Dr. Robert Cook - Is It Bad For You? Approved by Dr. Robert Cook

Are Carnitas Bad For You?

Also Known As: Pulled pork, Mexican pulled pork



Short answer

Carnitas can vary in nutritional value. Moderation is key if they're prepared with saturated fats or oils, and the fattier cuts and additional salt can raise health concerns. Choosing lean cuts, cooking with less oil, and seasoning with herbs instead of salt make carnitas a more healthful option to enjoy occasionally within a balanced diet.



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Long answer

Nutritional Content of Carnitas

The nutritional content of carnitas can vary widely depending on the preparation method, portion size, and additional ingredients used. Typically, carnitas are made from pork shoulder (also known as pork butt) which is slow-cooked until tender, allowing it to be shredded easily. The following nutritional analysis is based on a standard serving of carnitas without any extra toppings or sides.

  • Calories: A single serving (about 4 ounces) of carnitas typically contains between 200 and 300 calories. The specific calorie count can increase if the meat is cooked with additional fats or oils.
  • Proteins: Pork is an excellent source of protein, and a serving of carnitas can offer around 20-25 grams of protein which is essential for muscle repair and growth.
  • Fats: Carnitas contain fats that can be both saturated and unsaturated. The amount of fat in carnitas can range from 10 to 20 grams per serving, with some of this being healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but also including less healthy saturated fats.
  • Carbohydrates: Carnitas are naturally low in carbohydrates, with a serving typically containing less than 1 gram of carbs. However, when served with traditional sides like rice, tortillas, or beans, the carbohydrate content will be higher.
  • Fiber: There is negligible fiber content in carnitas themselves, as they are purely an animal product.
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Pork, the main ingredient in carnitas, contains several important vitamins and minerals. These include B vitamins (especially B1 and B12), zinc, selenium, phosphorus, and iron.

It is also important to note the presence of certain micronutrients that are particularly abundant in pork such as thiamine (vitamin B1), which plays a crucial role in carbohydrate metabolism. Moreover, Vitamin B12 found in carnitas is vital for blood formation and the functioning of the nervous system.

The preparation method of carnitas often involves the use of spices and herbs, such as cumin, garlic, and oregano, which can contribute trace amounts of additional nutrients and antioxidants without adding significant calories.

However, the nutritional value can be impacted negatively if the meat is fried after being shredded, as is common in some recipes, which increases the fat content, particularly if unhealthy oils are used for frying. This step can also add a significant amount of sodium if salt or other sodium-rich seasonings are used excessively.

To gain a better understanding of the nutritional impact of carnitas as part of one's diet, it's advisable to consider the preparation method and the entire meal composition. When enjoyed in moderation and paired with wholesome sides, carnitas can be incorporated into a balanced diet.

For those tracking their nutrient intake, here is a basic nutritional breakdown based on a 4-ounce serving of homemade carnitas:

Nutrient Amount % Daily Value (DV)*
Calories 200-300
Protein 20-25g 40-50%
Total Fat 10-20g 15-31%
Saturated Fat 3.5-7g 18-35%
Carbohydrates <1g <1%
Fiber 0g 0%
Vitamins and Minerals Varies

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Individual needs may vary based on age, gender, activity level, and other factors.

When assessing the nutritional content of carnitas, one should always consider the broader context of their overall dietary patterns. Like any food, the health impact of carnitas is best understood within the complexity of a complete diet and lifestyle.

Saturated Fat and Cholesterol in Pork

The conversation about whether carnitas are "bad" for you often centers on their saturated fat and cholesterol content. Carnitas, a traditional Mexican dish made from pork, inherit the nutritional profile of the meat they are prepared from. Given that pork is a red meat, it can be high in both saturated fats and cholesterol, which have been linked to increased heart disease risk when consumed in excess.

Saturated Fat: Saturated fats are a type of dietary fat found in abundance in foods from animal sources. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6% of total daily calories for optimal heart health. A concern with carnitas is that they can contribute a significant amount of saturated fat to one's diet, depending on how they are prepared and consumed.

  • Example: A 3-ounce serving of cooked pork shoulder (a common cut for carnitas) can contain around 7 grams of saturated fat, according to the USDA FoodData Central. That's over a third of the recommended daily limit for saturated fat for an individual consuming 2,000 calories per day.

Cholesterol: Like all animal products, pork contains cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol's impact on blood cholesterol levels has been a subject of much debate among nutritionists and health experts. While our bodies need some cholesterol to function properly, too much can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries and heart disease.

  • Example: The same 3-ounce serving of cooked pork shoulder has about 76 milligrams of cholesterol, which is about a quarter of the advised daily maximum recommended by the American Heart Association.

