- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I am not a dietitian, and I usually do not write about dietary topics. However, some information is near and dear to my heart — not to mention my waistline and my blood sugar level.

I have known for a while that fruits and vegetables are important and that I need to switch to whole-grain products, but I did not realize how important good fats were until I read “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy” by Dr. Walter C. Willett (Free Press).

Many years ago, we got the message that eating fat was bad for us, that it caused heart disease. So Americans have worked hard to cut fat out of our diets, and we have. According to Dr. Willett, co-developer of the Harvard School of Public Health, over the past four decades, we have reduced calories from fat in our diets from 40 percent to 33 percent. Yet the disease rate remains at the same level, and obesity and type 2 diabetes are soaring. What has happened?

Fat can be satisfying, so when we cut down on it, we are hungry, and we eat more carbohydrates. Unfortunately, carbohydrates increase weight as effectively as fat. I had thought that the primary villains were foods high in sugar, but Dr. Willett explains that pasta, potatoes, white bread and white rice cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which you don’t get with fat, protein or slowly absorbed carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits or whole grains.

These spikes in blood sugar levels cause spikes in insulin levels, which puts heavy demands on the pancreas to make insulin and can lead eventually to adult-onset diabetes.

Dr. Willett summarizes that cutting all fats and increasing carbohydrates does little to protect against heart disease and may ultimately harm some of us. One reason is that in our zeal to cut fats, we have cut the good fats with the bad. We have reduced vital good-for-us unsaturated fats such as oils in salad dressings and nuts.

Some fats, such as Omega-3s and Omega-6s, are essential. Fats are the raw material for building cell membranes and for making some hormones. Our bodies can synthesize many fats from others, but there are some fatty acids (essential fatty acids) that our bodies cannot make.

We have to have alpha-linolenic (Omega-3), linoleic (Omega-6) and the fatty acid derived from these two, arachidonic, to live. It is through the fat that we eat that we get not only these essential fatty acids, but also the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K.

Some fats actually are vital to preventing heart disease. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oils, lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise beneficial HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Unsaturated fats do not increase blood triglycerides as carbohydrates do. The essential fatty acid Omega-3 (a polyunsaturated fat) reduces the tendency for stroke-forming clots to form and reduces the risk of erratic heartbeat.

Certainly, not all fats are good for us, so returning to a high-fat diet is not the way to go. Saturated fats raise blood levels of triglycerides (fats), cholesterol and harmful LDLs, and reduce good HDLs.

Trans fats are especially harmful. They raise not only LDLs but the small, dense LDLs that are most damaging to arteries. They also raise blood levels of triglycerides and lower good HDLs, and they make platelets, which aid in clotting, stickier than usual and more likely to form clots inside blood vessels. Dr. Willett points out that, suspiciously, the rise in heart disease in the United States parallels the rise of trans fats in our diets.

So we can see clearly that we need to get good fats (monounsaturated and Omega-3) back into our diets. We should not do this by raising our dietary fat level but by eating the good fats instead of trans fats and saturated fats.

Trans fats are found in margarine, some vegetable shortening, many fast-food french fries, doughnuts, packaged pastries (cookies, crackers, muffins) and countless other foods. Since Jan. 1, trans fats have been listed on the labels of foods manufactured in the United States. Previously, they had been listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening.

Dr. Willett points out that we should not be fooled by labels touting that they are “cholesterol-free.” Foods can be high in trans fats and still contain no cholesterol. Nor does “cooked in vegetable oil” mean a product is free of trans fats because the oils used may be heavily hydrogenated. Thus, conscientious label reading is necessary for us to cut our trans fat intake.

We can cut back on saturated fats frequently found in high-fat cuts of beef and high-fat dairy products simply by switching to leaner cuts (there are 29 lean cuts of beef) and to low-fat or nonfat dairy products.

To increase the good-for-us fats in our diets, let’s take a look at canola oil. It has just 7 percent saturated fatty acids (the lowest of commonly available oils) compared with olive oil at 15 percent. Canola oil contains 61 percent monounsaturated fatty acids. This is not as much as olive oil at 75 percent, but it also contains 11 percent Omega-3, more than that found in olive oil at 1 percent.

The sometimes-intense flavor of olive oil can be perfect tossed with vegetables, but even mild olive oil can undermine the taste of cakes and muffins. Canola has a delicate flavor that enhances the taste of baked goods and is an excellent fat for all-around home use. So instead of reaching for vegetable oil (normally high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which unfortunately lower good HDLs along with LDLs), go for canola.

Cooking Light magazine, which has the largest circulation of any food magazine, has switched to canola oil in its recipes. Also on the commercial front, Legal Seafood has announced that for more healthful dishes, it has switched to high-stability canola oil, which is ideal for deep-fat frying. (Consumers can buy high-stability canola oil under the Spectrum brand.) This reduces trans and saturated fats in dishes while preserving the clean taste of the food.

You can find mayonnaise made with canola oil, but I like my homemade canola oil mayonnaise so much that I am willing to whip it up myself. See if you don’t agree.

Shirley’s canola mayonnaise

To be absolutely safe, I heated the egg to prevent salmonella. Water and sugar help prevent the egg from coagulating when carefully heated. You can skip this step if you use pasteurized eggs. I like to add a little minced jalapeno and ginger root to make a chili-ginger mayonnaise, but other spices or herbs also can be added to make different kinds of flavored mayonnaise.

1 large egg

2 tablespoons lemon juice


teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 scant teaspoon salt

Pinch of cayenne, optional

1 cup canola oil

Beat egg well with lemon juice, 1 tablespoon water and sugar. Heat mixture in a small skillet over very low heat, stirring and scraping bottom of pan constantly with a spatula. When bubbles appear around edge of pan, or at the first sign of thickening, remove pan from heat but continue stirring.

Dip pan bottom in a large pan of cold water to stop cooking. Scrape contents into a blender, blend for a second or so and then let stand, uncovered, at least 5 minutes to cool. Add dry mustard, salt and cayenne, if using, and cover. With blender running, drizzle in oil, very slowly at first and then a little faster until combined. Transfer mayonnaise to a clean container and chill immediately. It will keep 7 days covered and refrigerated. Makes about 1 cups.

Food scientist Shirley O. Corriher is author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

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