Sunday, 30 January 2011

Big Fat Post

Fat.  The word doesn't sound like a hallmark of good health.  The only thing most of us know for sure about fat is that we love it, but we don't want to BE it.  The low-fat craze in the 90's died down once we realized that all of those low-fat products just contained a load of sugar, and we then decided to stop thinking about it so much.  Fat tastes awesome, and besides, saturated fat turned out not to be that bad, right?  Doctors don't really know if fat is good or bad, anyway, so I can just eat whatever I want. 

Wrong.  Here's the thing I think most people don't understand.  Many different things can be bad for you all at the same time.  Because one kind of fat starts making headlines about causing diabetes and heart disease, doesn't mean that another kind of fat has stopped causing diabetes and heart disease.  It means that both kinds of fat are causing diabetes and heart disease.  That's why there's so much, um, diabetes and heart disease in our society.  Medical researchers know exactly what kind of fat you should be eating or avoiding.  But there are big, powerful, scary industries that really don't want you to be well-informed on the situation, and the media, which revels in public confusion, plays along.

So do we need fat at all?  Fat is absolutely a necessary nutrient.  When we talk about fat as a nutrient, we use the term essential fatty acids, or EFA's.  You know from the protein blog, that in health terms the word essential means a nutrient that we need, and that we have to get from food. EFA's help in blood clotting, vitamin absorption, brain function, cell and hormone production, and they provide energy.   Fat is in almost all foods, in varying amounts, so having a fat-free diet is actually impossible, and good thing too, because you need EFA's to live.  However, our confusion mostly centers around which kinds and how much we need.   Kinds of fat can be divided into three main categories: saturated fat, trans fat, and unsaturated fat.

Does saturating your arteries in a mostly solid, greasy substance sound like a good thing?  Okay, that might not be a technically accurate description of what happens when you consume saturated fat, but the fact remains that you should be eating as little saturated fat as possible.  Saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis.  SatFat causes high blood pressure, depresses the immune system, and increases the risk of cancer.  Wait a second...something that we're doing could be causing cancer?  It's not some inevitable punishment from the gods that has randomly increased every year for the last 80 years for no reason?  Weird.

So where does saturated fat come from?  Herein lies the clue why we're being fed misinformation: the main sources of saturated fat are meat, dairy, and eggs.  Surprise!  Coconut and palm oils are mostly made up of saturated fat as well, although in the western world, most of us don't eat very much tropical oil, so these are not as much of a concern.  The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 7% of your calories from saturated fat, but those of us who consume meat, dairy, and eggs usually consume almost double that amount.  Saturated fat is not kinda, sorta bad.  Saturated fat has killed so many people it makes Charles Manson look like Father Christmas.

Trans fat is much better understood by the public, and we receive a clearer message about it, I think.  Trans fats were the Big Bad for the last few years.  They are naturally found in small amounts in meat and dairy, but they are also found in hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils, which are an entirely human innovation.  Hydrogenated oils are formed during, well, hydrogenation, a process with forces hydrogen gas into oil at a high pressure.  This process came into being in order to prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, as hydrogenated oils don't go rancid as quickly.  Trading our health for longer lasting cookies was such a great idea.   Trans fats lower your good HDL cholesterol, and raise your bad LDL cholesterol.  They increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, clog up those arteries, and increase your risk of diabetes.

So how to you avoid this junk?  Under European law, trans fat doesn't have to be listed in the nutritional info of a product, but hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil do have to be listed in the ingredients, so if you have a product that does not list dead flesh or animal juices in the ingredients, and also does not contain hydrogenated oils, you have a trans fat free product.  You will want to carefully check the labels of pre-packaged cookies, biscuits, crackers, and other baked goods, and of course, fried fast food (including chips!) are usually fried in partially hydrogenated oil.

