Fat adds taste to everyday food. Almost everyone will vouch for that. Yet, for years, fat has been getting a bad rap. When we hear the word "fat" we automatically think "bad". And we are constantly on a hunt for food that is "fat free". But now could be the time to start following a smart-fat guide ' to lose weight, to keep various diseases away or just to remain healthy and fit.
Dr Pratima Kaushik, head dietician at the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (VIMHANS) in Delhi says, "Not all fat is created equal. Some fats increase the risk of heart disease while some promote health positively." And that's a huge distinction. However, this doesn't mean a go ahead on eating butter, whole fat milk or wolfing down meat cheeseburgers! What it does mean is that it's fine to eat nuts and fish, and switch to olive oil.
So how do we decide? How do we actually sieve the good from the bad fat?
"Well, fat is fat when it comes to calories. Whereas fat (from any source) provides 9 calories per gram, good and bad fat differ in their saturation, the essential fatty acid content, and their source (plant or animal). The idea is to consume the right kind in the appropriate amount," says Dr Kaushik. In comparison to fat, carbohydrates and proteins provide 4 calories per gram.
Saturated fat such as red meat, eggs, butter, cheese, full-fat dairy products, coconut oil and palm oil, get converted to body fat. This kind of fat hardens the arteries, raises blood pressure, and contributes to many ailments, so these are on the taboo list. Also on the "No, No" list is trans fat, which is found in vegetable oil, margarine and shortening, cookies, crackers, and other commercially baked goods. (Trans fat is made when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil; the process of hydrogenation increases the shelf life of food that contains such fat.)
Good fat, says Kaushik, includes monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and omega 3 - a group of fatty acids that contribute in lowering LDL cholesterol (high LDL increases the risk of coronary heart disease). Olive or peanut oil, avocados and most nuts - almonds, peanuts, cashew, pecans and pistachio - contain monounsaturated fat. Oil from sunflower, corn, soy and cottonseed are sources of polyunsaturated fat. And omega 3s are found in fish like salmon, rohu, trout, mackerel, sardines, surmayi and hilsa, in caviar, flaxseed, soybeans, tofu, and walnuts.
Eating fat - in moderation - is important for the maintenance of good health. "We need essential fatty acids to have nice shiny hair, good healthy skin tone; and we need them for our joints. A certain amount of fat is also necessary for proper hormone production, an imbalance of which may cause problems like PMS, or other hormonal aberrations. Besides, if hormone production is off, so will be your metabolism and that has a direct bearing on your weight," explains Pallavi Vaish, a dietician at Healing Touch Clinic, New Delhi.
New research shows that eating good fat can keep heart disease and stroke at bay. A study in Finland found that when middle-aged men substituted bad fat for good fat (like omega 3s and polyunsaturated fat), they were 60 per cent less likely to die early from heart disease than men who ate least amounts of good fat. (Archives of Internal Medicine, January 2005).
"If you consume olive oil, or some of the oils from nuts and seeds, you can actually lower your cholesterol. And this holds true regardless of gender," says Vaish.
So how do you manage the switch to good fat from day to day? And still get what you need?
Apart from changing the oil you cook your food in, "Eat salmon instead of steaks or burgers, pass on the fried fish at your fast-food hangout and order a grilled chicken sandwich instead. Skip the French fries, and make your own healthy version at home - cut fresh potatoes into fries, toss in a dash of olive oil, and roast in the oven at 400 degrees," suggests Vaish.
There are other ideas too. Make a light tuna salad with a bit of olive or canola oil instead of mayonnaise. Create a salad dressing out of walnut oil, and celebrate with caviar. Sprinkle salads with olives, avocado and nuts rather than bacon bits and croutons. And snack on a handful of nuts instead of cookies and chips (these contain hydrogenated oil).
Says organic food expert and nutritionist Ishi Khosla, "I would recommend 100 gms of fatty fish (those that contain omega 3s) twice a week or 25 gms of flax seed or methi seeds 4-5 times a week. Sprinkle ground flaxseed on cereal or yogurt or toss it into salads, soups and stews."
A word of caution though. Good fat advice is not a license to go for fat helter-skelter. On a daily basis, getting more than 25 per cent of your calories from fat is still a bad idea. And adding a little good fat to an already bad diet does not work.
"Good fat works best when it replaces bad fat or bad carbohydrates," says Khosla. "So follow this new smart-fat guideline very carefully. As a general rule, keep the overall level of fat low and ensure that most of this is made of good fat."