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Can tamales be healthy?

Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa or dough stuffed with fillings like meats, cheeses, chiles, and vegetables. They are then wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and steamed. Tamales are popular holiday and celebration foods in Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. They are cherished for their unique flavor and texture. But many people wonder – can tamales actually be part of a healthy diet?

The nutrition profile of tamales

At their most basic, tamales are comprised of masa harina (corn flour), lard or vegetable oil, and salt. Fillings commonly include ingredients like pork, chicken, beef, cheese, chiles, beans, squash, greens, and herbs. So a tamal’s nutrition will depend significantly on the masa and fillings used.

Here is the nutrition breakdown for a 100g serving of pork tamales:

Calories Protein Fat Carbs
167 7g 9g 15g

The main nutrients in tamales are carbohydrates from the masa, protein from meat fillings, and fat. Tamales can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat if made with lard and fatty meats like pork. They also provide some fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Variations like tamales with cheese, veggies, or beans will offer a different nutritional makeup.

Are tamales high in calories?

Calories in tamales can range from 150 to 300 per serving depending on size and fillings. A pork tamal may have around 160 calories while a larger chicken and cheese tamal could have over 250. So while not incredibly high in calories, tamales are typically a more calorie-dense food.

For comparison, here are calories in 1 tamal serving versus other foods:

Food Calories
Pork tamal 160
Cheeseburger 300
Slice of pizza 285
Bowl of pasta 440

Tamales have fewer calories than a cheeseburger or slice of pizza. But they are more calorie-dense than many other homemade dishes like a bowl of pasta. The fat and masa means tamales pack more calories per bite than lighter foods.

Are tamales high in fat and cholesterol?

Authentic tamales are made with lard – purified pork fat. Lard gives tamales their signature moistness and flavor. However, lard is over 40% saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol levels. Just a few ounces of lard can contain:

Saturated Fat Cholesterol
5.5g 19mg

Most of the fat in pork tamales also comes from saturated fat in the lard masa and pork filling. Plus, pork is high in cholesterol at 70mg per 100g. So a single pork tamal can contain:

Saturated Fat Cholesterol
9g 45mg

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 13g and cholesterol to 300mg per day. So just 1-2 traditional pork tamales could provide over half of those daily amounts.

Ways to reduce fat in tamales

There are some simple tweaks that can lighten up tamales:

  • Use vegetable oil instead of lard in the masa
  • Choose lower fat fillings like chicken, fish, or veggies
  • Make smaller tamales with less masa and filling
  • Bake or steam tamales instead of frying

Substituting vegetarian oil for lard can significantly reduce saturated fat and cholesterol. Filling tamales with plant-based options like beans, cheese, and vegetables instead of fatty pork and beef also cuts down on fat.

Are tamales a good source of protein?

Tamales can be an excellent source of protein thanks to meat fillings like pork, chicken, and beef:

Filling Protein (per 100g)
Pork 27g
Chicken 31g
Beef 26g

Most tamales will provide at least 15-20g of protein per serving. And that’s comparable to the protein in a chicken breast, Greek yogurt, or tofu. Tamales with hearty meat fillings can make up a major part of your daily protein needs.

Veggie tamales can also be great sources of plant-based protein from beans, cheese, and corn:

Filling Protein (per 100g)
Black beans 21g
Queso fresco 18g
Sweet corn 3g

Beans and cheese deliver substantial plant protein to meatless tamales. And the masa itself provides around 6g of protein per 100g, so veggie tamales can be high protein too.

Do tamales offer important vitamins and minerals?

Masa flour, meats, veggies, beans, and cheese contribute useful vitamins and minerals to tamales. Here are some of the biggest nutrient contributors:

Ingredient Key Nutrients
Masa flour Niacin, folate, iron, zinc
Pork Thiamin, vitamin B6, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, selenium
Chicken Niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, selenium
Beans Folate, iron, magnesium, potassium
Cheese Calcium, vitamin A
Vegetables Vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, potassium

Tamales made with a variety of fillings can provide many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Both meat and veggie variations are nutrient-dense options.

Are tamales a good source of fiber?

