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A Spicy, Yet Highly Comprehensive Caloric Breakdown of Your Average Taco

Bean eating a lot lately? Here’s what it adds up to.

Tacos are my go-to light bite. They’re small, they’re simple, and I’ve convinced myself that they’re low-calorie. But the bigger my belly grows, the more I wonder, am I being foolish? Are all these tacos deceivingly dense? Have I “bean” inhaling too many calories? 

Grab a taco while we do some math.

How Many Calories in a Taco: The Numbers

There are few foods more diverse than tacos, which can be filled with just about anything. So, let’s count the calories among the usual culprits, then add it all up. (These calorie counts are rough estimates. Every taco is like a snowflake — one-of-a-kind down to its caloric makeup.)

  • The Tortilla: Flour is 140 calories, corn is 100 and hard shells are 150.
  • The Meat: A standard taco contains about two ounces of meat, which means chicken comes to 136 calories, beef to 155, pork to 137 and shrimp to 81.
  • The Onions: Four calories per tablespoon
  • The Cilantro: Zero calories per tablespoon
  • The Pico de Gallo: Five calories per tablespoon
  • The Salsa: Four calories per tablespoon
  • The Cheese: 37 calories per tablespoon
  • The Lettuce: One calorie per tablespoon
  • The Tomato: Three calories per tablespoon
  • The Avocado: 18 calories per tablespoon
  • The Beans: No matter what beans you choose — black, pinto or refried — a tablespoon will arrive near 15 calories.
  • The Sour Cream: 23 calories per tablespoon
  • The Lime Juice: 4 calories per tablespoon

Going by these numbers, a classic taco — corn tortilla, beef, onions, cilantro, pico de gallo, salsa and a squeeze of lime — totals to 272 calories. If you’re feeling spicy, a mighty taco made of all these ingredients — including all the meats and beans, tucked into a flour tortilla — amounts to a whopping 793 calories. (Three of those would put the average man just under his daily recommended caloric intake and the average woman well over hers.)

Calories in Your Favorite Fast Food Tacos

Because we all sneak into the drive-thru every now and again, here’s what to expect when disgracing authentic tacos everywhere:

  • Taco Bell’s Soft Beef Taco: 180 calories
  • Taco Bell’s Crunchy Taco: 170 calories
  • Taco Bell’s Cheesy Gordita Crunch: 500 calories
  • Del Taco’s Grilled Chicken Taco: 210 calories
  • Del Taco’s Value Taco (Crunchy): 130 calories
  • El Pollo Loco’s Taco al Carbón (Chicken): 150 calories
  • Jack in the Box’s Taco: 195 calories

Seems many of our beloved late-night spots are skimping on the meat.

How to Build a Low-Calorie Taco

If all these tacos sound like too many calories, Dana Hunnes, dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life, says you can always make a taco leaner by swapping the tortilla for a lettuce wrap and swapping meats for mere beans and vegetables, like corn, pepper and zucchini.

If that sounds up your alley, chef Maru Dávila, author of The Mexican Food Diet, was kind enough to share her recipe for a healthy vegan taco wrapped in lettuce:

  1. Sautée some chopped onions, garlic and tomatoes with a little olive oil.
  2. Add some cooked black beans. (Or if you’re not into the whole vegan thing, go for grass-fed ground beef.)
  3. Season with sea salt and garlic powder. 
  4. Cook for four to five minutes. 
  5. Serve over butter lettuce leaves or romaine lettuce. 
  6. Top it off with sliced avocado, homemade salsa verde and some lime.

As for me, hell, I’m making one of those jumbo tacos.