“How many of you like fat?”
I’m sure the kids in my food appreciation classes were dealing with a mental picture of a big tub of Crisco when I asked that question. Initially I was greeted with silence and blank stares. But when I explained that fat is not only necessary for health, but makes food taste good, the kids jumped right in. “Steak!” “Pork chops!” “Pizza!”
Our society has turned fat into a boogey man, linking it unjustly to heart disease and obesity. The truth is eating fat can be perfectly healthy. Our ancestors did it for eons. Most people should be getting at least a third of their calories from fat. The trick is to know what you’re eating, to consume more healthy fats and skip the really bad ones.
To demonstrate, I made a display on our food preparation tables with saturated fats, represented by butter, pork lard and coconut oil, on one end. In the middle were mon0-unsaturated fats represented by olive oil, canola oil, almonds and avocado. The next category, polyunsaturated fats, I divided into two groups: omega-6 fats represented by “vegetable” oil, sesame oil, peanut butter and processed chocolate cookies, followed by omega-3 fats, represented by canned sardines and a bottle of cod liver oil.
Now came the really fun part. “Are you ready for a lesson in organic chemistry, kids?” I went to a dry erase board and showed how fats are made of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. In saturated fats, all the carbons are bristling with hydrogen attachments. That enables the molecules to stick together more tightly, which is why saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. Remove one of the hydrogen atoms and you get a mono-unsaturated fat. Remove two or more hydrogens and you get a poly-unsaturated fat.
In fact, most fats are combinations of different fatty acids–saturated and mono-unsaturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated. Pork fat, for instance, is actually 60 percent mono-unsaturated, the same fat as olive oil. Beef fat typically is only half saturated. Our bodies come equipped with an enzyme called desaturase, which can turn those saturated fats into whatever fatty acids we might need at the moment. Your body is actually smarter than you are. Never underestimate its ability to handle what you feed it.
Saturated fats have gotten a really bad name for themselves. But the bigger point, rather than avoiding them altogether, is to be more discriminating about the ones you eat. Buy meats and dairy products from animals that have been raised in healthy, natural surroundings where they can forage for themselves. Avoid meats and dairy from animals raised in confinement and fed a diet of industrial corn and soybeans. Meat and dairy from big feed lots will merely pass along to you the industrial fats the animals were fed, fats that until recently were unknown to the human diet.
Coconut oil, which is solid at temperatures of 77 degrees or less, is a rare medium-chain fatty acid and is highly beneficial. I eat it with yogurt or cottage cheese to increase the proportion of calories I consume from fat, as opposed to protein or carbohydrate. In class, I passed around a small container of coconut oil for the kids to taste. Some winced, but overall they were impressed that the flavor is actually quite benign, with just a hint of coconut.
The health benefits of mono-unsaturated are well known. We should eat plenty of things like olive oil and nuts and avocado. Less well known are the potential dangers of certain polyunsaturated fats. For instance, it was once thought that plant oil turned into margarine using a process called hydrogenation was a good replacement for butter, with its saturated fat. We now know that hydrogenated oils, or trans-fats, are really dangerous. The food industry used to be in love with trans-fats. Now under intense public pressure it can’t remove them from products fast enough. But I showed the kids that the package of chocolate cookies on the table contained hydrogenated oil as its third ingredient. That would be one cookie to avoid.
Our ancestors likely lived on a diet that delivered omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats in a three-to-one ratio. But in the modern industrial food system, we are consuming a ratio more like 30-t0-1. Too many omega-6 fatty acids, and not enough omega-3, has negative implications for health. We should all be trying to include more omega-3 fatty acids in our diet from oily fish such as sardines, and from plant sources such as flax seed. We passed around a can of sardines and although some of the kids held their noses, others couldn’t get enough.
Just as importantly, we should be trying to reduce the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, especially from sources like industrially processed corn and soybean and cottonseeds oils. These oils are ubiquitous in the modern food stream because they are cheap (we subsidize these crops with tax dollars) and because they last much longer than healthy omega-3 fats without going rancid. This is another good reason to avoid processed foods altogether and make meals from whole ingredients.
Finally I had the kids take a whiff of cod liver oil. For some reason, cod liver oil has a reputation for being smelly and repugnant. In actuality, it has a very mild flavor. I buy a brand from Norway that’s lemon-scented. I take a tablespoon every night before going to bed.
To illustrate our lesson on fats, we cooked up some bacon and eggs. The bacon was the thick, slab variety from Whole Foods. We placed it on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and baked it in a 350-degree oven. Meanwhile, I showed the kids how bacon in a skillet slowly surrenders much of its fat when heat is applied. At home, I save this “bacon grease” in a jar and use it for frying. For our classes, we used the fat to make a big goat cheese frittata.
Crack a dozen eggs–preferably pastured eggs–in a bowl and beat them well with a whisk. Season with salt and pour into a hot, greased, non-stick skillet. The egg should start bubbling and forming a skin underneath. When it does, lift the cooked egg around the edges with a heat-proof spatula and tilt the skillet so that the uncooked eggs run underneath. Keep doing this until most of the egg is cooked. Now dot the suface all over with crumbled goat cheese and place the skillet under the broiler.
Cook the frittata under the broiler until it has puffed up and browned to your liking. Now you should be able to loosen the frittata from the pan, slide it onto a large cutting board and slice it into wedges. It will make eight adult servings, or 16 snack-size portions.
As well as being good for you and making food taste great, healthy fats also are far more satiating than other foods. They make you feel full. But would you believe me if I told you that our kids begged for seconds on the bacon and eggs? It’s true, they did.