Our foods are full of fat. “Good” fat. “Bad” fat. Saturated fat. Mono- and poly-unsaturated fat. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Trans fats. How do those of us who like to eat keep them all straight?
At some point, cooking food requires the use of fats. Butter, oils and animal fats help to spread flavors evenly throughout a dish, as when ginger and garlic are added to hot oil as the first stir-fry ingredients to flavor the oil and in turn spread those flavors throughout the rest of the dish. Fats also keep foods from sticking and they help foods like roasted meat retain moisture. Fats carry a lot of the flavor and “feel” of many foods. Fats are delicious!
Fats also are important to our health. “Omega” fats are called “essential” fats because they cannot be made in the body; we must ingest them. Vitamins, including A, D, E and K, are fat-soluble, retaining their vitamin properties when cooked. Proper digestion relies upon fats and they play an important role in immunity and in the absorption of minerals.
How much fat should we be eating? Experts don’t agree, but the American Heart Association and the FDA recommend that 30 percent of total calories be derived from fats. The typical American currently averages about 33 percent of caloric intake from fats, according to the AHA.
Diet plans such as the Atkins Diet and the South Beach Diet suggest that 40-60 percent of total calories be derived from fats, especially in the initial phases of the diet plan. Scandinavians average over 40 percent; Pacific Islanders who eat a traditional diet average more than 50 percent of calories from fat.
Each type of fatty acid (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) has a slightly different molecular structure and each plays a unique role in our bodies. All of the fats and oils we ingest are actually a blend of these three fatty acids, but they are commonly identified solely by their predominant fatty acid.
Olive oil, for example, is considered to be a “healthy” fat — monounsaturated — and while it is predominantly monounsaturated, it is also 14 percent saturated fat and 8 percent polyunsaturated fat.
The trick is to ingest the right amounts of the right fats, which are found in differing quantities in the various fats and oils we use.
But wait — it gets even more complicated! The makeup of animal fat depends upon the animal’s diet. For example, grass-fed beef contains more polyunsaturated omega-3 fat than grain-fed beef due to its diet of omega-3 rich green grass rather than omega-3 poor grain.
The nutritional value of vegetable oils depends on how they were processed. Common “industrial” oils such as soybean and canola are refined using an intensive mechanical and chemical process that removes natural nutrients and results in oil that oxidizes easily, making these oils more likely to break down into cancer-causing free radicals inside the body.
“Trans” fats are created when oil is hydrogenated, or bombarded with hydrogen atoms, in order to make it artificially saturated. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are prized by food product
manufacturers for use in processed foods because they are heat-stable and don’t spoil easily.
Unfortunately these trans fats promote atherosclerosis and clotting, reduce the function of blood vessels, promote obesity and diabetes, alter fat cell size and number, reduce fertility, increase asthma, reduce immune response, damage cell membranes, disrupt enzymes that metabolize carcinogens and drugs and create free radicals. There is a striking correlation between the rise of heart disease, diabetes and obesity and the introduction and proliferation of trans fats in our diets.
Though it may seem daunting, it isn’t difficult to develop a healthy fat intake. Simply put, all traditional, unrefined fats are necessary for basic health and bodily function, and are generally healthy in moderation. Refined vegetable oils are less healthy and hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils are definitely not healthy.
A partial list of traditional and healthy fat sources includes meat and cream from grass-fed animals, egg yolks from pastured poultry, fish oils and cold-pressed, unrefined oils such as olive, flaxseed, coconut, walnut, avocado, grapeseed and sesame. Avoid industrial, hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated and refined oils like soybean, corn and safflower, which are most commonly found in processed foods.
This has been a very brief overview of a complex subject. There are many sources for further reading, including a great book called “Real Food” by Nina Plank that we have found to be both thorough and interesting.
In “The Skinny on Fat — Part Two,” we will focus on how to cook with and include “healthy” fats in our diet. Until then, eat well and be well!
Mark Ozias and Lisa Boulware are owners of The Red Rooster Grocery. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.