My grandpa Bill was not the healthiest guy. He smoked most of his life, drank too much, and was overweight all the years I knew him. But he had a great sense of humor. When his doctor told him he needed to lower his cholesterol and suggested he use more olive oil in his diet, Grandpa Bill came up with a unique solution. Every day, he poured himself a glass of the stuff and drank it down.
My grandfather’s approach to lowering his cholesterol was certainly novel and most likely ill-advised (I hope he chose a tasty olive oil, at least). But it shows how hard it can be to switch to healthier fats. We often think, “If I just use more olive oil, and less butter, problem solved.” But the answer isn't always that simple.
It hasn’t been that long since fat of any kind was considered a bad thing. All kinds of fat-free products, from fat-free mayo to fat-free half-and-half, were developed to help people lose weight and improve their health. Those products are still available, of course, but they haven't made us thinner or healthier (and, in fact, the sweeteners and sodium added to some fat-free products to make them more palatable may create new health challenges). So fat-free hasn’t proven to be the golden ticket so many had hoped for. In more recent years, science has shifted to the idea that there are good fats and bad fats, and that eating good fats as part of an overall balanced diet is the best approach to staying fit and well.
How are good and bad fats defined? Well, even that may be open for debate, but most agree that good fats (or some would say healthier fats) are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—these are fats that are liquid at room temperature. These fats are found in foods such as fish, nuts, seeds and, avocados, as well as vegetable oils such as olive and macadamia nut. Fats that are solid at room temperature are considered less healthy. These "bad fats" include saturated fats, which come mostly from animals and trans fats, which can also come from animals but are more commonly created through partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. Some believe, however, that saturated fat from animals may not be as bad for you as previously thought, when consumed with meat of that animal. If anything is certain, it is that the debate on fats is far from over.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults limit their total fat intake to 20 to 35 percent of daily calories. Only 10 percent of the total should come from saturated fats, which leaves somewhere around 500 calories for healthy fats, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. To put that into perspective, one tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories—almost the same as the number of calories from fat in a handful of almonds or half an avocado—but without protein, fiber, and fewer vitamins as compared to whole foods.
I like to make sure I get a good portion of my healthy fats from whole foods. A smear of peanut butter on whole wheat toast, a bit of flaxseed in my oatmeal or a handful of toasted walnuts for a mid-morning snack not only tastes good and provides protein, but also prevents me from succumbing to a buttery chocolate chip cookie later in the day (at least, more than I might otherwise). I also like to incorporate fish and my desert island food, avocados into my diet. Not only do whole foods like these have fewer calories from fat, ounce per ounce, than vegetable oils, they also offer many other nutrients, not to mention a wide range of flavors and textures.
Whatever solutions you find, they don’t need to be as extreme as my grandfather’s. And they can still be delicious and balanced. As Julia Child would say, moderation is the key. Of course she was referring to goose liver pâté and chocolate mousse, but it could also apply to a smear of "healthy fat" peanut butter on your morning toast.