However, recent studies, such as those published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that the link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease may not be as strong as once thought, indicating that dietary cholesterol might have a minimal impact on blood cholesterol levels for many people.

It is worth noting that the method of preparation can greatly influence the healthfulness of carnitas. Traditional recipes often call for the meat to be simmered in lard, which can further increase the saturated fat content. Healthier cooking methods, such as baking or grilling, can reduce the fat content and render carnitas a more heart-friendly option if consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

When considering carnitas in your diet, it is crucial to factor in portion sizes, frequency of consumption, the cut of pork used, and overall dietary context. Individuals with existing health concerns, particularly those related to heart health or cholesterol levels, should consult with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian for personalized advice.

Sodium Levels in Seasoning and Preparation

Carnitas, a delectably rich and savory dish traditional to Mexican cuisine, is often praised for its tender pork and the flavorful blend of spices. Like with any seasoned meat preparation, a key component of carnitas is the amount and type of seasoning, which includes salt - the primary source of sodium. The process of making carnitas typically involves seasoning the pork with a mix of various ingredients such as garlic, cumin, oregano, and, quite importantly, salt.

While sodium is an essential mineral for maintaining proper fluid balance and supporting nerve function in the body, excessive consumption can raise concerns. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. Yet, given that the seasoning process can be variable, the sodium content in carnitas can differ considerably based on the recipe and portion size.

In some restaurant servings, carnitas can contain upward of 1,000 mg of sodium per serving, approaching or exceeding half the daily recommended intake in just one meal. This is amplified when carnitas is served alongside other high-sodium accompaniments such as tortillas, salsa, and cheese.

  • Homemade Seasoning: A pinch of salt for taste versus prepackaged seasoning mixes could mean the difference in hundreds of milligrams of sodium. Opt for herbs and spices to enhance flavor instead of relying solely on salt.
  • Portion Size Awareness: Limiting portion sizes can also help manage sodium intake. A smaller, well-balanced portion of carnitas with a variety of fresh vegetables can provide a flavorful meal without excessive sodium.
  • Low-sodium Alternatives: Substituting ingredients for low-sodium options, like reduced-sodium broth or soy sauce, can also significantly lower the overall sodium content without compromising the traditional taste.

Ultimately, the sodium levels in carnitas can significantly impact a person's daily sodium intake. Preparation methods with a keen eye on sodium content will determine whether carnitas fit into a health-conscious diet. When prepared with sodium content in mind, carnitas can be savored in moderation as part of a balanced and nutritious eating plan. For individuals with hypertension or heart disease, being mindful of sodium levels is especially crucial given the potential for exacerbating health issues.

To better understand the impact of sodium in their diets, individuals should consult with a health professional or registered dietitian, who can provide personalized guidelines and adjustments to further tailor their nutritional intake as part of a comprehensive approach to well-being.

Balancing Portion Size and Frequency of Consumption

Understanding the appropriate portion size and frequency of consumption for carnitas is crucial in determining their impact on your diet. Carnitas can be a delectable part of a balanced meal, but overindulgence can lead to potential health issues. Let's dissect how to enjoy carnitas responsibly.

Assessing Portion Size:

  • Recommended Serving: The USDA defines a serving size of cooked meat as about 3 ounces, roughly the size of a deck of cards. This reference helps visualize an appropriate portion in a meal setting.
  • Atypical Serving Sizes: Mexican restaurants or homemade servings often exceed the standard portion size, which can lead to an unintentional increase in calorie and saturated fat intake.

Nutritional Implications:

  • Carnitas are traditionally high in protein, offering satiety and aiding in muscle repair and growth.
  • They can also be high in saturated fats, particularly if the meat cuts used are fattier or if preparation includes additional fats. High intake of saturated fats is linked to increased cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Frequency Considerations:

  • Ideal Frequency: Consuming high-fat meals like carnitas should be done in moderation. Aiming for once a week or on special occasions can keep your diet more balanced.
  • Risks of Frequent Consumption: Regularly indulging in large portions of carnitas might contribute to unwanted weight gain, obesity, and associated health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

By being mindful of both the portion you consume and the frequency at which you enjoy carnitas, you can make room for this savory dish in a health-conscious diet. Remember that the key is moderation and that pairing carnitas with a variety of vegetables and whole grains can further enhance the nutritional value of your meal.

In line with the recent dietary guidelines, incorporating a range of protein sources, including lean meats, is recommended for a balanced diet. Making informed choices can help maintain your health while still enjoying the rich flavors that carnitas have to offer.

