We are constantly hearing about the benefits of a plant-based diet, how a vegan lifestyle increases health and vitality, helps you achieve a healthy weight and avoid chronic diseases. It is really not quite that simple as even a vegan diet can be unhealthy and many vegans who fail to eliminate certain dietary components suffer the same adverse health effects that non-vegans do. The optimally healthy diet is one that avoids excess salt oil and sugar regardless of whether the diet is plant-based or omnivorous. This is sometimes referred to as a low S.O.S. diet. Salt and sugar have their own health detriments that really should be addressed individually so let’s have a look at oil, also known as fat.
What is fat?
There are many compounds designated as fats. Fats are soluble in organic solvents and insoluble in water. Fats can be solid or liquid at room temperature and the melting point is generally dependent on the temperature. Fats in their liquid state at room temperature are often referred to as oils. The characteristics of different fats are determined by the molecular structure.
Why do we add fats in the cooking process?
There are several reasons a chef uses fats in food preparation. Fat is one of the three basic macro-nutrients (along with carbohydrates and protein) and many foods contain naturally occurring fats, good or bad. Putting diet and metabolism concerns aside for a moment let’s consider why naturally occurring or added fats are desirable for the chef and ultimately for the diner as well.
Fat prevents foods from sticking together or sticking to the cooking surface.
Fat adds flavor: Certain fats have very distinct flavors that might be needed to achieve particular flavors of traditional or ethnic cuisines. For example there simply is no substitute for the flavor of toasted sesame oil or extra virgin olive oil.
Fat enhances other flavors by distributing them: Most of the molecules that give food its flavor are fat-soluble. Likewise most of the flavors we get from herbs and spices come from molecules that are fat soluble. As these molecules become dissolved in the fat they blend and are spread throughout the food providing greater contact with the taste receptors rather than encapsulated in the particles of herbs, spices or food where they could pass into the digestive system without ever being tasted at all.
Fat helps metabolize fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients.
Fat helps distribute heat during the cooking process: Heat can be applied to food by radiation, infrared energy from hot coals or a broiler element for example. Heat can be applied directly through contact with a cooking surface – that hot pan, grill or griddle. Heat can be applied by distribution via a cooking medium like water, steam or when this is done via fat it is what we call frying.
Some fats are better, or less bad, than others. Let’s break it down as simply as possible. First let’s separate fats into two categories; saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated fat has two hydrogen atoms to every carbon atom. The carbon atom can only connect to a maximum of two hydrogen atoms at a time thus the carbon becomes saturated – it can’t bond to any more hydrogen. Simple huh?
Unsaturated fat has carbon that is bonded to only one hydrogen atom but may bond to another carbon atom creating a double bond which is considered monounsaturated. If the carbon atom has more than one double bond it is considered polyunsaturated. Still with me?
An unsaturated fat can have extra hydrogen atoms artificially bonded to the carbon atoms, returning it to a saturated fat. This is the process of hydrogenation which creates hydrogenated oil. This is the worst type of fat you can put in your body.
Why is this bad? Saturated fats are usually solid at body temperature. When in the body these fats stick to things and re-solidify.
Why hydrogenate oil? There are two main reasons – longer shelf life and higher melting point.
Hydrogenation creates trans-fats. Trans-fats are bad. The human digestive system does not handle trans-fat well so it simply stores it.
Trans-fats increase “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and decrease good cholesterol (HDL). Wake up, this is important.
To super-simplify it: Trans-fats clog your arteries and make you fat.
Avoid saturated fats as much as possible. Avoid hydrogenated oils (trans-fat) at all cost.
- whole grain wheat (0.8 grams per 100 grams)
- peanut butter (14.2 grams per 100 grams)
- margarine (around 24 grams per 100 grams, but may also contain some trans-fat)
- bananas (however, at .33 grams fat per serving, this food is considered “fat-free” by FDA standards)
- sunflower seeds
- hemp seed
- sesame oil
- soybean oil (61% polyunsaturated fat and 24% monounsaturated fat)
- tea seed oil
- canola oil
- macadamia nut oil
- grapeseed oil
- peanut oil
- sesame oil
- corn oil
- whole grain
- safflower oil
- sunflower oil
- coconut oil
- cottonseed oil
- palm kernel oil
Is fat bad? That is a simple question that does not have a simple answer but it is an irrefutable fact that eating too much fat is bad for you.
Of course too much of anything, including the other major macro-nutrients (protein and carbohydrates), is bad for you too. However, fat is the macro-nutrient that we are far more likely to overdo it with. There is simply too much fat added to the modern diet.
Here are some simple rules to help you eat fat responsibly:
- Don’t add extra fat where you don’t have to.
- Have your high-fat indulgences but balance things out by eating low-fat or fat-free in all your other regular and routine eating.
- Keep your high-fat portions small if possible.
- Avoid saturated fats as much as possible. Avoid hydrogenated oils (trans-fat) at all cost.
If you are trying to lose weight you should try to eliminate all added fat added from your diet. If you are conscious about the way your diet affects your health then use fats in your cooking sparingly and with specific intent. Lastly, when dining out always remain mindful that most restaurants, as a general rule, do very little to limit the fat that goes into menu recipes.