The corn masa dough is the main source of fiber in tamales. Here is how the fiber content of masa compares:

Food Fiber (per 100g)
Masa 5g
Corn tortilla 3g
All-purpose flour 3g

Masa is higher in fiber than corn tortillas since it uses a whole corn flour. The masa dough provides a moderate amount of fiber to boost the overall nutrition of tamales. The fiber content can be increased more by including fillings like beans, veggies, and cheese.

An average tamal may have around:


That’s about the same amount of fiber as a serving of brown rice or oatmeal. So tamales can contribute valuable fiber to your diet, especially when enjoyed in combination with other whole foods.

Do tamales have any downsides nutrition-wise?

The main potential downsides of tamales nutrition-wise are:

  • High in fat and saturated fat if made with a lot of lard
  • High in cholesterol if made with fatty meats like pork
  • Low in calcium unless filled with cheese
  • May lack vegetables and fruit
  • Often contain added sodium from fillings and masa

Traditional pork tamales fried in lard can be heavy in unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Tamales also don’t naturally contain produce or dairy. And the salt content adds up between seasoned masa, meat fillings, and any condiments.

However, there are easy ways to make tamales more balanced:

  • Use vegetable oil instead of lard
  • Choose lean proteins like chicken or fill with veggies/beans
  • Add cheese for calcium
  • Serve with salad or roasted vegetables
  • Use low-sodium fillings and limit added salt

With some simple adjustments, it’s possible to make nutritious tamales that still have that delicious homemade flavor.

Healthy tamal recipes

Here are some healthier recipes for tamales:

Vegetable tamales

Masa: masa harina, vegetable oil, salt
Filling: sauteed vegetables like spinach, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and carrots

Chicken and cheese tamales

Masa: masa harina, low-sodium chicken broth, salt
Filling: shredded chicken breast and low-fat cheese like Oaxaca or queso fresco

Bean and corn tamales

Masa: masa harina, vegetable oil, cilantro
Filling: black beans, corn, onions, garlic

Are tamales gluten-free?

Traditional tamales made from masa harina are gluten-free. Masa harina is produced from corn that has been nixtamalized – soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. This process breaks down the corn and releases nutrients, making the masa easier to digest.

Pure masa harina contains no gluten, unlike wheat flours. So traditional tamales with corn husk wrappings are safe for gluten-free diets. However, there are a few things to watch out for:

  • Flour tortillas used instead of corn husks contain gluten
  • Some fillings may have gluten – check ingredient labels
  • Look for certified gluten-free masa harina
  • Avoid masa harina mixes with added wheat flour

As long as you use pure corn masa and gluten-free fillings, tamales can be prepared 100% gluten-free. For people avoiding gluten, homemade tamales are a tasty gluten-free comfort food option.

Can tamales be part of a healthy diet?

Tamales can absolutely be part of a balanced and healthy diet. A few tips for making tamales healthier:

  • Choose leaner meats like chicken or fish
  • Use more plant-based fillings like vegetables, beans, and cheese
  • Replace lard in the masa with vegetable oil
  • Moderate portion sizes to control calories, fat, and sodium
  • Pair tamales with fresh toppings like salsa, lettuce, tomatoes
  • Serve tamales with side dishes like rice, beans, salad

Making some simple substitutions and eating tamales in moderation allows you to enjoy their delicious flavor and tradition while maintaining balanced nutrition.

Healthy ways to eat tamales

Here are some healthy meal ideas featuring tamales:

  • 1-2 veggie tamales + roasted vegetable salad
  • 1-2 chicken tamales + brown rice + pinto beans
  • 1-2 bean tamales + sautéed spinach + queso fresco
  • 1-2 pork tamales + chopped salad with salsa dressing

Build your tamal meal with plenty of fresh produce, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. Tamales can be the cozy, comforting center of a nutritious plate.


Tamales are definitively a hearty comfort food. But contrary to their reputation, tamales can also be part of healthy eating plan. Choosing veggie fillings, using less lard, and balancing out your portions allows you to enjoy all the rich tamal flavor while promoting good nutrition. With some small tweaks to ingredients and preparation, tamales can be nutritious as well as delicious.