Healthier Eating Choices at Taco Bell

When a Taco Bell first opened in my small Pennsylvania hometown in the mid 1990s, I quickly became a regular patron. During college and the years since, I’ve become known as somewhat of a fast food connoisseur, due primarily to a combination of my laziness and cheapness. Despite the lack of authenticity in Taco Bell’s Mexican food and their sometimes questionable meat standards, I’ve remained a loyal fan who runs for the border at least once a week. Now that I’m a little older, I’m starting (ever so slowly) to care about healthier eating choices.

While fast food will never be the best option, it remains so convenient and inexpensive that it’s worth considering how a trip to Taco Bell can be modified with healthier eating choices. I use the word “healthier” as opposed to “healthy,” recognizing that there is a trade-off to be made. For cheap, tasty, quickly prepared food, we must be willing to exchange some degree of healthiness. The goal here is simply to make Taco Bell choices that are less extremely bad for you – so that eating there regularly can be justified.

Go Fresco

I had not realized there was anything called “Fresco Style” until I actually read a placemat on a Taco Bell tray advertising this healthier eating choice. By telling your friendly Taco Bell employee that you want an item prepared Fresco Style, you are asking them to replace cheese and/or sauce with a fiesta salsa made of diced tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. Deciding to try this option on my next visit, I ordered one item Fresco Style as a test – the basic crunchy taco. Eliminating the cheese on the taco and replacing it with the tasty salsa cuts down the fat slightly and actually makes for a better taste. According to the nutrition guide on the Taco Bell website, opting for a Fresco Style crunchy taco over its regular cousin reduces the fat from 10 grams to 7 grams.

While this isn’t earth-shattering, it’s a step in the right direction, especially when the taco is still enjoyable to eat. Most people eating at Taco Bell order more than one item – usually two or three. By going Fresco Style on your whole meal, the cuts in fat content start to add up. Consider the following example:

Regular Meal
Burrito Supreme with Chicken: 14g fat and 45mg cholesterol
Crunchy Taco: 10g fat and 25mg cholesterol
Bean Burrito: 10g fat and 10g cholesterol
TOTAL for Regular Meal: 34g fat and 80mg cholesterol

Fresco Style Meal
Burrito Supreme with Chicken (Fresco): 8g fat and 25mg cholesterol
Crunchy Taco (Fresco): 7g fat and 20mg cholesterol
Bean Burrito (Fresco): 8g fat and 0g cholesterol
TOTAL for Fresco Style Meal: 23g fat and 45mg cholesterol

In this example, you’d cut total fat from 34g to 23g by asking for Fresco Style. That’s a decrease of about 32%, meaning almost a third less fat. The cholesterol totals are also lower, due to the cheese/sauce replacement. Isn’t a drop from 80mg to 45mg dramatic?

Taking a page out of the Subway book by touting healthier eating choices from its menu, Taco Bell is advertising a total of 15 items with fewer than 10g of fat when prepared Fresco Style. These items, including tacos, burritos, gorditas, enchiritos, and tostadas, represent a reasonably broad selection.

To play around with your favourite Taco Bell items and see how fat and cholesterol are affected by going Fresco, use the nutrition calculator on the Taco Bell website to fill up your tray and calculate totals. I’d recommend trying your meal in its regular format and then going Fresco to see the difference.

Skip the Soda

Most people don’t come to Taco Bell for the soda. We Americans have fallen prey to the inevitable “combo” deal that every fast food place offers. Although it seems like a good choice because you save a few pennies by ordering food and soda as a package deal, the savings are overstated. Instead of ordering a combo meal, just order individual items along with a water. Yes, plain old ice water. If you’re going to eat fast food, the least you can do for your body is to provide a healthy beverage! Let the focus stay on the food, and avoid the sugar and extra calories of soda. And if you normally opt for jolting sodas like Mountain Dew, cutting out the caffeine will constitute a healthier choice.

Other Recommendations

Avoid the caramel apple empanada. Like most fast food desserts, this fried treat is the sort of thing you’d see at the state fair, except that it’s not served on a stick. You can probably do without it. Chances are that, if you wait 10 minutes after eating your meal, you won’t even want the dessert item. It takes your brain some time to recognize that your stomach is actually full.

Steer away from chalupas. The very act of frying up the shell makes this item one of the least healthy options on the Taco Bell menu. You can taste the oily quality of a chalupa from the first bite, and even I find it a little gross (which is saying something). If the thin flour tortillas and crunchy taco shells aren’t your bag, then at least go for a gordita over a chalupa.

Final Thoughts

Remember that Taco Bell won’t ever be the healthiest choice you can make. But it’s tasty, cheap, and fast enough to merit some retooling so that it can remain in your diet. By ordering items Fresco Style and foregoing soda, you’ll be selecting healthier options without sacrificing much in the way of taste.

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