Lunch Break: Baja Fresh

Mad for Mexican? A local dietician tells us what to order—and what to avoid—at this south-of-the-border chain.

“Mexican food is my weakness,” I admit rather sheepishly to Arlington-based dietician Lise Gloede. I’m afraid she’s about to tell me I should never eat it again.

Instead, a surprise: “That’s okay!” she practically shouts into the phone. “You just have to be careful about what you order and how much you eat.”

After studying the menu at Baja Fresh—the Mexican carryout chain where “you won’t find freezers, can openers, or microwaves,” according to the Web site—she says the biggest health hazard there is the high sodium count in almost every item. For people with heart problems, that could be a major issue.

“Most Americans get way more sodium than they should—between 4,000 and 6,000 milligrams every day,” says Gloede. Last week, the government released new nutrition guidelines, which include recommendations to decrease daily sodium intake to less than 1,500 milligrams for older adults and anyone who has hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease—about half of the US population. Everyone else should aim for less than 2,300 milligrams.

Unless you cook it at home, where you control the salt shaker, Gloede says it’s hard to find Mexican food that’s low in sodium. Instead, focus on keeping portions down and choosing lower-calorie foods. Also, try to avoid feasting too heavily on chips and salsa—the chips are usually loaded with salt.

So what can you order at Baja Fresh if you’re watching your weight? Here are Gloede’s picks.

Do Order . . .
• Veggie-and-Cheese Bare Burrito: In the restaurant’s argot, a “bare” burrito is one that’s served in a bowl without a tortilla. Going bare might be your best bet for enjoying Mexican flavors without the calorie load: Tortillas here will add about 150 calories to your meal. The veggie-and-cheese option, which includes grilled peppers, chilies, onions, lettuce, beans, and rice, clocks in at 580 calories and 10 grams of fat; ask for no sour cream to slim down the dish even further. If you want some protein, opt for chicken. The chicken-burrito bowl has 640 calories and 7 grams of fat.
• Original Baja Taco: Tacos get points for having built-in portion control—just one at Baja Fresh has around 200 calories. The originals, which are served on corn tortillas, come with a choice of chicken, steak, carnitas, or shrimp and are topped with onions, cilantro, and salsa.
• Fajitas: A confession: Gloede was hard pressed to find anything to order from the Baja Favorites menu, as most items had too much salt or fat to recommend wholeheartedly. Then she figured out a solution: Order the chicken, shrimp, or mahi mahi fajitas with corn tortillas—all less than 900 calories—and only eat two-thirds of it. Better yet, split your meal with a friend or take home half for dinner.
• Chicken and shrimp ensaladas: Most of the Baja Ensalada salads are less than 400 calories, so they’re a good bet across the board. The trimmest are the chicken and shrimp options, totaling 310 and 230 calories, respectively. “Just watch the dressing,” says Gloede. While most people would know to avoid the creamy ranch dressing (it has 260 calories and 26 grams of fat), the olive-oil vinaigrette is a surprise: It’s the worst option on the menu, with 31 fat grams and 290 calories. Better to try the salsa verde, which has just 15 calories and no fat.

Stay Away From . . .
• Nacho burrito: Loaded with chicken, cheese, beans, and fried tortilla strips, this monster of a meal weighs in at 1,250 calories and 42 grams of fat. Gloede says if you absolutely can’t resist, this is definitely a dish worth splitting. “Your body will thank you,” she says.
• Quesadillas: Despite having only a few ingredients, quesadillas are a high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium choice—pretty much the definition of what not to put in your body. At Baja Fresh, they range between 1,200 to 1,430 calories, and four of the eight options have more than 80 fat grams.
• Nachos: You knew it was coming, right? Think about it: What could be worse than a pile of salted, fried chips smothered in cheese, guacamole, and sour cream? The nachos here tip the scales at around 2,000 calories—that’s a whole day’s worth of calories for some people—and more than 100 grams of fat. The sodium count hovers around 3,000 milligrams. And if you think you’re safe with a side of Chips and Salsa Baja, think again—an order has 810 calories and 37 grams of fat.
• Tostada salads: Like the soup-in-a-bread-bowl options at other eateries, the tostada salads—greens and toppings served in a fried tortilla shell—sneak lots of calories into what might seem like a healthy meal. The shell accounts for nearly 500 calories and 28 fat grams. With fillings, all of these salads are more than 1,000 calories and have more than 50 grams of fat.

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