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The Five Most Unhealthful Foods at Mexican Restaurants: Results

A Report from PCRM's Cancer Project
Spring 2010

Findings | Key Factors | Rating System/Detailed Results | Healthful Options/References

Rating System

This rating system was developed based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans established by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA). Typically, a 2,000 calorie diet is the standard recommended energy intake for Americans. With these health-based criteria in mind and the recommendations from the USDA, The Cancer Project ranked the Mexican restaurant items surveyed in this report.

Items with the most points were ranked the least healthful. A truly healthful meal would have no points. Points are awarded based on a system derived from standards set by the USDA and based on the research from the Institute of Medicine, the organization that sets the dietary reference intakes for all nutrients. This point system is based on one-third (one of three daily meals) of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) from the USDA Food Guide. The numbers equate to 667 calories, 22 grams of fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 77 milligrams of cholesterol, and 600 milligrams of sodium.

Points were given if the menu item had the following: 

  • Processed Meat: 2

  • Total Calories (points): 701-900 (1); 901-1,100 (2); 1,101-1,300 (3); 1,301-1,500 (4); 1,501-1,700 (5); 1,701-1,900 (6); 1,901-2,100 (7); 2,101-2,301 (8); >2,301 (9)

  • Total Fat Grams (points): 23-32 (1); 33-42 (2); 43-52 (3); 53-62 (4); 63-72 (5); 73-82 (6); 83-92 (7); 93-102 (8); 103-112 (9); >113 (10)

  • Saturated Fat Grams (points): 7-10 (1); 11-14 (2); 15-18 (3); 19-22 (4); 23-26 (5); 27-30 (6); 31-34 (7); 35-38 (8) 39-42 (9); >43 (10)

  • Cholesterol Milligrams (points): 78-100 (1); 101-125 (2); 126-150 (3); 151-175 (4); 176-200 (5); 201-225 (6); 226-250 (7); >251 (8)

  • Sodium Milligrams (points): 601-1,200 (1); 1,201-1,800 (2); 1,801-2,400 (3); 2,401-3,000 (4); 3,001-3,600 (5); 3,601-4,200 (6); 4,201-4,800 (7); 4,801-5,400 (8); >5,401 (9)

Using these scores, Cancer Project dietitians selected the most unhealthful Mexican entrées from each restaurant chain. These items were then compared and ranked to establish the final list of the five most unhealthful Mexican entrées.

Results:

Charbroiled Steak Nachos at Baja Fresh Mexican Grill

Rating: Worst Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

Score: 40 points

2,120 calories, 118 grams of fat, 44 grams of saturated fat, 255 milligrams of cholesterol, 2,990 milligrams of sodium

 Chips and salsa? More like chips, cholesterol, and carcinogens. These tortilla chips are smothered in melted Jack and cheddar cheese, slathered with sour cream, and topped with charbroiled steak. High-fat dairy products increase hormones, insulin-like growth factor-1, known to increase prostate and breast cancer risk. Grilling meats produces carcinogens known as heterocyclic amines that increase colon cancer risk.

Grilled Fajita Salad at Chevys Fresh Mex

Rating: Second-Worst Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

Score: 28 points

1,516 calories, 118 grams of fat, 31 grams of saturated fat, 175 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,696 milligrams of sodium

Although eating fresh and colorful salads can help prevent cancer, salads at restaurants like Chevys can be very high in fat. More than 70 percent of the total calories from this salad are from fat in ingredients such as Cotija and Jack cheeses. Excess fat increases weight and hormone production that can greatly influence cancer risk.

Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers at Chili’s

Rating: Third-Worst Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

Score: 20 points

1,650 calories, 74 grams of fat, 16 grams of saturated fat, cholesterol levels are unavailable, 4,060 milligrams of sodium

Chili’s menu lists this item as an appetizer. But it leaves no room for a main course. This appetizer, served with home-style fries and ranch dressing, almost exceeds one’s daily caloric requirements. Chili’s does not provide cholesterol levels for their menu items. But chicken and ranch dressing both contain cholesterol that can lead to reduced heart function.

Pulled Pork Burrito at Qdoba Mexican Grill

Rating: Fourth-Worst Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

Score: 18 points

1,255 calories, 52 grams of fat, 22 grams of saturated fat, 150 milligrams of cholesterol, 3,210 milligrams of sodium

This cheese tortilla is packed with pulled pork, sour cream, cheese—and 3,210 milligrams of sodium. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people at risk of high blood pressure consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily.

Ground Beef Burrito at Moe’s Southwest Grill

Rating: Fifth-Worst Meal at a Mexican Restaurant

Score: 17 points

1,135 calories, 62 grams of fat, 21 grams saturated fat, 120 milligrams of cholesterol, 2,590 milligrams of sodium

Moe’s is known for its “Homewrecker” burritos. But its ground beef burrito is the “healthwrecker.” This burrito is packed with ground beef, cheese, sour cream, and chipotle ranch dressing. This high-fat meal is not what the doctor ordered. Ground beef intake can also increase the risk of cancer: Recent studies show that red meat consumption can increase colon cancer risk by as much as 300 percent. And with more than half of the daily recommended calories, this menu item increases the risk of weight gain. Obese populations have the greatest cancer risk.

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