Chew the fat. It’s good for you

  • Kavita Devgan
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2016 09:53 IST

Are you constantly hunting for foods that are fat-free? And when you hear the word ‘fat,’ do you automatically think ‘bad’? If you answered yes to both questions, you couldn’t be more wrong.

For over half a century, people have believed that low-fat food was the key to a healthy diet. They chose low-fat and fat-free products over and over, only to become more unhealthy, fat and diseased. How did we get it so wrong? Because news about fat has always been complicated and contradictory.

Now, research is proving that fat is not a bad word at all. In fact, it is essential for good health, as long as you eat the right kind. Of course, some types of fat are still bad, and too much of any kind, good or bad, will spell doom for your long-term health.

Research now says you should replace all the bad fats in your diet with good fats, and then allow fats to constitute not more than a quarter of your total calorie intake per day. In other words, if you are on a 2,000-calorie diet, then not more than 500 calories should come from fats, both visible (the cooking medium) and invisible (inherent in the foods you eat). All fats deliver nine calories per gram, which means you should stick to just 20gm or ml (two teaspoons) of cooking oil per person per day. Yes, that’s less than you would have thought.

Score the good fats

Since good fat works best when it replaces bad fat or bad carbohydrates, it’s important to understand the difference between the two. The National Institute of Nutrition and the Indian Council of Medical Research recommend an equal ratio of saturated fatty acid (SFA), monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) in cooking oil. Let’s find out what those clunky terms mean:

Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA)

PUFAs are the essential fats that your body cannot produce but must consume. These are omega 6 and omega 3. They are called essential fatty acids (EFAs). Just like vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients, you must get your EFAs from what you eat.

Both omega 3 and omega 6 are essential. But just as important, they must be balanced. If not, they can cause an inflammation. The ideal ratio of omega 6 and omega 3 is somewhere between 3:1 and 1:1, but because of our excessive use of vegetable oils and consumption of processed foods our consumption ratio is about 15:1. This means that we consume way too much Omega 6. Cut down the vegetable oils and processed foods (omega 6) and eat more fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, surmai, singhara, hilsa, rohu), walnuts, flaxseeds (kalsi seeds), and greens like methi and mustard leaves for omega 3.

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA)

MUFAs provide essential fats that play a role in healthy eyesight, nervous system function and brain development. They also lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol levels. Oils of olive, canola, flaxseed, almond, sesame, peanut and cashew contain a high concentration of MUFA. Dark chocolate, peanut butter, almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts and seeds like sesame, pumpkin, poppy, chia and flax are other good sources.

Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA)

Sorry cooking-oil ads. New research shows that saturated fat does not lead to heart disease. But too much of it can. So eat butter and ghee, but go easy on them. Also enjoy the SFAs in red meat, poultry, cheese, full-fat dairy products, coconut oil and palm oil.

Bad fat: Transfats

In June 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration gave the food industry until 2018 to rid foods of this fat. Transfats increase bad cholesterol and triglycerides, and reduce good cholesterol. They also trigger cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction, obesity and reproductive problems. They have been linked to poor memory too. Transfats are found almost everywhere: in cookies, crackers, cake icing, potato chips, corn chips as well as tortilla chips.

They’re in microwaveable popcorn, doughnuts, margarine, and other processed foods. And all fried food including pakoras, kachoris, french fries, fried chicken, and even fried sweets like gulab jamuns and jalebis. Another name for transfats is “partially hydrogenated oils”, so steer clear of vanaspati too.


Oils and fats: Get it right

Myth: Margarine has less fat than butter

Fact: Butter and margarine contain different types of fat, but in similar amounts, and hence have an equal number of calories. Butter is usually the healthier option (in limited quantities) because most margarines contain transfats. Also, butter contains the vitamins found in milk — A, D, E and K. As these vitamins are fat soluble, the fat in the butter helps your body absorb them well. Margarine is devoid of vitamins unless they are specially added during production.

Myth: Fat-free is low in calories

Fact: Manufacturers of fat-free foods usually add other things to compensate for the taste that fats lend the dish, and that something is often a sugary or floury substance. So, certain foods labelled low fat may actually be high in calories. Check labels for serving size and calories per serving.

Myth: The ‘cholesterol-free’ label means healthy food

Fact: ‘Cholesterol-free’ doesn’t necessarily mean fat-free. It is just a marketing strategy.

Myth: Salad dressing should be totally fat-free

Fact: Salad veggies are filled with terrific nutrients such as lycopene and beta-carotene. But these antioxidants are better absorbed with a little help from fat. This doesn’t mean you douse your greens in fats. A small amount of cold-pressed oil will be sufficient. Or add low-fat cheese, nuts, seeds or avocado.

Why do we need fat?

* Dietary fats supply some of the best, most stable sources of energy. So if you want to feel good, you need to make sure you are getting enough good fats. When you avoid fat, you tend to replace it with quick-burning carbs that adversely affect the metabolism.

* The body needs fat just to function properly, never mind to provide optimal health.

* Your brain is about 60 per cent fat, so the fats you eat influence the ability of your cell membranes and brain to function.

* Omega 3 fats are essential for brain and nerve functions, including the memory.

* A certain amount of fat is necessary for proper hormone production. Hormones regulate many important processes in the body including your ability to build and maintain muscle tissue.

* Fat lubricates your joints.

* It helps proteins do their job, and helps absorb and use fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K.

* It is essential for immunity, reproduction, muscles and bones. It also protects organs.

Choose oils carefully

* Cooking oils are a combination of the three kinds of fats (MUFA, PUFA and SF) in different percentages, based on the nut, seed or fruit from which the oil is derived. So never buy only one kind. Buy them all and rotate their use.

* Heating any oil past its smoke point (the temperature at which a bluish smoke becomes visible) leads to loss of flavour and loss of nutritional value. Oils that can take high temperatures make good all-purpose cooking oils. Choose from canola, sunflower and peanut for high-heat uses such as searing and frying. Medium-high heat oils are good for baking, sautéing and stir-frying: try safflower or sunflower oil. For sauces, lower-heat baking and pressure cooking, medium-high heat oils are best. Good choices are olive oil, corn oil, and walnut oil.

* Add walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil to your salad, or add sesame oil to your stir-fry after it has done cooking to incorporate essential fatty acids into your diet.

* Cold-pressed oils from mustard, peanut, olive or sunflower seeds are obtained by pressing and grinding naturally. As the temperature does not rise too high, they are healthier than refined oils.

(Kavita Devgan is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People )

From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016

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