It seems like the fastest way to sell food today is to slap a “lowfat” or “no-fat” label on it—and after 35 years of authorities on diet demonizing fat, it is no wonder that we are programmed to respond.
We have been sold a bill of goods that all fat is bad, bad, bad. “Don’t eat fat if you want to stay slim or lose weight.” “Don’t eat fat if you want your arteries to stay clear.” ”Don’t eat fat if you want to be healthy.” The beat is relentless.
Even healthy foods get a bad rap because of their fat content: Nuts are good for you, but only a few because they are loaded with fat. A serving size is 1/8th of an avocado—really? Well, it is loaded with fat. (Chocolate anyone?)
Maybe it is time we take a step back and take a fresh look at this illogical phobia.
The Big Three
When it comes to diet, there are only three macronutrients available: protein, carbohydrates, and, of course, fat. At nine calories, each gram of fat provides more than twice the energy supplied by either protein (four) or carbohydrates (four)—alcohol weighs in at seven, but that’s another story. Even the numbers look ominous, but remember: You need to look at diet from the perspective of total consumption, not the raw content of one particular food.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a waifish model trying to skate by on 1,000 calories a day or an athlete burning up 4,000 calories a day, if you reduce the consumption of one macronutrient, you must make up the difference with the remaining two.
Therein lies the problem. We have been told for so long that high protein is not healthy and that fats will kill you that the typical American’s diet is completely out of whack. Even the USDA has gone along with the plan, insisting for decades that cheap breads and cereals form the base of our food pyramid.
So where have these recommendations that told us to eat carbohydrates for up to 70 percent of our diet gotten us? We are overweight; crippled with chronic disease (especially, but not limited to, type 2 diabetes); and overmedicated. And—because of A, B, and C—we are paying more for healthcare than we ever have in the past.
The Rap on Carbs
We all know that grains are full of carbohydrates. These large molecules are broken down in the body into many smaller glucose molecules. A limited amount of this is stored by the liver and muscles as glycogen so we can “run for our lives” in an emergency or to supply a steady source of energy while we sleep. Ideally, the rest is taken in by cells throughout the body and converted to ATP for cellular energy.
For the purposes of this discussion, there is no need to rehash the role of insulin in regulating glucose in the body and the development of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. The takeaway here is that the body regulates blood glucose levels very tightly. Too much or too little is dangerous—the body will preferentially burn glucose when it is circulating, and excess will be stored as fat in order to return blood glucose to safe levels.
What about when glucose falls too low? The body can convert protein to glucose in an emergency through gluconeogenesis (though excess insulin in the bloodstream inhibits this process)—but glucose is not the only fuel the body can run on. Like a flexfuel engine, cells can also burn fat.
Rebalancing the Diet
So how can a practitioner look a diabetic patient in the eye and suggest that a bowl of oatmeal (78 percent carbs) with some berries on top is an appropriate breakfast? It boils down to fear of fat—remember, the party line is that fat will kill you. The argument may go something like this: What is better—a sudden death from cardiac arrest fueled by fat, or a long slow poisoning by excess carb consumption? While no one is suggesting that this is the actual train of thought, which of the above scares you more? Enough said.
So if a drastic reduction in carbohydrate consumption is required—as would be for weight loss (yes, drop the carbs, not the fat) or for those needing to control insulin resistance for type 2 diabetes—the calories to live on have to come from somewhere. Excess protein can end up becoming glucose (bringing us right back to where we were), so what is left? Once again, fat.
In order to successfully rebalance your diet when reducing carbs, higher fat consumption is required. Mind you, not to excess—within an appropriate caloric intake for your goals. To be completely clear: Elimination of carbohydrates is not the goal. Soluble and insoluble fiber are critically important for proper function of your digestive tract, and the phytonutrients provided by vegetables and fruit (which also contain carbohydrates) are a must. Just be aware of the high level of carbs provided by starchy root vegetables, grain-based products, and fruit juice (cutting processed junk food goes without saying).
Why Fatten-Up Our Diet?
Getting back to burning fat, your body is particularly good at grabbing one type of fat and converting it to quick energy with no insulin rush. These are medium-chain fatty acids, and they are abundant in butter and coconut oil. These fats have been shown to ramp up your metabolism and even aid in weight loss. Another fat, conjugated linoleic acid, has also been shown to help reduce waistlines. It can be found in milk products, mushrooms, egg yolks, and either organic meat or game.
