Are Tamales Healthy? It Depends Who You Ask, but We Think Vegan Tamales Are Best

Jamie Bichelman - Author

Jan. 26 2024, Published 12:34 p.m. ET

Assorted savory and sweet tamales from Arnaldo Richards' Picos.
Source: Getty Images

Enjoyed by ancient civilizations and best known as a delectable Mexican dish, tamales are ubiquitous to farmers markets, hole-in-the-wall Mexican shops, food delivery apps, and everywhere in-between, per The Spruce Eats.

Tamales have an incredible history, and are an important cultural meal for many people with Mexican roots. That said, those who eat tamales on the regular may be wondering if they are healthy.

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We know that one of the best things consumers can do for the environment is to adopt a plant-based diet, and that rings true as well for our own bodies: a vegan diet is highly protective against certain diseases and cancers, many of which can be caused by the processed meats and dairy cheese found in traditional tamales.

Keep reading below to learn some healthy ways to prepare tamales, so you can enjoy the culinary delight that honors the incredibly rich cultures that have enjoyed tamales for thousands of years.

Three generations of a family prepare tamales together in a kitchen.
Source: Getty Images
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Are tamales healthy?

As they're traditionally made, tamales can be quite an unhealthy food to consume.

Making homemade tamales at tamalada celebrations is a tradition passed down over several generations, per TexasMonthly. Tinkering with a decades-old family recipe — no matter how unhealthy it may be — will likely cause offense and frustration among families celebrating their culture.

Nevertheless, we can still honor our family members by keeping them safe through healthful eating habits, which are unequivocally vegan in nature and free of animal flesh and byproducts.

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Per Texas A&M Health's Vital Record, masa (i.e. the flour used to make tamales) is often paired with lard, or the fat from a pig, which can have a disastrous consequence on cholesterol levels.

Tamaladas can still be a source of education, joy, and togetherness, as communities are taught how to prepare tamales in a healthier manner, in a way that "allows families to keep the tradition alive while also taking care of their health.”

One such variation that the Vital Record recommends is a low-fat tamale with beans as the main source of protein. We know that beans can be a protein powerhouse when prepared healthily, and paired with a reasonable amount of a family's preferred blend of spices while swapping out animal lard for olive oil and vegetable broth, it is no exaggeration that simple swaps can make a family's traditional tamale recipe into a significantly healthier one.

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A grandmother prepares food with her daughter and granddaughters in a kitchen.
Source: Getty Images

Make healthy tamales with these amazing recipes.

According to a Beachbody On Demand blog post, extra cheese, sour cream, high-sodium broths, and other saturated fat and cholesterol sources can sabotage any well-intentioned tamale recipe. That doesn't mean easy swaps and mindfully choosing the perfect ingredients can't make for the perfect tamale.

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Potato & Pinto Bean + Green Chili & Cheese

This recipe for vegan tamales two ways by Jasmine at Sweet Simple Vegan uses Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina as the not-so-secret super swap for masa with lard to make traditional, healthful, delicious tamales.

Tamales Verdes

This recipe for tamales verdes from the Gracias Madre Cookbook and shared by World of Vegan uses jackfruit and salsa verde as the star ingredients.

Instant Pot Authentic Vegan Tamales

This recipe for Instant Pot authentic vegan tamales from Conflicted Vegan uses Guajillo chiles and vegan chicken bouillon as delectable swaps to retain authentic tamale flavors.

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