Nutritional Distribution for a 3-ounce Serving of Carnitas
Nutrient Amount % Daily Value*
Calories 220 11%
Total Fat 15g 23%
Saturated Fat 5g 25%
Protein 20g 40%
Sodium 610mg 25%
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet

Note that the nutritional content can vary based on the cooking method and ingredients used. The nutritional values provided here should be used as a reference and not as an absolute measure.

Keep in mind that dietary needs can vary greatly from person to person, depending on factors such as age, sex, weight, metabolic rate, and physical activity level. Therefore, it is always recommended to consult with a registered dietitian or a healthcare professional when tailoring dietary intake, particularly if you have specific health goals or dietary restrictions in place.

Healthier Cooking Methods for Carnitas

Transforming the traditionally rich and hearty dish of carnitas into a healthier option is entirely possible with mindful cooking techniques. Below are alternative cooking methods that preserve the flavor while reducing unhealthy elements like excess fat and sodium.

1. Choose Leaner Cuts: Start with selecting a leaner cut of pork. Lean pork tenderloin, for instance, can substitute for fattier pork shoulder while still providing the necessary texture. Trim away any visible excess fat before cooking.

2. Use Healthier Cooking Liquids: Instead of cooking carnitas in lard or other highly saturated fats, use a small amount of heart-healthy oils such as olive oil or avocado oil. Add flavor to the meat with low-sodium broth or even citrus juice like freshly squeezed orange or lime which can tenderize the meat and add a zestful flavor.

3. Opt for Slow Cooking: The slow cooker can be your ally in creating healthier carnitas. This method allows for the use of less oil and instead relies on low-and-slow braising which keeps the meat tender and juicy without the need for added fat. Additionally, the slower cooking process allows for a greater infusion of spices and herbs, which can reduce the need for salt.

4. Bake in the Oven: Another healthy alternative is to bake the marinated pork in the oven. You can tightly wrap the meat with spices and a touch of oil in foil or a covered baking dish which allows the meat to self-baste in its own juices, minimizing the addition of extra fat.

5. Broil for Crispiness: To achieve the characteristic crispy edges of traditional carnitas without deep-frying, place the cooked, shredded pork under the broiler for a few minutes. This method uses direct heat to crisp up the meat's surface, eliminating the need for frying.

6. Incorporate Aromatic Vegetables: Increasing the aromatic vegetables such as onions, garlic, and peppers not only adds rich flavors but also additional nutrients. These vegetables can be cooked alongside the meat in the oven or slow cooker, blending their flavors and health benefits into the carnitas.

7. Use Spices Generously: Spices are key in preparing carnitas and can negate the need for high-sodium seasonings. Generously use spices such as cumin, chili powder, oregano, and coriander to create a complex flavor profile while contributing to the dish's antioxidant content.

By selecting the appropriate cooking method and ingredients, carnitas can be a nourishing part of a balanced diet. Implementing these healthier cooking techniques maximizes flavor while ensuring the meal is conducive to overall health.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, for active individuals or athletes, carnitas can provide a substantial amount of protein, which is crucial for muscle repair and growth. The presence of B vitamins, especially thiamine and B12, support energy metabolism and endurance, making carnitas a beneficial food when included as part of a balanced diet.

Carnitas can be a great addition to a low-carbohydrate diet due to their minimal carb content. Since a standard serving contains less than 1 gram of carbohydrates, the key is to pair them with low-carb sides such as vegetables or a salad instead of high-carb options like tortillas or rice.

Since restaurant portions can be larger than recommended serving sizes, a good rule of thumb is to visually compare your portion to the size of a deck of cards, which represents approximately 3 ounces — the USDA's reference serving size. You can also ask for a half-portion or plan to share the meal to ensure appropriate portions.

Yes, for vegetarians, jackfruit is a popular alternative to mimic the texture of shredded meat found in carnitas. When seasoned with similar spices and cooked until tender, it offers a similar flavor profile while being plant-based and providing beneficial fiber and nutrients.

Ask a question about Carnitas and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • increased calorie consumption
  • elevated saturated fat intake
  • sodium-induced bloating
  • potentially raised cholesterol levels

Possible long-term side effects

  • weight gain
  • higher risk of heart disease
  • increased cholesterol
  • potential blood pressure issues

Ingredients to be aware of


  • protein-rich
  • essential nutrients like b vitamins, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, iron
  • low carbohydrate content
  • potential satiety and muscle repair

Healthier alternatives

  • leaner cuts of pork
  • cooking with olive or avocado oil
  • low-sodium broths
  • herbs and spices over salt
  • slow cooking
  • baking
  • broiling instead of frying

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

The Jackfruit Company Tex-Mex

  • Plant-based protein
  • Tex-Mex flavor
  • Convenient 10 oz size
  • Nutrient-rich jackfruit
  • Vegan-friendly
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-16-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-16-2024

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