Fat-free Food: A Bad Idea
by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.
Mention was made the other day in a class I was teaching about the delights of a specific brand of fat free cookies. "Have you had them?" one of the students asked me. To me that was like asking if I’d had any fried grasshoppers lately -- culturally absurd. "Of course not," I said, "I wouldn’t touch that stuff for the world." She looked at me puzzled. "But they’re so good!" I realized how far removed I am from the mainstream, how out of touch with what goes on in the lives of most Americans. Unfortunately, there is little that I can do about it. I keep noticing absurdities and irrelevancies around the issues of food and health, and then I have to point them out. Fortunately, a few people are listening. So let me handle here the issue of "fat free food," which I believe can be dangerous.
The hysteria against fat has gone out of control. While it is true that excess fat can stress the liver and contribute to health problems, what is overlooked in this issue are two points: a) fat is one of the three essential macro nutrients; and b) some fats are health-promoting, others are unhealthful.
Together with protein and carbohydrate, fat is an important source of calories. We need essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acid, or Omega 6 and Omega 3 for many important functions, namely:
1) To keep us warm, especially in the winter, as the breakdown of fats creates heat. The diet of the Eskimos gets about 60% of its calories from fat, and on their native diets they don’t have heart disease.
2) For proper hormone function, especially for women.
3) To keep our cell walls strong.
4) To absorb and store the fat soluble vitamins, especially Vitamin D, needed to help absorb calcium from the intestines. Women who don’t get enough good quality fatty acids may end up with low Vitamin D stores and therefore bone thinning.
Even saturated fats have a role in our health: according to Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, good quality saturated fats enhance the immune system, protect the liver from alcohol ingestion, have antimicrobial properties, and play a major role in bone modeling by protecting the calcium depositing mechanism in bones from free radical disruption. Fats also affect the nerves, as a low fat diet may contribute to depression; there is a high-fat medical diet (the 80% fat "ketogenic diet") used to control seizures, which works better than drugs.
Fat free eating does not insure weight loss. Fat in foods delivers a feeling of satiety, the sense that we’ve had enough to eat. If there is no fat in the meal, we can keep on eating and eating until we’re truly stuffed, ending up with many more calories than we would have had with a little olive oil in the salad. The women in my class who liked the fat free cookies said they can easily eat a whole bag of them. I maintain that is not because the cookies are so good, but because the women never feel that they’ve had enough. In other words, they’re still hungry. Therefore, they will continue eating these high-carbohydrate cookies (all the fat calories have been replaced with carbohydrates!) and end up with many more calories than they intended. Thus, no difference in weight!
There are some weird new foods on the market that make absolutely no culinary or dietary sense to me. Take "fat free mayonnaise." Regular mayonnaise, which I have made, takes 1 egg yolk and 1 cup of oil, plus some lemon or vinegar and mustard. In other words, it’s 98% fat. If now it becomes "fat free," what is replacing that volume of oil? Reading labels is helpful in these cases. Replacements are usually gums and sugars and starches. Seems much more imbalanced to me, as well as unsatisfying. You’re better off with a half teaspoon of the real thing than two tablespoons of the fake. The same goes for "fat free sour cream," and similar "foods."
Just as an excess causes problems, so will a deficiency, and it is entirely possible to become fat deficient. Among the health problems associated with a lack of fatty acids we can count: dry skin, eczema, low energy, impairment of kidney function, slow wound or infection healing, vision and learning problems, depression, even miscarriage. A low fat diet is also associated with a higher suicide rate.
Some fats are definitely unhealthy. Among them are: heated, bleached and deodorized oils, and hydrogenated fats such as margarine and shortening. These contain trans fatty acids, which can double the rate of heart attack and raise the LDL, or bad cholesterol. Pregnant women who consume margarine and other hydrogenated fats may be at risk for having low birth weight babies. Heated hydrogenated fats, such as used in deep fried foods like fried chicken, fish, and chips, are associated with cancer and heart disease.
Is there any good news here? Yes, there are such things as good quality fats. Among the best are extra virgin olive oil, unrefined sesame and sunflower oil, unrefined flax seed oil, walnut oil, organic butter and clarified butter or ghee. Omega 3 fatty acids are in fresh dark cold water fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as in flax seed oil. Omega 6's are in the sesame and sunflower oil. Fresh organic butter from healthy cows fed green grass can be an excellent source of natural Vitamin A.
On the average, when cooking from scratch, about 2 or 3 tablespoons of healthy fats per day will give us all the essential fatty acids we need. At the same time, it’s important to avoid deep fried foods, hydrogenated fats, and fats from unhealthy, commercially raised animals. Fat-free processed foods and snacks will always make you eat too much, encourage sugar cravings, and keep you unsatisfied. Good quality fats are good for your skin, hair, nails, immune system, heart, liver, nerves, and your satisfaction with food.
Here is a recipe with some good quality fats.
Mixed green salad with walnut oil dressing
4 cups mixed spring greens, or mesclun
1 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoons walnut oil
1 tablespoon flaxseed oil
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 Belgian endive, sliced crosswise into ½ inch pieces
1. Place the greens in a large salad bowl.
2. Mix the lime juice, oils, and salt, shake or whip well. Toss with the salad and serve. Sprinkle the Belgian endive slices evenly over each serving. Makes about 4 servings.
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Copyright ©1997 Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.