The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Low Fat/No Fat Fad: Not Always the Best Diet Option

For many years now, fat has been a four-letter word among the weight conscious. As a result, generations of consumers have tried to reduce their waistlines by rejecting fat and scarfing up copious quantities of skim milk, low fat yogurt, reduced fat snacks, and a host of other so-called “light” food products. My mother was one of those waistline warriors.

Bless my poor mother. She battled with her weight for years. She was a small woman, not even reaching five feet in height, and even though she topped out at 120 at her absolute bulkiest, she still felt the need to reduce. She joined Weight Watchers once. After a short time, they gave her her lifetime member pin and recommended she quit. She had hit 90 pounds and was still dropping. It was kind of like, “Congratulations! Now go eat a bowl of ice cream.” After she left Weight Watchers, she started watching her weight her own way, a way influenced by the advertised junk science fad of the day; she set out to absolutely, positively, irrevocably eliminate any and all traces of any sort of fat in her diet. Oh, she kept the weight off for the most part, bouncing up and down by five or so pounds, but it was a real struggle for someone who once enjoyed eating anything and everything. Fueled by the over zealous advertising with which she was bombarded, she convinced herself that fat was the enemy and spent the last fifteen or twenty years of her life eating things that probably had less flavor than the boxes in which they were packaged. And they were likely worse for her overall health.

Ask any chef: there's flavor in fat. Beyond that, there are certain things for which fat is necessary in the human diet. You have to have some fat in order for your body to work. Yeah, fat pads your hips and makes your belly hang out, but it also carries essential nutrients to the places they need to go. Brain tissue is rich in fat and a component in myelin, the fatty material that sheathes nerve cells, allows your nervous system to function properly. Despite what the pushers of low fat/no fat products would have you believe, you simply can't eliminate fat from your diet.

Mom fell victim to a lot of slick advertising. You can't walk through a grocery store these days without being assailed from all sides by the words “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “non-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “light.” Theoretically, there are standards that are supposed to govern the use of such terms. “Fat-free” and “non-fat” foods are supposed to have less that 0.5 grams of fat per serving. “Low-fat” has to have less than 3 grams, while “reduced fat” is supposed to be 25% lower in fat than the regular product, and “light” should have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat.

In reality, most of these products taste somewhere between bland and nasty, because – say it with me – “there's flavor in fat.” And when you remove significant amounts of fat, you also remove significant amounts of flavor. Ahhh, but the chemists and scientists who work tirelessly to meet your demand for healthier fat-free products have a solution: sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings. If you dump enough of that stuff into something from which you have removed the fat, you can actually make it taste pretty good. Lethal, maybe, but good.

Mom had a tremendous sweet tooth and when she began her personal battle of the bulge, she tried to satisfy it with cardboard cookies. No more regular chocolate chip or crème sandwich cookies. Nope. Had to be “low-fat.” You know what? A national brand of reduced fat vanilla sandwich cookies does indeed have less fat than a nationally advertised “regular” vanilla sandwich cookie. In a four cookie serving of the “reduced” brand, there are only 3 grams of total fat compared to 5 grams in the regular cookies. But the regular cookies contain a mere 65 mg of sodium as opposed to a whopping 154 mg in the “healthy” alternative. Healthy?

I don't care much about sweets; candies, cookies, cakes, pies......I can take them or leave them, and I usually leave them. But I do love potato chips. They are my snack passion and my diet downfall. So I thought about a “healthy” alternative: low-fat baked chips. Oh, baby! The calories and the fat content don't even compare. There are 154 calories in an ounce of regular chips and only 120 in the baked variety. Wow! That means I can eat more of the “healthy” ones, right? Especially when you consider the total fat breakdown: 10g for regular chips and a measly 3g for the “healthy” ones. And they're both zero cholesterol and they both have the same amount of protein. Man, am I gonna be healthier and skinnier! Wait......what do you mean, “look at the sodium?” Eeewwww! Only 136 mg in the regular chips and 210 mg in the “healthy” ones. Ooops. Oh, no......and look at the sugar; 0 grams of sugar in regular chips and 3 grams in the baked kind. 14 grams of carbohydrates for regular chips and 21 grams for baked? That can't be right! They're supposed to be healthy! All the TV commercials say so! And there's no potassium in the baked chips. None. But there's 361 mg of the stuff in the “unhealthy” ones. What gives?

Actually, I really like Utz potato chips. Three big reasons; they taste good, they have way less sodium (95 mg) than most “regular” chips, and I can practice portion control. See, I'm one of those sad individuals that, if you give me a bag of potato chips and a thirty minute TV show, I'll eat the whole bag within the thirty minutes. The restaurant supply store where I shop sells me a case of sixty 1-ounce, single-serving bags for about the same price as four of the regular 10-ounce bags at the grocery store. So when I sit down with a whole bag, it's only a 1-ounce bag instead of a 10-ounce bag. Yeah, I'm getting a little more fat and a few more calories per serving, but far and away less salt and sugar. And some potassium to boot. And I'm only consuming one serving instead of ten.