Beyond calories and energy metabolism, fat plays many important roles in our bodies. These seem to have been largely ignored or forgotten in this mad quest to eliminate fat from our diet. For starters, about two-thirds of the non-water weight of our brains is fat. Brain cell membranes are built of fat, and omega-3 fats are critical to the photoreceptors in your eyes. The myelin sheaths that insulate every neuron in our nervous systems are also about 70 percent fat—mostly consisting of oleic acid (omega-9) which is found abundantly in olive oil as well as avocados, almonds, pecans, macadamias, and peanuts. A recent study found that people who regularly eat avocados weigh an average of almost eight pounds less than those who avoid them.
Oleic acid is also a preferential metabolite of oxidizing the steric acid found abundantly in saturated animal fats, but especially in lard and butter. (The only two significant vegetable sources of steric acid are cocoa butter and shea—maybe you’ve seen these around the local health-food store lately). Steric acid is also less likely to be involved in the formation of cholesterol esters, thus influencing LDL cholesterol to a lower extent than other saturated fats.
Critical vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and cannot be absorbed by the body in the absence of fat. And do you know what else is fat soluble? Flavor! It is no coincidence that refrigerators have a place for butter away from all the other food. Fat absorbs odors and flavors, and then delivers them to your palate. There is a reason that classical French cooking begins with sautéing onions and garlic in butter. You are preparing these potent flavors to be served to your taste buds. (Who says healthy food has to taste bad?)
Bringing this full circle, once you have eaten your delicious food, fat takes longer for your body to digest than carbs, thus making you feel more satisfied and less likely to suffer cravings halfway to mealtime.
Most people are familiar with the Mediterranean diet. Multiple studies have demonstrated that this way of eating—which includes liberal amounts of olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish—helps to maintain a healthy weight and promote cardiovascular health.
As mentioned earlier, certain fats are essential for proper function of your body, but did you know that they also should be present in the right proportion? Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in fish (especially cold-water fatty varieties like salmon) and also present in foods derived from animals raised on the diet nature intended for them—pasture-grazed cattle, real free-range chicken, and so on. Concentrated dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids are primarily vegetable, especially oils of corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, and soybeans. Farther down the list are nuts, canola oil, and poultry fat.
An ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats accumulated in the body may be somewhere between 1:2 and 1:4, with some sources accepting up to 1:6. Actual levels in the American population run closer to 1:20 or even worse. Why is this significant? An overabundance of omega-6 seems to trigger inflammation in the body—one of the underlying causes of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health issues.
Remember, however, that your body still needs omega-6 fatty acids—just not excessive quantities. However, the current fear of saturated fat paired with the cheap production of vegetable oil from subsidized commodities such as grain and soybeans ensure that our intake of omega-6 stays far above the ideal level.
If It Can’t Take the Heat
While light and oxygen are enemies of dietary fat during storage, heat is the primary enemy while cooking. There are two heat-related processes that affect fats during cooking which can undermine your health.
High heat damages oils through intensity and duration. Every fat found in the kitchen has a smoke point associated with it. The smoke point is the temperature where the oil begins to denature, breaking down into other molecules. This process often results in compounds that create undesirable flavors, inflammatory or carcinogenic compounds, or all of the above. The food industry is very aware of this transition and favors vegetable oils because many are cheap and—at the surface—they can take very high temperatures better than traditional fats such as lard, butter, or even coconut oil.
While this assertion is true, the untold story is that in order to handle the high heat demanded of cooking processes that are artificially condensed, the oils must be refined. Over the past few decades, we have been conditioned to interpret the word light to mean lower fat and calories. In this case, light means that the color of the oil is lighter. Why? Because the oil has been stripped of the natural attributes that add flavor and nutrition, that counter oxidation, and that slow inflammation. These are the attributes of fats and oils that degrade first in the face of high temperature—and thus lower the smoke point of the fat. Yes, refined, light vegetable oils have a high smoke point—but is it an effective trade-off when it comes to our health?
