The holidays can be amazing, but they are also, well, one big fat-fest. How do you decode which, if any, fats are better than others? Is it OK to indulge in that eggnog? Is there really a smarter peppermint latte option on the market? What baking substitutions work for much-used ingredients like butter and cream cheese?
We caught up with Felicia D. Stoler, MS, RD, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and nutrition/healthy living expert. She penned Living Skinny in Fat Genes this year, and was the host of the TLC show Honey, We're Killing the Kids.
Stoler: We should avoid saturated fats (those that are solid at room temperature) and trans fats (which are pretty much removed from much of the food products these days). Foods that have been deep-fried should be avoided or kept to a minimum. Fats that are from plants have mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids -- and we need both in order to obtain optimal heart health benefit.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based fats like olive oil. However, there are other oils which are also great, like canola and Malaysian palm fruit oil. The palm fruit oil is red because it is loaded with antioxidants like beta carotene and contains tocotrienols, which have been shown to help prevent brain tissue damage after strokes. Fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K are transported into our bodies in fats. Fish oils also provide essential fatty acids, which are needed for optimal health. Nuts, seeds and avocados also provide better-for-you fats.
As for typical daily serving, there is no daily recommended intake or recommended dietary allowance for fats, so we want to keep the added fats to a minimum, use sparingly in the cooking process and use wisely.
Stoler: I say, hold the fat and use it sparingly. I like to pick and choose, especially when I am the one doing the cooking. I try to use fat-free dairy products, like fat-free Greek yogurt for dips instead of sour cream. Small slices of cheesecake are OK -- it can be made using low-fat cream cheese. I often use egg whites in lieu of whole eggs for many dishes, integrating whole wheat flour, ground flaxseed and other fun grains to improve the nutrient profile of many dishes.
There are many ways to improve family tradition with heart-healthier options--look online and experiment with food and ingredient substitutions.
Stoler: Always ask for skim milk with these fancy coffee drinks. Eggnog -- just a taste or two; not every day. For sure, avoid the whipped cream. We forget how many calories we drink. Alcoholic beverages also pack in calories -- and alcohol is closer in calories to fat than carbohydrates or protein. Add more water and club soda to your daily routine. Also, consider drinking flavored teas -- the flavors are so bold that you often don't need any sweetener to enhance or enjoy the flavor.
Stoler: Trans fats were popular because the process took liquid oils and made them a solid at room temperature. This process also prevented foods from spoiling by making the molecule "stable" so that oxygen wouldn't bind to it and make the food rancid. What we found was this man-made fat was not broken down properly by our liver and acted in our bodies like a saturated fat -- hence serum cholesterol levels were not decreasing as a result of using these fats in foods. Food manufacturers simply reformulated their products and packaging. Perhaps foods may have a shorter shelf life, but our arteries are better for it.
This was a prime example of consumers and science pushing health as a priority. Legislation was passed requiring labeling for trans fats in 2006, so companies were quick to voluntarily remove trans fats from their products.
Stoler: Always look at total calories, fat calories and saturated fat calories. Try to keep them as low as you can (when comparing foods). I like to look for grams of fiber as a way of balancing out fat. Granted, some foods are rich in fats and others are rich in fiber. It really depends on the specific foods. Of course, trans fats would also be a red flag.
Stoler: All foods actually do not contain butter. But it is okay to use butter when you need it in a recipe or use something like Malaysian palm fruit oil as a substitute (in baking because it is taste-neutral, for grilling because it has a high smoke point). Sometimes fruit purees can be substituted for fats in bakery items. Olive and canola oil certainly have their place in many dishes as well.
Stoler: Choose foods that are good for you, and balance out the "eat this, not that" when you choose foods and beverages. You can have a coffee with cream and sugar or eat a doughnut with the same calories and fat -- it's your choice. Eat foods from the ground up -- mostly plant-based -- and smaller portions of animal-origin foods. Be cognizant of your daily caloric needs. Foods that are good for you do taste good! Learn how to cook so when you prepare your own meals, you can control the ingredients that go into the dishes. Also be aware of portion sizes. Most importantly, enjoy and minimize your food "rules." Instead of "don't," focus on the "do."
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