Q: I’m confused. Whenever I think about healthy eating, I think about cutting out fat and low fat diets. I try to cook with as little fat as possible and do not add too much dressing to my salads because I worry about high blood pressure and cholesterol. But now I see coconut oil is trendy and you seem to use a lot of olive oil, even butter, in your dishes. Is that healthy?
A: Thank you for writing in! And yes, many health conscious folks are confused about fats. As you know, I believe very deeply in indulgence. And like most of the good things in life, it’s quality, not quantity…
Perhaps one of the most satisfying tastes to our palette, fats enhance the flavor of whatever we are eating. In fact researchers are now considering ‘fat’ to be the sixth basic taste- in addition to salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (earthy/savory… like mushrooms). When foods rich in fat hit our palettes, they have a very calming effect on our nervous system, creating feelings of comfort and satisfaction.
Our ancestors intuitively knew that foods rich in fat not only satisfied hunger, but provided enough energy and caloric substance to stave off hunger between meals. They also knew that the use of fats provided the basic culinary function of distributing heat, so our dishes cook evenly.
Modern research is confirming that high quality fats not only nourish our senses, but they are vital to digestive function, nutrient absorption, healthy skin and hair, increasing satiety between meals (reducing mindless snacking), and supporting cognitive brain function, with improved concentration, mood, and memory.
Many phytonutrients in our foods – especially the fat soluble variety like Vitamins A, D, E and K – are only bioavailable during the digestive process when we have high-quality fats in the mix.
But how did we get so scared as a nation of having fat in our diets?
Fat Phobia and the Mis-Education of a Nation
I grew up in the 80’s when nutritional education in this country was dominated by the low fat diet paradigm. I was part of a generation of Americans who was raised in fear of fats, thinking that eating fats made you fat. And that all fats, but especially saturated fats, increased your risk of cardiovascular disease.
In turn, we cooked with as little fat as possible thinking we were saving our hearts. We bought processed ‘stuff’ in which natural fats in food were removed for us in factories somewhere and in their place they added… artificial sweeteners of various varieties and other unpronounceable food additives that were designed in laboratories somewhere to prolong shelf life or cheaply add flavor where otherwise we were eating cardboard. We bought skim milk, low fat Snackwells cookies, and Lean Cuisines.
Then something happened to us as a nation.
We carbo-loaded on ‘diet food’ – rice cakes and unsatisfying frozen dinners with less than 7g of fat – that, unbeknownst to us, metabolized in our bodies as refined sugar. We couldn’t stop snacking. We never felt satisfied or nourished with what we ate because the fats that normally cue satiety in our brains were missing in action.
We increasingly struggled with overweight and obesity. And with all of the refined sugars in our diets, we developed insulin-resistance, a metabolic precursor for Diabetes, pre-Diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Additionally, researchers are now establishing correlation between low fat diets and the increasing rates of ADHD in children and Alzheimer’s in seniors.
But there’s a Better, More Delicious Way to Stay Healthy
While I am skeptical of the Paleo Diet and its historical underpinnings, I think it is on to something. We can learn a great deal from the nutritional wisdom of our ancestors and their diets. And not just the diets our paleolithic ancestors, but the traditional diets of more recent ancestors.
One element that many traditional diets around the world share is an inclusion of more plant-based and unrefined, whole foods. And generous amounts of healthy fats to enhance taste and digestibility of those nutrient dense foods.
The Mediterranean diet, now considered the gold standard for its track record in cultivating longevity and optimal health is distinguished by its whole grains, legumes, and freshly foraged greens simmered in generous amounts of olive oil and garlic.
Like most of the good things in life, it’s all about quality, not quantity. Indulge wisely.
When choosing from healthy fats, be sure to get these fats from as much as possible from organic, unrefined sources.
- Think olive oil, avocados;
- When using olive oil, look for cold pressed, extra-virgin, and cook at low to medium heats for longer periods of time because it has a lower smoking point. If it passes that smoking point in the cooking process, it can have an oxidizing effect in our bodies. Better yet, olive oil is a great base for salad dressing
- Avocados- Alligator pear, poor man’s butter, whatever you call it this fruit is highly detoxifying source of micro-nutrients and healthy fats.
- These fats are known to reduce LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Sesame oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, walnuts, salmon, small oily fish like mackerel and sardines
- These fats contain long chain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids vital to cardiovascular health
- When cooking with these oils use low heat or no heat at all because they already have an unstable molecular structure and oxidizes very quickly, which can create inflammation, the silent precursor of metabolic dysfunction and over time chronic disease.
- Coconut oil, avocado, butter or ghee (butter in which milk solids have been removed) and other dairy products, nuts and seeds
- Coconut oil is king: antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-cancer properties. It improves digestion, nutrient absorption and digestive health. Additionally, its medium-chain triglycerides are fatty acids that provide energy and boost metabolism, making it ideal for weight management. Look for organic, cold pressed and unrefined.
- When using animal sources of always opt for quality- organic and ethically sourced.
- These fats are best for frying and baking at high heats because they have a very stable molecular structure and very high smoking point.
Fats to avoid
- Trans-fat a.k.a. partially-hydrogenated (margarine, Crisco) appears in a lot of processed, packaged foods..
- Seriously don’t use or consume. Ever. They do not naturally appear in nature. They were created in laboratories by artificially saturating otherwise liquid forms of fat, making them into solids. to increase the shelf life of the foods.
- Canola Oil- There is no canola plant in nature. It is a genetically modified food (GMO) produced by scientists in the 70s create a cooking oil with an artificially high smoking point.
To Your Health!
I hope you’re inspired to explore a well-balanced diet that supports optimal health and vitality is one that is rich in plant-based foods, veggies, especially dark leafy greens, fruits, and whole grains.
And ALL of the healthy fats that help make it indulgent along the way.