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Drinking Healthy: Latin American Style

Yerba mate is a popular Latin American drink.

Whether you’re heading down south for a vacation or just want to bring some Latin American style to your drinking, the other half of the Americas has plenty to offer. The following is a list of popular Latin American beverages, and the health benefits and dangers associated with them.

Mate

Mate is a loose-leaf herbal tea drink made by steeping dried Yerba Mate leaves in hot water. Mate contains caffeine as well as many vitamins and antioxidants, but no calories.

In many Latin American countries, drinking mate is as much about the experience as the drink itself: It is served from a shared gourd and consumed through a metal straw called a bombilla.

Chicha

Another traditional Latin American beverage, “chicha” refers primarily to a corn-based homemade fermented beverage, though countless variations exist. Traditional Incan preparation called for the chewing up and spitting out of corn; modern preparation opts for corn germination, which makes the brewing process and caloric content similar to beer.

Like Mate, Chicha is served communally out of a hollowed out gourd called a pilche.

Agua Fresca

A sweetened juice drink most commonly sold by Mexican roadside vendors, you can make your own healthier agua fresca by using Splenda or a similar sugar-substitute to cut away more calories.

Rum

The the number one liquor of the Caribbean makes its way into countless punches in mojitos, a naturally low-calorie drink that you can make healthier with the mojito makeover and the Weight Watcher Mojito, both of which cut away calories. Another popular tropical choice involving rum, the Pina Colada, can be made healthier with this low-calorie version that uses coconut-flavored milk.

Margaritas

Frozen Margaritas are made with sugary syrups: A margarita on the rocks is much healthier, and better still is a margarita cooler, made with fresh fruit and sparkling water.

Alcohol Staples:

  • Wine: Not only do antioxidants provide inherent health benefits, but both red and white serve up between 100-120 calories per 5oz glass, making this a healthy and relatively low-calorie option. Mix wine with soda water or seltzer to make an even healthier wine spritzer. Chile and Argentina are known for their exceptional wines of all varieties. Both countries have developed their winemaking identities over the past few decades, so look for Chilean carmnres and Argentinian malbecs.
  • Beer: A typical brew brings roughly 150 calories per 12 ounces, but light beer contains as few as 55 calories per bottle, though many drinkers lament the lost flavor. Find some of them listed with their calorie counts here.
  • Liquor generally contains 90 calories per 1.5oz serving.

Watch Out For:

  • Mixers: It’s not the liquor that gets you, it’s the mixers. Drop the regular soda and switch to diet soda, soda water, seltzer or flavored seltzer, and you’ll have yourself a low-calorie mixed drink. Stay away from sweetened juices or creamy flavorings to avoid turning that refreshment into a sippable dessert.
  • Horchata: Beware of Horchata, the Mexican sweet-milk drink; it’s full of fat and sugar.
  • Portion Sizes: Whatever part of Latin America you visit, be sure to keep an eye on the portion sizes. The above-listed calorie counts are based on American serving sizes, but many countries drink beers in bigger glasses or pour more than one shot into mixed drinks.
  • Drinking Strategy: You’re living it up abroad, so try not to pull out your "drinking healthy" cheat sheet at every stop. Instead, know the basics of how to cut out calories and think of a drink as a treat. Staying hydrated and active are also keys to processing the alcohol and burning those empty liquid calories.
  • Water: Drinking healthy begins with water, and the water in Latin America isn’t healthy. It contains bacteria that Americans’ immune systems are unprepared to handle: If you drink the water, you will most likely contract “Montezuma’s Revenge” and lose a few days of your trip. Ask for bottled water without ice: in Spanish, that’s “Quiero una aqua botella, no hielo por favor.”