For people preoccupied with avoiding dietary fat, the Chanukah menu is not the place to look. After all, this holiday features oil very highly, and one tablespoon of it contains 15g of fat. Luckily, we’ve made a lot of progress since the late 1980’s, the early days of the low-fat craze. The prevailing belief of the time was that if fat was bad, then less was better – and fat-free must be best! Unfortunately, that theory didn’t work out too well, as evidenced by the steady increase in obesity rates despite the fat-free focus. People discovered that no fat did not mean no calories, and freely consuming foods that were low in fat did not help them achieve the weight loss they anticipated. There was a shift in focus as we gained a better understanding of the elements of successful weight loss and learned that fat did not need to be studiously avoided. We’ve also become aware that some fat is actually GOOD for you.
Because fat packs quite a caloric punch (one gram of fat contains more than twice the amount of calories in one gram of protein or carbohydrate), it should be included in limited amounts to ensure a good balance of calories. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise that dietary fat should compose 20%-35% of one’s daily caloric intake. But once you make it fit, fat provides many benefits. It improves the texture and flavor of food, making your meal more enjoyable and satisfying. Plus, adding fat to your food can actually enhance the absorption of other nutrients. The fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E, and K require fat for absorption and transport, so using a little fat in your salad dressing will help you make the most of your veggies.
To promote a healthy cardiovascular system, try including some sources of monounsaturated fat, such as olives, olive oil, canola oil, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, peanut oil, peanut butter, pecans, sesame seeds, pistachios, and avocado. Also, you’ll want to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy polyunsaturated fat that provides many additional health benefits. Naturally-occurring omega-3s can be found in fatty fish (such as tuna, salmon, and sardines), walnuts, flaxseed, and their oils.
One class of fats has earned itself a particularly bad reputation – trans fats. These fats raise levels of LDL, the type of cholesterol associated with increased risk of heart disease. They also decrease levels of HDL, a protective type of cholesterol. Most of the trans fats in our diet are artificially created through a process called hydrogenation that converts liquid oils into solid fats. This adds texture to processed foods and extends shelf life. As awareness of the health risks of trans fats began to grow, many manufactures began removing trans fats from their products, so these fats are now easier to avoid. Likely sources are processed foods such as crackers, cookies, pastries, snacks, and deep-fried fast foods. Check labels for the trans fat content and read the ingredient list to limit foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or shortening.
An interesting issue these days is how to categorize saturated fats. These fats are solid at room temperature and are found in animal foods such as meat, poultry, and dairy, as well as coconut oil. For a long time, saturated fat was considered harmful and was implicated in increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is why we’ve been advised to limit butter and steak all these years. Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly?), new research indicates that this may not be the case after all. As is the case with fats in general, not all saturated fats are created equal. Within the category of saturated fats, there are different kinds of fatty acids that have specific functions, and various fatty acids may play different roles in causing and preventing disease. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1) concluded that there was no significant evidence for determining that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A high intake of dairy products, including full-fat dairy, has been shown to decrease cardiovascular disease. In fact, recent research shows that high intake of low-fat dairy foods may increase the risk of certain health conditions whereas intake of high-fat dairy foods may decrease this risk. Are you confused yet?!
Fortunately, one fact remains indisputable: fat does add calories quickly, so be sure to make your choice worthwhile. Olive oil is a great one – include it all year round! For tips on making good choices over Chanukah, check out “Be a Food Snob” right here on my Kosher Scoop blog.
- Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Kraus RM (2010) Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr 91:535–546