My mom was born in Vermont and grew up in Wisconsin. Dairy country. But I guarantee she never saw a low-fat or fat-free dairy product at any point in the first half of her life. Especially that flavorless white-colored water, a.k.a. “skim milk,” with which she punished herself in the latter half. That's because prior to WWII, skim milk was the byproduct of butter processing and it wasn't sold in stores. It was either dumped in a ditch or distributed to farmers as an animal feed supplement. Dairy producers didn't start bottling this liquid pig slop for human consumption until deluded fat-conscious consumers in the post-war era began demanding it. Then it took off and dragged cheese and yogurt and ice cream with it. Fact is, fat from dairy helps the body absorb nutrients, like the fat-soluble vitamins A and D found in dairy products. The less fat contained in your milk, cheese, etc., the less nutritive value it has. By the time you get down to skim milk.......well, you might as well just add a few drops of milk to color a glass of water. The drum bangers who lead the low-fat band might not want to hear it, but some recent studies indicate that people lose more weight consuming full-fat milk and dairy products than the low-fat stuff. Sure, there's fewer calories and less fat in nonfat yogurt, but there's considerably more sugar. It's not a healthy trade off. And we won't even discuss the artificially sweetened abominations.

You can't fool Mother Nature – at least not for long. Your body needs what it needs and if you don't satisfy it one way, you'll wind up catering to it another way, usually a less healthy way. For instance, research shows that skim milk drinkers do absorb less fat, but they often make up the deficit by eating more carbohydrates to provide the necessary energy they require. Drinking skim milk does not mean you get to have six Oreos instead of three. And you know what the difference between a cup of whole milk and a cup of “reduced fat” (2%) milk is? 3.1 grams of fat and 24 calories. Based on an RDI of 65 grams of fat and 2,000 calories, are you really going to sweat over 3 grams and 24 calories? Unless you're guzzling the stuff by the gallon, it's just not that big an impact for what you're giving up. I'll even give you points for 2% milk, but when you start talking 1% or less, you might as well just drink water. It's cheaper and has about the same flavor and nutritive value.

Mom used to love peanut butter. When she started off on her fat fighting crusade, she figured she'd have to give it up. But then she discovered “reduced fat” peanut butter. Woo-hoo! Problem is, the fat found in peanut butter is monounsaturated, the “good” kind of fat that you actually want to have in your diet. And, of course, when they reduce the fat they reduce the flavor and they have to do something to make it taste more like peanut butter, so they up the salt and the sugar and there you are. You've eliminated a healthy fat and replaced it with unhealthy sodium and carbohydrates.

It's the same thing all across the board. You can't remove fat without removing flavor and the best way to add flavor is with salt, sugar, and artificial additives. Don't take my word for it; look at the labels. Pick up a couple of jars of mayonnaise. I have Hellmann's Real mayo in my right hand and Hellmann's Light in my left. There are 11 grams of fat in the Real mayo and only 4.5 in the Light, but the Light contains 115 mg of sodium while the Real has just 80 mg.

I used to know somebody who worked for one of the big food processors. He often said something along the lines of “if you could just see the salt and sugar and artificial crap they put in that fat-free stuff, you'd never let it in your house much less put it in your mouth.”

No matter how you slice it, unless it is a naturally fat-free substance, anything labeled “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “non-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “light” has been chemically processed and engineered to make it that way. And if you think that artificially removing a few grams of fat from your diet and replacing them with loads of salt, sugar, and chemicals is going to make you healthier, you're sadly mistaken. The only way to safely and effectively reduce the amount of fat in your diet is through moderation and a balanced consumption of natural non-processed foods.

One more thing that pushes my buttons: people who buy “light” olive oil as a means of losing weight. Okay, any decent fat fighting fanatic these days will tell you that the road to hell is slathered in butter and greased with cooking oil and that olive oil is the lipid least likely to lubricate your slide into an early grave. And this is somewhat true. But if olive oil is good, then “light” olive oil must be better, right? Absolutely not. Sorry, fat fighters, but when it comes to calorie counts, oil is oil. A tablespoon of any kind of oil is going to contain about 120 calories. It's the chemical makeup of the oil, not the difference of three calories per tablespoon, that makes olive oil “healthier” than, say, corn oil. It's the saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fat content of the oils that determine how “healthy” they are – and even the conventional wisdom there has come under fire in recent studies. In any case, “light” olive oil is not light in fat and will not help you lose the love handles any faster than “unlight” olive oil. “Light” olive oil is processed to remove most of its natural flavor, making it “light” tasting, but having nothing whatsoever to do with its fat content. If you're buying “light” olive oil for its lack of flavor, go for it. If you're buying it because you think it's “lighter” than other oils, you're wasting your money.

Fat is not intrinsically evil; overindulgence in fat – or any substance – is where the evil lies. Monitoring your intake and balancing your diet are the keys to good health, not developing an unhealthy dependence on chemically altered food-like substances. Don't be a sheep led to graze in a toxic pasture by misleading advertising and popular diet fads. Think for yourself. Read labels. Study ingredients. Learn about nutrition. Utilize the fatty matter between your ears to manage the fatty matter around your waist. You'll be far more satisfied eating smaller, balanced amounts of flavorful real food than you ever will be consuming bland, artificially flavored, processed crap, no matter how appealing slick marketers make that crap sound.

Get real. Eat real.

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