Here's an undeniable fact about fat: it tastes great. And that's not the only reason it's invaluable in the kitchen. Fat gives fried foods a crisp crust and baked goods a tender crumb. The recipes by test-kitchen associate Grace Parisi on the following pages, which range from intensely flavorful porcini meatballs on pasta to a delicate spiced crumb cake, wouldn't be as moist and delectable as they are if fat weren't included in their ingredient lists.
Of course, there's a problem with fat. To most Americans, it's become public health enemy number one. And nutritionists' recommendation that fat make up no more than 30 percent of the calories in one's daily diet has turned eating fatty foods into a guilty pleasure.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the anti-fat frenzy would have a backlash. Now a growing number of health experts believe that people who don't get enough of certain types of fat may run into trouble, and that--if the fats are chosen wisely--fat intake can healthfully go up to 35 percent. "The basic problem is that we're eating too much of the wrong kinds of fat and too little of the right ones," says William Connor, M.D., a professor of medicine in the division of clinical nutrition at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. The "wrong" kinds of fat still include the saturated type found in red meat, chicken skin and butter, as well as "trans" fat, the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in margarine and other processed foods. But, Connor explains, Americans also get too much of a fat long considered beneficial: omega-6, a polyunsaturated fat that's a constituent of corn oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil.
Omega-6 is heart-healthful, it's true. But a downside of taking in too much omega-6 is that it blocks the effect of another kind of fat that's even more protective: omega-3, a fat found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, anchovies and various other fatty fish. "Studies show that the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4 to 1; the ratio in the United States is 20 to 1," laments Artemis P. Simopoulos, M.D., president of The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C., and co-author of The Omega Diet (due out early this spring from HarperPerennial).
A wealth of research shows that omega-3 not only protects against heart disease but also reduces the chance that someone with heart disease will die of a heart attack. And that's just for starters. According to a new review of 10 major studies, omega-3 can ease joint pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis. And then there are the intriguing effects of omega-3 on the brain. At a conference last fall at the National Institutes of Health, researchers reported that omega-3 can reduce symptoms of manic depression and schizophrenia, and that supplementing infant formula with this fat helps boost vision and possibly intelligence in premature infants. "What's at work isn't entirely clear, but it seems to have to do with the fact that one type of omega-3, DHA, is highly concentrated in the brain," says Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., chief of the outpatient clinic of The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. DHA helps form the membrane on brain cells; a healthy cell coating is critical to the proper functioning of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). "It appears that getting adequate amounts of omega-3 may increase the concentration of the mood- elevating neurotransmitter serotonin," Hibbeln explains.
While omega-6 prevents omega-3 from doing its good work, monounsaturated fat (the kind in olive oil and canola oil) doesn't block omega-3. And replacing saturated fat with mono not only drives down harmful LDL blood cholesterol but also maintains levels of desirable HDL blood cholesterol. While animal studies show that omega-6-heavy diets may increase cancer risk, diets high in mono have been linked with decreased risk. "People eating the traditional Greek diet, which gets 40 percent of its calories from fat (mainly olive oil), have 20 times less heart disease and 10 times less cancer than Americans," Simopoulos says.
If certain fats are beneficial, however, then what about the traditional Japanese diet, a 10-percent-fat regimen that seems to prevent heart disease? "What this diet has in common with the Greek diet is a favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and it's low in saturated fat," Simopoulos points out.
So what's a health-minded person to do? Here's the simplest prescription: eat less saturated fat. Take it easy on omega-6; when possible, bypass corn oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil in favor of olive oil and canola oil. Nudge up your intake of omega-3: eat fish at least twice a week--the fattier, the better. And check out these recipes for inspiration.
Story by Janis Jibrin, a registered dietician and nutrition writer based in Washington, D.C. Her most recent book is The Unofficial Guide to Dieting Safely (Macmillan).