Now for duration: As heat continues to be applied to a fat, and as food particles accumulate, it becomes less able to withstand that same level of heat. Over time, the smoke point drops. Repeated heating and cooling of a quantity of fat has the same effect, but at an accelerated rate. Think about how long the oil has been in the fryer at your local fast-food outlet or greasy spoon…
Unsaturated fats are less stable fats and have to be monitored carefully. Despite the health claims of vegetable oil proponents, their combination of omega-6 ratio and lower heat stability over time makes saturated fats a better choice for higher-heat cooking than typically acknowledged. These considerations—when taken with the concerns listed in the AGEd Foods sidebar accompanying this article—lead one to believe that fats in cooking should be watched carefully and portioned modestly.
All in all, moderation and prudence are the keys to healthy application of fats in the diet. Enjoy the flavors provided by sources of healthy monounsaturated fat (asparagus drizzled with olive oil) and sensible portions of saturated fat (especially from vegetable sources and pastured livestock). It is time to quit living in fear of fat and enjoy your food!
Omega-6 Content of Fats & Oils
Grapeseed [ 70% ]
Corn [ 55% ]
Cottonseed [ 52% ]
Soybean [ 51% ]
Sesame [ 42% ]
Margarine [ 28% ]
Peanut butter [ 23% ]
Chicken fat [ 20% ]
Canola [ 19% ]
Bacon grease [ 10% ]
Lard [ 10% ]
Olive oil [ 10% ]
Av ocado [ 9% ]
Butter [ 3% ]
Cream [ 2% ]
Coconut oil [ 2% ]
High Smoke-Point Fats & Oils
Ghee (clarified butter)
Light olive oil
High heat reacts with food to create a host of unhealthy compounds. Even the wonderful caramelization and browning that we are taught to strive for when cooking results in some nasty compounds called AGEs (advanced glycation end products). In this case, the heat causes proteins to bond with sugars in a process called glycation. (Which is exactly what you are measuring when you check your HbA1c level—protein glycation of hemoglobin to glucose!) These compounds are notorious for the inflammation they cause. In addition, bits of food left in the oil cook into denatured compounds that are often toxic. In particular, starches that are overheated can form a dangerous compound called acrylamide that shows up as blackened flecks clinging to the food.
Herbes de Provence Squash
2 medium-size zucchini
2 medium-size yellow squash
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Fresh lemon wedges
Slice the zucchini and yellow squash lengthwise into long, 1/3-inch-thick slices. Place the slices in a single layer on two large baking pans. Place the garlic and oil in a small saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for six to seven minutes, just until fragrant. Add the herbes de Provence. Pour the oil mixture evenly over all the zucchini and yellow squash and let stand for 10 minutes. Prepare an outdoor grill. Coat the grill rack with cooking spray. Heat the grill to medium-high. Carefully place the zucchini and yellow squash on the grill, arranging them so the slices do not fall through the grill rack. Cook the squash until browned, four to six minutes per side. Serve the squash with lemon wedges. Source: You Won’t Believe It’s Salt-Free! By Robyn Webb (photo credit: Renee Comet Photography)
Quinoa with Secret Pesto and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
1/2 cup (packed) sun-dried tomatoes
2 cups (packed) chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup hemp seeds
1/3 cup EFA oil (or red palm oil)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon freeze-dried wheatgrass powder
1 teaspoon nutritional yeast
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cups quinoa
2 cups (packed) baby spinach, cut chiffonade-style (aka extra thin)
Soak the sun-dried tomatoes in hot water for 30 minutes or until soft. Slice thinly. Use a food processor to blend the basil, hemp seeds, both oils, wheatgrass powder, nutritional yeast, sea salt, and garlic into a pesto sauce. In a large bowl, toss some of the pesto (use as much as desired) with the quinoa, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach. Serve cold, or gently heat. Source: Superfood Kitchen by Julie Morris (photo credit: Julie Morris)
Classic Crab Cakes
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 large egg
1 pound lump crabmeat, drained and shell pieces removed
1 1/4 cup gluten-free bread crumbs, such as Glutino, divided
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Lemon slices, for serving
Combine the scallions, parsley, paprika, salt, cayenne pepper, mayonnaise mustard, lemon juice, and egg in a medium bowl. Stir in the crabmeat and 1/2 cup bread crumbs. Shape the mixture into eight equal patties. Dredge the patties in the remaining bread crumbs. Heat 1/4 cup oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add four crab cakes to the pan; cook for three minutes on each side or until browned. Remove from pan and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining oil and crab cakes. Serve with lemon slices. Source: Fast and Simple Gluten-Free by Gretchen F. Brown, RD