Health experts recommend consuming no more than 2% of your daily calories from trans fatty acids, but honestly, you don't need any trans fats in your diet.  Aim to consume none.  If you live in UK (A.K.A Chiptoria), and you ever socialise, you won't succeed, but try.

Over the past several decades we've been swept up in a muddle debate over which is superior from a health standpoint:  margarine or butter?  One year, we hear margarine is the only way to go, the next year butter is not that bad, and margarine is the new taboo.  The bottom line is, in reference to most commercial margarines, neither butter nor margarine are healthful, and both carry some concerning health risks.  Butter contains small amounts of trans fats and concerning amounts of saturated fat, most margarines

LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and raise your HDL cholesterol (the good one).  They contain circulation promoting arginine, antioxidants, fiber, protein, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals.  They lower your risk of heart disease, and extend your lifespan and protect against common disease of aging.  In fact, studies have found that those who consume one little ounce of nuts a day lower their risk of getting fatal coronary heart disease by 59%.  A fifty nine percent decrease in risk of the biggest killer in any developed country today wrapped up in a delicious little package?  Yes please.

In Dan Buettner's book, The Blue Zones, he studies four different areas of the world that have an unusually large percentage of inhabitants who live past 100 years of age.  One of the areas he visits is the Seventh Day Adventist's region, Loma Linda, California.  The mostly vegetarian residents had a love affair with nuts (stop giggling), and this love affair was pin-pointed as one of the main factors contributing to their long lifespans.

I know some people have a fear of nuts and avocados, due to their high-fat content.  Some of you may fear that eating these items will give you a high-fat content yourself.  Relax.  Studies have shown that people who consume nuts actually have lower BMI's than those who don't.  Nuts satiate hunger better than animal fats or plant oils, and actually aid in weight control.  Now, it's true that a gram of fat contains 9 calories, as opposed to the 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein.  So obviously, you don't want to go, well, nuts on any source of fat, especially if you are watching your weight.  A few handfuls a day of nuts or seeds, or a few slices of avocado should suffice. 

Opinions do vary quite a bit in regards to what percentage of your calorie intake should come from fat.  The standard, government approved figure is around 30%, other health experts working with people who have a specific reason to worry about heart problems would tell you try to keep it closer to 10%.  However, assuming you are already in reasonably good health, I would spend more time focusing on the quality of your nuts, rather than quantity, and simply don't buy nuts in large quantities (they go rancid fairly quickly anyway).

The next time we chew the fat about fat, we'll talk about the health benefits of plant foods and oils made from plant foods.  But right now, I'm pretty proud that I made it through the whole post with only two nut puns, so I'm going to leave on a high note.  Only two puns?  That's peanuts!

Vital Vittles

African Sweet Potato and Peanut Stew

While I was writing this blog, I was racking my brain trying to think of the perfect recipe for this post: one that would be focused on healthy fats without using oils.  And completely by co-incidence, I made this stew that evening, having found it in The Vegan Table, UK, Can.  Delicious and nutritious, the recipe features peanut butter, and uses water for sauteing, rather than oil.  Serve it with either whole-wheat couscous or brown rice.

Serves 6-10

3 tbsp water, for sauteing
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 red peppers, chopped
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/3 to 1/2 cup natural peanut butter (either crunchy or smooth will work, but look for a brand without sugar or added oils)
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 can kidney beans (or 1.5 cups cooked beans from scratch)
1 can diced tomatoes
4 cups veggie stock
1 tsp salt (or too taste)

Head water in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add onions and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add bell pepper, cover, and cook for another  minutes.  Stir in brown sugar, finger, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper, and stir constantly for 30 seconds.  Stir in peanut butter, distributing evenly throughout.  Ad sweet potatoes, kidney beans, and tomatoes, and stir to coat.  Add veggie stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.  Salt to taste, and serve.

Notice that this recipe makes a large amount, and the stew is fairly filling, so unless you're throwing a dinner party, or you're a Huxtable, you will have copious leftovers.  Which can't possibly be a bad thing.

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