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Healthy Mexican Cooking with Chef Lala

Chef LaLa's dinner makeover draws inspiration from old family recipes and the cuisine of Jalisco, the Mexican state where her dad is from. The mood and food is light when LaLa and her family gather for a healthy Mexican meal.
  • Breaking the Diabetes Cycle

    Despite having two parents, three grandparents, and eight uncles with diabetes, Chef LaLa (Laura Diaz) is determined to change the course of history. "Mexican food has a bad rap for being high in calories, carbs, and fat. But it doesn't have to be," she says. "I grew up in our family restaurants, so authenticity is important to me. And health is equally important."

    Inspired by her three passions in life (her son and family, cooking, and health), this Los Angeles-based chef uses her culinary and nutrition training to show people how to enjoy traditional cultural cuisine in better ways. As a motivational speaker for several health outlets, including the American Heart Association, NBA FIT, and the Let's Move! campaign, LaLa kept getting audience questions related to diabetes. "I realized people didn't have enough solutions for how to enjoy the foods they love while managing their diabetes," says LaLa, who is also a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association and an honoree for the Joslin Diabetes Center's Latino Initiatives. "Everyone talks about the diabetes epidemic, but I think we need to focus on the solutions."

    And that's exactly what LaLa does.

    "You can't hand someone [who is newly diagnosed with diabetes] a list of vegetables and expect them to change the way they eat. If tortillas or pasta or bread is a big part of their cultural cuisine, a better solution is to show them how and when to eat those foods."

  • Empowering People with Diabetes

    LaLa also knows that managing diabetes is not a one-size-fits-all formula. "Every situation and every person is unique. My mom doesn't like to exercise, but she's very good at keeping her food portions in check. For my dad, controlling his portions isn't easy, but he never misses a day of exercise."

    As someone who has struggled with her own weight, especially after the birth of her son, LaLa relates to the challenges people face when it comes to food choices. "I give people the knowledge they need to make healthy decisions. That's empowering -- and it can change the course of history."

    Mexican-Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national survey.

    "There is a misconception in my culture that diabetes is inevitable," LaLa says. "I know many people who are afraid to go to the doctor for fear of being diagnosed with diabetes and being told they won't be able to eat rice or tortillas again."

    But LaLa is dispelling this myth one household at a time. She has appeared as a guest nutritionist on Dale con Ganas (the Latin version of The Biggest Loser), where she helps overweight Mexican families make light and delicious dinners. And you can download and print (in English or Spanish) LaLa's free family-friendly mini cookbook, Yummy for Your Tummy, at cheflala.com/cookbooks.

    Get some of Chef's Lala's lightened recipes now!

  • Chef Lala's Carnitas Tacos

    "One of the reasons I became a chef was because I was amazed at my father's ability to prepare the perfect meal, particularly his carnitas," says Chef Lala. "Traditionally, carnitas are deep fried in lard -- a nutritionist's nightmare! Now, using healthier cooking methods and ingredients, my father (who now has diabetes) and I can enjoy carnitas without sacrificing the crispy outside and tender, juicy inside of the pork."

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  • Mushroom Silvestri

    Packed with nutrients and fresh ingredients, try this flavorful, low-carb recipe when you want a side dish that dazzles.

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  • Rajas con Crema

    "Chile peppers are delicious and a great source of vitamins and capsicum, a natural anti-inflammatory," says Lala. "I took my grandmother's traditional recipe, substituting olive oil for butter, cut the amount of cream in half, and opted for skim-milk cheese, lowering calories, fat, and saturated fat."

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  • Shrimp and Cucumber with Creamy Avocado Dressing

    This protein-packed, low-carb appetizer boasts only 85 calories and 2 grams of fat per serving. You'll be surprised how easy it is to whip together.

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  • Cinnamon Custard and Fruit

    Enjoy this creamy stove-top custard for less than 150 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 20 grams of carb per serving. This recipe makes eight servings -- perfect for entertaining.

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  • Big Flavor, Zero Calories

    For a refreshing drink with zero calories, Lala flavors mineral water with mint leaves and slices of cucumber, limes, and strawberries. Try it the next time your family or friends gather for a meal.

  • Sister Support

    When Veronica, left, LaLa's younger sister, learned that she has prediabetes, LaLa jumped to action. "We flipped through cookbooks and talked about how to make the recipes healthier. And I call Veronica all the time to ask what she had for lunch," LaLa says. "Health is about making small steps. Even a five-pound weight loss is big for diabetes control."

  • Lala's Top Health Tips

    1. Tortillas are a staple in Latino cuisine, but they aren't all created equal. LaLa says you must compare nutrition labels at the store. For example, 15 very thin corn tortillas have the same calories as only two large flour tortillas made with lard.

    2. LaLa prefers to saute and brown foods with canola oil because it has a high smoke point and it's lower in saturated fat than other cooking oils, especially manteca (lard), which is often used in Latino cuisine.

    3. Fat provides more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrate, but when you cut fat from recipes, you also cut some flavor. That's when LaLa boosts the flavor with spice mixes, herbs, chiles, and limes.

    4. LaLa encourages everyone to ask one question before eating a food: "What is this doing for me?" If the choice isn't nourishing your body (think fried foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol), it might need to be replaced.

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