Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cutting the Fat

It's fairly well known that too much fat, especially saturated fat, is not healthy. It clogs our arteries and makes us gain weight. We do need some fats, but you can get what you need without trying.

What some don't know is that fat doesn't only add to your waistline, it adds to your grocery bill. Much of America's fats come from meats, dairy and oils, all very expensive things, even more so if you're buying organic.

Quick tangent for a moment - When you must buy foods with high fat content, why buy organic? Fat is where most toxins congregate, so it's particularly important to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pesticide-free, and mercury-free (low mercury in some cases) fatty foods, when you buy fatty foods. Sometimes, this means buying organic, sometimes it means buying wild, as in the case of fatty fish (bear in mind some wild fish are still high in mercury - most notably shark, king mackerel (not to be confused with the smaller variety of mackerel, which is very low in mercury), swordfish, tilefish, and most recently, bluefin tuna).

Speaking of wild meat, I'm horribly jealous of people who hunt. I'm an urban-raised Northeasterner, so hunting is not something that has ever appealed to me (sorry to generalize here - I'm sure there are some exceptions to this stereotype), and I don't think I could ever bring myself to do it. But I see how it could be advantageous to a healthy diet, and a healthy wallet. Hunting game means getting meat that is raised by nature, on its natural diet, without any of the harmful things to which livestock are subject. It is, I believe, the most humane way to get meat. It's also illegal to buy, in many states, so for those of us who don't hunt, it's not on the menu. If you do hunt, it's about the cheapest way possible to get your meat. I just hope you have a good freezer, and you know how to butcher an animal.

There are some "up-and-coming" farm-raised animals that are generally raised hormone and antibiotic-free, and on a natural diet. These include bison and ostrich. Look for these in stores as a cheaper alternative to organic meat that still offers roughly the same nutritional value. In fact, these meats are lower in fat than most red meats.

Another way some people are able to find less-toxic and less-expensive meat is through local farmers (although I haven't found this to be the case near me ... yet). If you live in a rural area, finding such a farm might not be a problem. If you live in an urban area, check out your area farmer's markets, which are generally served by family farmers within close driving distance. Buying local also serves an environmental purpose in that it significantly reduces the fuel waste of bringing food from one place to another. Why buy a chicken from Illinois when there's a chicken farmer down the road? The key to buying locally from farmers is to find a small family farmer. In general, small farms treat their animals with a little more respect, and they are not in the mass-production, high turnover business that gives us the often disease ridden, artificially fattened, nutritionally devoid meat products you'll find in a typical supermarket. So, even if they are not organic, you are likely to get a healthier product. Also, bear in mind that USDA organic certification is an expensive, time-consuming process, and many small farmers, who would otherwise be considered organic, cannot certify that they are. The end result to you may be a less expensive product with the same high quality as certified organic meats.

Perhaps I'll rant another time about the ills of corporate, consolidated meat farming and processing. Boy, there's a lot to talk about there! Unfortunately, the one thing they do well is keep consumer costs down, but at what cost to our health, the health of local and global economies, and the health of the planet? Again ... we'll do this another time.

OK, so that was not a quick tangent. Sheesh!

Back to cutting the fat. One of the easiest things you can do as a shopper and home cook is to simply reduce the amount of expensive and unhealthy things you buy. If you are cooking from recipes, the fat (butter/oil) that you use can usually be cut down to 1/2 or 1/4 what the recipe calls for. Please, don't consider lard, schmaltz or bacon fat as a cooking medium!!! Just don't.

Many Americans have taken to using oil sprays, like Pam, to cut fat and calories. While they may serve that purpose, those products are full of propellants that are unhealthy to breathe and unhealthy for the environment. They also cost a fortune, considering the small amount of oil that is contained in each canister. And they are a disposable product, so they add to our landfills. The solution here is to use a re-usable mister, such as Misto ( This uses air pressure that you pump into it to produce a mist of oil. That way, you save the environment, your wallet, your heart, and your waistline. It's a quadruple whammy!

Fat is a helpful medium for cooking, and without some sort of non-stick surface, a mere mist of oil may not cut it. Unfortunately, the teflons and other non-stick varieties out there are not particularly healthy options either. If teflon is scratched, you run the risk of actually consuming bits of the coating, which is most definitely not food. Please recycle scratched teflon pans. Even without scratching, teflon releases toxic vapors into the air that may or may not be a hazard to our health. We do know that birds die fairly easily from being around teflon cooking, so there's a pretty good chance it would affect us humans, as well.

So, what's the alternative? Cast iron. Yes, old fashioned cast iron, or enameled cast iron (which is much more expensive), is a perfectly non-stick surface, as long as you keep it seasoned properly. It also has the added benefit of contributing iron to your diet, which is absorbed from the pan into your food. I cook eggs in cast iron, and they never stick! I think that's about the best test. Incidentally, I think cooking in cast iron adds terrific flavor, too.

Regardless of how you get your meat, reducing the amount you consume is a great way to reduce saturated fat in your diet and also reduce your grocery bill. Although some people cut meat out of their diets completely, I believe that some amount of meat is natural to our diet and therefor necessary (this is certainly debatable, and I would never tell a vegetarian or vegan to adopt my own philosophy). Our teeth are made to tear and chew meat, and our bodies need the B vitamins that are so readily available in meat. Not eating meat requires that we supplement our diet in other ways, and that can make nutrition a more difficult challenge.

Although I consider meat an essential food, meat is not the most important thing in our diets, as the typical American restaurant menu would have you believe. Vegetables and grains are not mere decoration on a plate to keep the meat company; they are the main part of a meal. If anything, meat is more appropriate as a garnish. After all, it adds flavor and texture to dishes, so what better garnish could there be? Filling your plate with grains and vegetables is far less costly than filling it with meat, so that is a clear benefit that may even convince the most committed carnivore.

In our family, meat is reserved for dinner, and not every dinner. We generally eat meat (poultry, usually) maybe 2-3 days a week, and only at dinner, and we eat fish 2-3 days a week, as well. The remainder of the week is vegetarian, sometimes vegan. The meat that we consume in any given meal is also far less than the average American would eat. We usually consume between 3-5 oz. (sometimes less) of meat or fish at dinner. When you go to a restaurant, a petite steak is usually 8 oz., just to give you an idea of how much meat we are really talking about. More often than not, we don't serve meat in a single lump. We usually cut it up and put it in sauces, stir fry, tacos, salads, etc. Serving it that way makes the small amount less noticeable. When we do serve it in a single lump, we make presentation a factor. Think like a restaurant, trying to get the best bang for your meat dollar. Pile things high, arrange things interestingly, garnish with something that takes the focus off the meat (salsa, chutney, greens). These are tricks that will help you feel visually satisfied by the amount of meat put before you. Your body will be satisfied anyway because you'll be eating a perfectly full meal.

Cutting down on fatty foods (and replacing them with healthy, unprocessed foods, not low/non-fat packaged food substitutes), along with cutting overall portion sizes, is a matter of health and economy. These are changes we should think of as improvements in our lives, and not sacrifices and deprivations. Ultimately, food should always be joyous and celebratory. That's not a luxury.

No comments: