Over the past few posts on the #perfectplate we’ve looked at fruits and vegetables, starches and grains, and protein-rich foods. Each of these components of the perfect plate often contain the third macronutrient, fat, either as a part of the ingredient or through its main use as a cooking medium for food.
Fats are instrumental to the everyday functioning of the human body, down to the molecular level. Not only are they an energy source, but also have an important structural role in our cells and help our bodies absorb and store fat-soluble vitamins. In our food, fats contribute to flavour, satiety, and palatability.
Diets low in fats run the risk of several health problems and nutrient deficiencies. An excess, on the other hand, can lead to imbalances in the body, increasing the risk of obesity and diseases.
The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in India and other healthcare authorities around the world recommend reducing fat intake to approximately 30% of the total calories. This level has not been associated with nutrient deficiencies or any other detrimental effects. In a 2000 calorie diet, that translates to 600 calories from fat or 67 g of fat. While quantities matter, the quality of the fats we consume is incredibly important and can greatly impact our health.
Types of fats and how much we need
Fats refer to a broad family of compounds which vary in their structure and function. In the context of the food we eat, fats can be broadly classified as:
1. Saturated fats: Saturated fats are found in dairy products (e.g. butter, ghee, milk, cheese), fatty meat and coconut oil. They are generally resistant to heat and make for good cooking mediums. Excessive consumption of saturated fats from animal sources (but not those from vegan sources), is believed to correlate to health issues such as heart disease.
2. Monounsaturated fats (MUFA): These fats are found in foods such as olive oil, avocados and most nuts (and their oils). Replacing saturated fats with MUFA rich oils, such as olive oil, has been shown to reduce the risk of various diseases, and is thought to be one of the reasons behind the health and longevity in the individuals who live the longest.
3. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA): These fats are found in nuts, seeds, algae, fish and other seafood. This group of fats contains the essential Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats, that our body needs to survive. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats regulate our body’s inflammatory response, and the Omega 3 fat DHA is an integral component of the cells in our brain, nerves and eyes.
4. Trans fats: These are the actual “bad fats” that promote insulin resistance and increase inflammation and linked to a number of diseases. Trans fats are formed by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils through a process known as hydrogenation. This prevents the oils from spoiling, but as was later discovered, can have a negative impact on our health. Examples of hydrogenated fats are Vanaspati ghee and margarine. It is best to limit the intake of trans fats as much as possible.
Simplifying fat consumption
While all this may seem very complicated, it is actually quite the opposite. The centenarians that we base our perfect plate fundamentals on, follow a few basic rules to ensure they get more of the fats that are better for long-term health.
1. Choose your oil wisely
Choosing oils with a high content of MUFA, such as olive oil, groundnut oil, mustard oil and seasame oil are associated with improved health outcomes. Two of the five regions with the longest living people, in Sardinia (Italy) and Ikaria (Greece) consume large amounts of olive oil which is rich in the MUFA oleic acid.
You can read more about the best oils for cooking here.
2. Get your omega-3 fatty acids
Fish and marine plants are the main dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarian sources of
omega 3 fatty acids include walnuts, flax and chia seeds. Soyabean, rapeseed and mustard oils are the only vegetable oils that contribute to a significant proportion of omega 3 fatty acids.
Small studies that have shown that individuals in these zones who live till 100 have a lower amount of free-radical stress and a higher amount of omega 3 fatty acids in their blood as compared to people decades younger than them. This may be due to the fact that fish and seafood are a common aspect in the diets of these regions.
3. Limit the quantity of animal-origin fats
The association between saturated fat and disease is largely observed for saturated fat of animal origin. Dairy and red meat are the primary sources of animal origin saturated fat and both of these foods are limited in the diets of the world’s longest living individuals.
A study found that cutting down servings of animal products from 6 to 4 was linked to a lower incidence of diabetes. This may not necessarily be attributed only to the fat, but also the extra phytonutrients coming in from the replacement plant servings. Our diets need not completely exclude animal foods, but limiting the intake of high fat animal foods has measurable benefits.
4. Snack on nuts and seeds
The longest living individuals globally consume a handful of nuts daily (about 50 g), on average.
Nuts and seeds not only provide protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but also healthy fats. Studies show that regular consumption of these nutrient powerhouses reduce the risk factors of diseases like blood pressure and bad cholesterol. They can simply be added to food or by themselves make for a great snack.
The traditional Indian diet follows these 4 recommendations quite closely. Traditionally, cooking oils were changed seasonally, providing a mix of healthy fats through the year, as well as balancing omega 3 intake. For most of the country, legumes and beans serve as a primary protein source with meat consumed less frequently. Even when red meat is consumed, it is generally from leaner animals such as goats and buffalo, as opposed to higher fat cow meat. Nuts are an integral part of Indian culture as snacks and desserts.
A study that looked at 50 years of data from multiple sources (articles, nutritional surveys and studies) noted that we are moving away from the traditional Indian diet, which happened to be more balanced that what we follow today –over the years (in India) there was an increase in the use of saturated fat, low intake of omega 3 fatty acids and increase in trans fats, along with increasing intake of dietary sugars. They speculate that this could be the reason for the concurrent increase in obesity and lifestyle diseases.
Here’s a look at what a day’s worth of fat looks like in a 2000 kcal diet. Each of these combinations provides the recommended intake of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, focuses on heart healthy MUFA rich cooking oils and a moderate amount of saturated fat to make everything taste great. These combinations each provide approximately 350 kcal each, which along with the fats present in most protein sources will be well within the recommendation for a 2000 kcal diet.
Keeping these suggestions in mind while balancing proportions of vegetables, grains and protein will allow you to completely take charge of our health and nourish your body in the best way possible.
Next, the perfect plate series we tie this all together by explaining how to decide on the quantity that we need based on our specific requirements so we can effortlessly eat for health and longevity.
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