Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell menu could be light if you know what to skip

Vegetarian Burrito Bowl from Chipotle Mexican Grill in Framingham (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Vegetarian Burrito Bowl from Chipotle Mexican Grill in Framingham (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)

I’m waiting for one of the fast-food Mexican chains to step up with a weight loss success story like Jared, the poster boy for Subway. After all, the buffet style uber-successful Chipotle chain certainly has plenty of slimming possibilities with its salads and burrito bowls. You just have to know what to include and what to leave out. Taco Bell, too, promises a “high quality” Cantina Bell menu that it’s introducing next month featuring “8 new ingredients,” including whole black beans, white-meat chicken, and corn salsa. The guacamole, the company says, is made with “100-percent Hass avocado.”

(I shudder to think what the traditional Taco Bell guacamole was made from if not 100 percent avocados. A quick glance at the guacamole ingredient list on the Taco Bell website reveals that besides avocados, it also contains sugar, salt, a mix of preservatives such as erythrobic acid, and the thickening agent xanthan gum.)

After looking at the calorie count on the new Cantina Bell items, I came to the conclusion that a guy like Jared really could lose weight on an all-Mexican diet. The Cantina Bowl—essentially a leafy green salad—with chicken contains 560 calories and 22 grams of fat, while the steak version has 550 calories, and the veggie one has 540 calories, with slightly less fat. The salad also contains black beans, rice, corn salsa, guacamole, tomato salsa, and a creamy dressing. Unfortunately, the Catina Burritos contain about 200 more calories despite having the same list of ingredients, thanks to the large tortilla they’re wrapped in.

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I asked Nutrition and You blogger Joan Salge Blake. a registered dietician at Boston University, for tips on reducing calorie counts whether you’re ordering at Taco Bell, Chipotle, or your neighborhood Mexican restaurant. She recommended skipping the fattening dressings and toppings such as guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheese, and vinaigrette. “I use salsa as a dressing,” said Blake. “It’s very low in calories and fat and one-half cup is considered a serving of vegetables.” The only worry is the sodium content for those who are salt sensitive, so you may need to ask.

Unfortunately, I love guacamole too much to skip it—plus it’s packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat—so I usually ask for a tablespoon-size dollop instead of the ice-cream scoop size they usually give.

To get an idea of how many calories you can save by skipping toppings, check out Chipotle’s nutrition calculator: Simply check off what you’d like, say, a burrito or salad, and what fillings you’re adding and the calculator will spit out all the nutritional info.

It calculated that a burrito bowl with chicken, brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, topped with tomatillo green chili salsa contains 505 calories and 12 grams of fat; add guacamole to that, and you’re getting 655 calories and 25 grams of fat.

Cheese will add an additional 100 calories and 9 grams of fat. Sour cream will bring the grand total up to 875 calories and 44 grams of fat—transforming what was once a light, healthful salad into a nutritional disaster. Chipotle charges the same price regardless of the toppings you choose.

(I’m starting to get a clear picture of how our nation reached its current obesity crisis.)

Bottom line: You can actually get a fairly nutritious and moderate-calorie meal at a Mexican fast-food chain if you’re really careful about what you order. You must say no to the refried beans, cheese, and tortilla chips.

If you order a burrito, keep in mind that a single large tortilla contains about 300 calories, so cut the sandwich in half and save the rest for another meal if you don’t want to get upwards of 700 calories in a serving.

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