A colleague recently inquired about ideas for a low fat Mediterranean diet for weight loss. To which I responded (silently) No!No! No! The whole point of a Mediterranean diet is that it is higher fat, 30% of calories as fat, up to 40% calories in some studies. Which makes it satisfying, flavorful and healthier, assuming healthy fats are used. All the research points to this. And even though it’s a higher fat diet, people lose weight and maintain lower body weights on this type of diet. A low fat Mediterranean diet is an oxymoron. It’s also probably doomed to not work, since it’s notoriously hard, or impossible, for people to stick to low fat diets.
All of which got me thinking about my Favorite Fats. They would be fats that lend flavor and texture to food; if they provide a health benefit, so much the better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about gorging on fatty foods, just about using fats to make food enjoyable. Here are my 5 Favorites:
- Olive oil: flavorful extra virgin olive oil, preferably from single-source vineyards, is the perfect dressing for salad, from tossed greens to a hearty entrée salad made with whole grains and/or legumes. Olive oil can be used to sauté all manner of foods, from home fried potatoes to vegetables to lean meats. Or use it to baste meats of vegetables for grilling or roasting. I’ve even had it mixed into vanilla frozen yogurt recently, which was a revelation of flavor.
- Cheese. Cheese is typically high fat. The fat makes it melt and gives it wonderful flavor and texture. The idea of engineering something called “low fat” cheese just to cut a few calories annoys me no end. Why not just eat real cheese, just smaller portions?
- Nut butters. Specifically peanut butter. Natural peanut butter. I could be addicted to it, for which reason I have to keep my distance so to speak, being careful about how much I use at any one time, because it’s easy to use a lot. Sesame butter — tahini — is the same. But they’re both wonderful foods: flavorful, nutritious and satisfying.
- Toasted sesame oil: I use this very flavorful oil sparingly, in stir fry or to flavor grains or casseroles. I never use it to sauté. It’s a flavoring agent; a little dash will do you.
- Butter: I love butter but I rarely use it as a spread or for frying. It’s for baking. I’m not especially fearful of saturated fat, but then I don’t eat a lot of those types of foods. So occasional baked treats made with real butter can fit.
Since I just mentioned two foods high in saturated fats, it’s probably a good time to revisit the saturated fat controversy. Are they unhealthy nutritional time bombs or do they deserve a health halo? A new study, done in Norway, that was published late last year seems to exonerate saturated fat as a risk for heart disease. Here are the basics:
- 46 obese middle aged men
- half ate a very high fat diet (71% calories as fat, 34% as saturated fat, 11% carbohydrates)
- half ate a very low fat/high carb diet (29% fat, 12% as saturated fat, 51% carbohydrates)
- After 3 months, both groups had improved blood triglycerides, reduced waist circumference, reduced weight, reduced insulin and other markers for inflammation and insulin resistance. The high fat group had increased HDL, which the high carb group had reduced LDL.
Well, that’s all interesting, but what does it prove about saturated fat? I’m not sure it proves much. These were very unusual diets, especially the high fat diet. 75% of calories as fat! Ugh. Out of roughly 2000 calories, that’s almost 170 grams of fat, or which half was saturated fat. Not much room left for anything else. In a stripped down form, that’s about 6 tablespoons of butter plus 6 TB of oil a day, plus a minimal amount of carb food and some lean protein. I know fat can add flavor, but when all you’re eating is fat day after day, it’s going to get old.
Plus the metabolic response to such an unbalanced diet can be abnormal. This diet verges on a ketogenic diet, which results in a very unusual metabolic state. Trying to attach the health improvements solely to high saturated fat intake is not valid. There were a lot of things about this high fat regimen that were unusual. One major difference for both of the study diets: low sugar. So perhaps the improved triglycerides were due to less sugar intake? Or just to the weight loss itself, which will result in improvements in most biomarkers for diabetes and inflammation. So while the study is interesting, I’m not buying it as pro-saturated fat.
So while there’s a place for some high saturated fat foods in my diet (butter, cheese, cream, red meats), I’m not going to go overboard on those. My go-to Number 1 Favorite is olive oil; everything else in small portions, which fits perfectly with the Mediterranean Diet.