Vegetables Every Day

Vegetables Every Day
Carrot Tarator with Beets

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The importance of Fat

Last year, I talked about balancing your diet, with the intention of doing stories on Protein, Fat, and Carbs. I only got as far as protein. Time to continue the story, with Fat. We have a love-hate relationship with Fat. We love high fat foods but told not to eat them by the likes of the American Heart Association, the USDA, and Cooking Light Magazine. We have been led to believe that Fat will make us fat. But it turns out that Fat is a very complex character. Studies are now coming out saying Fat (at least the kind in olive oil and nuts) is good. There has been a lot of bad science, but it is slowly getting better. Just replacing fat in our diet with simple carbs doesn’t work to reduce chronic diseases like diabetes or heart problems.   There are lots of reasons for this (like we eat more calories total), and simple carbs (without fat) don’t fill you up. And to make fat-free taste good, the product is spiked with emulsifiers, gums, salt, and artificial flavors. Everyone agrees that some fat in your diet is good. Some vitamins are fat soluble, so some fat on vegetables, like an oil based-vinaigrette on salad or bacon in green beans, makes the vegetables more nutritious. The problem with fats is that they are a bunch of different things, and very quickly a discussion of fats brings back nightmares from organic chemistry class. Things like saturated fats, mono-saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, trans fats, omega-3. -6, and -9 fats, long chain and short chain fatty acids. Let’s look at the current fat stereotypes, and try to make sense out of them without needing a degree in organic chemistry and biology.

The good fats: the one that wear white hats. These are fats found in unprocessed foods, like nuts and avocados, olives, salmon and other fatty fish. This is pretty well accepted by everyone. Extra virgin olive oil is also in the category of good to eat.

The easy to love fats with a bad reputation: Bacon, butter, eggs, steak. These get labeled as saturated fats, and we keep hearing they are bad for us. But unfortunately there are not many good, controlled studies which show whether a long term animal-fat laden diet is good or bad. There are population studies that show that red-meat rich diets are bad (but these diets are also likely rich in simple carbs, as in do you want fries and a large coke with that burger?). There are also population studies that show that traditional cultures based on hunting or dairy have good health. Some studies (but not all) show some people that go on very low carb diets (i.e. a high fat Atkins Diet) have improved blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and can reduce weight. These fats are the most complicated. There are a bunch of different structures for these fats, and the make-up of these fats depends on what the animal ate. For example, a cow that is raised on grass has more good omega-3 fats than a cow raised on grain (organic beef and organic milk comes from cows that are raised on grass not grain). Meat and dairy are not empty calories, in addition to protein they have a load of good vitamins and minerals. Personally, I count the fat in meat as a good fat, but with limits. Pesticides tend to accumulate in fat (which is true for humans as well as cows and fish), and modern practices for “factory meat” are pretty gruesome and include some less than desirable components, like routine antibiotic use as well as other chemicals like arsenic in chicken feed. And likely soon, GMO modified salmon. I usually try to eat organic or wild meats and dairy, that tends to limit how much I eat due to availability and cost.

Next in the list is the “polyunsaturated fats”, like canola oil. While has been generally considered a “good” fat, scientist is being to suspect these are problematic when consumed in large amounts, primarily because it throws off the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats (the more omega-6 fat you eat, the more omega-3 fat you need). Also, they are made from GMO modified crops and are processed like a Hollywood starlet to make them palatable. It’s usually easy to replace these with olive oil. Oils are empty calories, but we don’t eat them in isolation. Oils are a carrier for something else, and need to be looked at in context of what they are mixed with… raw vegetables in a salad or French fries? A bit of oil in granola, or pseudo-butter substance on movie popcorn?

Next are the rest of the vegetable oils (like corn and soy). These are the cheap fats. They get credit for not being a saturated fat, but it’s not clear that saturated is a bad thing. Like canola, they start with GMO plants, then are processed with nasty chemicals (which are mostly removed). They commonly reside the ingredient lists of processed foods. Personally, I try to avoid these as much as possible.

Last, there is the bad-est fat of all: synthetic transfats. This one is sneaky, because as long as there is not too much, foods can be labeled “no-trans fat”. Look for “partially hydrogenated” oil, in the ingredient list. They show up in G-rated foods, like Skippy Peanut butter, and many varieties of Girl Scout cookies. Avoid entirely!

Around the world, healthy diets range from 10 – 40% or more fat (1). Some diets among hunter-gathers (like The Inuit) are almost 75% fat… and didn’t cause heart disease, obesity, or other problems we now associate with fat.

I know for me, a diet of at least 35% fat works for me. I eat low fat yogurt and cottage cheese, full fat cheeses (you don’t need that much), lots of nuts, plenty of avocados (right now, we are getting Fuente’s at the farmers market). Lunch is frequently a salad dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. I sauté vegetables in olive oil (and occasionally bacon or duck fat). I eat a variety of meat, including fish, chicken (with skin), beef, elk (which has virtually no fat), plus some bacon and salami. I think where you really get into trouble with fat is when you combine fat with simple carbs, like French fries, bread, and most any dessert.. portion control is key.

I will finish with a high fat recipe, a salad! This is my interpretation of a dish we had at one of our favorite restaurants in Scottsdale, FnB. The tarator has a Turkish origin, the recipe I used as inspiration was in kilograms and “tea glasses”. It’s similar to a Greek cucumber and yogurt salad (Jajoukh) but with carrots.

Carrot Tarator with Beets

Cook the beets however you like. I generally peel, quartered put in a vacuum bag then cook boiling water for about 15 minutes. You could roast them (like in this salad), or even steam if you like.

Serves 2 as a main dish salad, 4 – 6 as a starter

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces grated carrots (about 2 large)
12 ounces Greek yogurt (use at least lowfat, whole milk is better if you can find it)
¾ teaspoon salt (more to taste)
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 small clove garlic, minced and mashed.

Quartered, cooked beets lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt
Roasted walnuts
Fresh dill or other herbs

Heat ¼ cup oil in small skillet over medium low heat, cook carrots for about 15 minutes (don’t brown). Let the carrots cool. Meanwhile, mix the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, yogurt, salt, sugar, and garlic in a medium bowl. Add the cool carrots. To serve, spread about ½ inch deep in a shallow serving bowl (need about 9” diameter), top with beets, walnuts, and dill.