Steps to a Healthy You: Making Traditional Hispanic Meals More Wow!

Right now we're in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time for us to celebrate our culture's rich sense of community, music, art and flavor. As with any culture, so much of our history and sense of togetherness centers on our food. We've waged great influence in food culture here in America and around the world. In fact, according to the Culinary Institute of America, Mexican restaurants are the most popular restaurants in the U.S.

Unfortunately, we are also facing an epidemic. More than 3 out of 4 (78.8%) Hispanic Americans are overweight or obese. So I say it's time to take a closer look and slightly reinvent that rich, flavorful food that's influencing our world cuisine. Here are some ideas to get you started:

So many of our favorite dishes contain meat or chicken- from enchiladas to carnes asadas. One of my favorite ways to save calories is by choosing low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Also, think about the way you're preparing it. For example, by broiling a marinated fish instead of frying chicken thighs, you will be cutting your fat intake by more than half. Now, that is music to my ears!

When we think of fruits and fruit juices, we typically think of a snack or beverage, but they can offer enormous value in cooking, too! They can add a surprisingly great amount of flavor for just a few calories. Consider adding traditional Hispanic flavors such as orange or lemon zest to your lean cuts of meat. Also try experimenting with citrus fruits, mango, guava, or even prunes. Here's an added bonus: you'll also be loading the dish with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Lucky for us, zest and heat are synonymous with Latin cooking, and they come with a nominal amount of calories. The next time you're grilling your favorite lean cuts of meat, poultry or fish with grilled vegetables such as corn on the cob, carrots, zucchini, and even nopales, try topping them with chipotle sauce, sprinkling seasonings or squirting some lime juice to boost their flavor without adding extra calories.

When making your favorite Hispanic desserts, flavor them with fruits (fresh, canned or dried), skim milk, or dried seasonings such as cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger. Another simple way to reduce calories is by using low calorie sweeteners. They provide great flavor while saving you calories, and groups such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognize them as a useful tool for managing your weight.

Let's not stop here! Add some of your own to this list - recipe swaps for calorie and fat reduction, fun exercises to get your whole family moving, really whatever comes to mind, and share with your family and friends while we celebrate this month.

Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, is founder of Hispanic Food Communications, a food communications and culinary consulting company based in Hinsdale, IL. A Hispanic native who is a leading expert in cross-cultural Hispanic cuisine as it relates to nutrition and health, Sylvia speaks both English and Spanish fluently. Sylvia has an impressive record and knowledge of Hispanic foods and culture. She uses her in-depth culinary and cultural expertise to introduce new strategies for wellness to an increasingly health-conscious Hispanic population.Sylvia has consulted with food, beverage and pharmaceutical clients to develop recipes that promote healthy eating and wellness. Clients include The Coca-Cola Company, Grain Foods Foundation, Kellogg's, GaxoSmithKline and others. Prior to founding Hispanic Food Communications, Sylvia was Senior Culinary Development Specialist and Supervisor of Consumer Test Kitchens at the Quaker Oats Company.