein ; Whole grains .
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Katherine L. Tucker