Recent research goes even further. Traditional saturated fats like lard and high-quality butter, long demonized as “heart attacks on a plate,” no longer merit their scandalous culinary reputation. Used sparingly, they are healthful and flavorful additions to your cooking tool kit.
There is some truth to the axiom that fat and flavor go together. Olive oil and peanut oil lend complexity and taste to food and, when used correctly, don’t result in heavy or soggy meals. Even butter, which I like to use after sautéing to make a quick pan sauce for fish or chicken, packs a flavorful punch far beyond the calories it adds. A tablespoon or two can transform a dish.
But different fats should be used in different ways. For high-heat cooking or frying, peanut oil still is a great choice. It won’t scorch or break down during frying or sautéing, so food absorbs less oil and can get wonderfully crisp and crunchy. Filtered refined peanut oil also contains no allergens and can be strained and reused for multiple dishes.
Olive oil lends incomparable flavor to food and while it may not be a good choice for deep-frying, it does a wonderful job when you are sautéing, simmering, roasting, or even just drizzling it over salads and soups.
If you’re hesitant to use anything but cooking spray, remember that fat plays an important role in the diet. It facilitates a host of metabolic functions in our bodies and ensures that we leave the table feeling well fed. Since fat is digested last by the body (after carbohydrates and proteins), that feeling of fullness stays with you a little longer, and hunger pangs between meals are blunted. Also, experiments with low-fat diets have shown that the tendency to overeat is greater than it is when fat is present in the diet.
So how much fat is too much? A healthy level depends on the other foods in your diet, but many nutrition scientists believe you can consume up to 35% to 40% of your calories from good fat if you are also eating lots of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. This pattern of eating is preferable to a diet with high levels of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and low-fat substitutes.
In the 1960s, Americans on average consumed about 45% of their calories from fat and oils; today that number is about 32%. Not only are we less healthy but also much heavier and suffering from a host of obesity related diseases.
So walk away from your low fat diet with a clear conscience. According to “The Nutrition Source: Fats and Cholesterol: Out With the Bad, In With the Good,” on the Harvard School of Public Health’s website, the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease. What matters is the type of fat. Bad fats, especially trans fats, increase your risk of developing certain diseases. Good fats, meaning monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, do just the opposite. They are good for the heart and most other parts of the body.
Omega-3s and omega-6s are also frequently mentioned when talking about dietary fat. These are essential fatty acids and should be consumed in a proper balance. Sources of omega-6 include corn, safflower, and sunflower seed oils, and we get omega-3s from sources such as nuts, seeds, and fish. The average American eats too much fat from omega-6 sources and not enough omega-3s, so adjusting your diet so you consume omega-3s and omega-6s in roughly the same amounts may be best.
Here are some quick tips when it comes to using fat:
• Use liquid plant oils for cooking and baking, choosing from the monounsaturated list. This means that peanut, olive, and canola oil definitely have a place in your pantry. Good fats also include nuts, avocados, and sesame and pumpkin seeds.
• You can also enjoy flavored oils such as almond, walnut, or pumpkin seed. These oils are relatively pricey and the flavor is lost during heating, so use them in cold foods such as salad dressings or dips and for drizzling lightly over cooked fish or vegetables.
• Steer clear of trans fats. Check labels on prepared foods, especially supermarket baked goods, and eliminate those that list any hydrogenated fat. When eating out, it’s a good strategy to avoid deep fried food, which is often fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Happily, this trend is on the decline.
• Eat at least one good source of omega-3 fats each day. Fatty fish, walnuts, and canola oil all provide omega-3 fatty acids.
• Go lean when it comes to meat and milk. Beef, pork, lamb, and dairy products are high in saturated fat. Choose low-fat milk and enjoy the flavor of full-fat cheeses, butter, and lard in small amounts.