Weight watchers meticulously counting calories or monitoring cholesterol levels for their heart and waistline’s sake have been fooled by low-fat offerings for years. Recent studies reveal that food products labeled “low-fat” are actually not as good for you as a high-fat diet managed with caution. Obesity in America, particularly among children, has risen at an alarming rate. While we explore what labels claim to be healthy versions of our favorite foods, we are inevitably growing at our hips and bellies, and here’s why.
The American Heart Association targeted saturated fats as the main culprit in the 1980s. Prepackaged limited-calorie meals and “low-fat” versions of dairy, meats, spreads and the like hit the market to battle the war against superfluous flab. Carbs and sugars have always gotten a bad rap, but when the news of fat supplying twice the calories per gram compared to carbohydrates hit the airwaves, suddenly carbs seemed far less offensive; and therein lies the problem.
The fact of the matter is that fat gives food flavor. Recall your mother’s red beans—they wouldn’t be the same without a fatty hambone swimming deep in the cauldron. Saturated solids like butter, lard and animal fat season foodstuffs like no other spice. To appease the general public and reduce fat content, food science evolved to produce the same deli meat you hanker for in a sammie at a fraction of the calories. How they do it is the scary part. Saturated fats are replaced via a process called hydrogenation in which unsaturated vegetable oils are used in solid and semi-solid states as filler. Hydrogenated fats dangerously increase levels of trans-fats, which are far more detrimental to heart health than the average dinner serving of bread and butter alongside a fatty T-bone.
Now comes the not-so-sweet truth for those with a sweet tooth. Altering oils is one thing, but increasing sugar content is another. Dietitian Kerrie Turnwell explains, “The typical low-fat product tended to be high in carbs, might contain trans-fats and at the end of the day had a very similar calorie count to the original product. In fact, when we eat foods high in carbs, especially white refined ones, our bodies digest them more quickly. This can lead to blood sugar swings and cravings, making it more difficult to control our overall caloric intake—which means that second or third “low-fat” sweets start to look very tempting! A diet too high in these refined carbs and sugars can be as unhealthy as a high-fat diet because it increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease and causes high cholesterol levels.” Hence the “Skinny Fat” epidemic.
Consumers who opt for low-fat products essentially destroy their chances for weight loss and overall health benefits due to miseducation and investing trust in products disguised with confusing labels. Inorganic substances like sugar substitutes and oils are nutritionally devoid foods that are harder for the body to digest. For example, soy by-products. Soy lecithin–laced vegetarian versions of tacos, burritos and burgers offer carnivores the same flavor they love but with half the calories. Just as ya mama would say, “Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is,”—and she’s right. Soy lecithin, though harmless itself, is produced using a process called hexane extraction, resulting in residual contamination. Hexane is a petroleum chemical produced as a by-product of gasoline refining. Though prohibited when processing organic foods, hexane is used to process nearly all conventional soy protein ingredients and edible soy oils. Even a trace amount of contamination in food is poisonous to the human body. However, there is no federal regulation requiring food companies to test their products for hexane residues. Hexane has been classified as a neurotoxin contaminant and environmental air pollutant, two things we were not designed to digest.
Dr. Josh Axe, athlete physician and cookbook author, believes that food is medicine. “Exercising restraint with a normal diet of natural foods is the most ideal route. A balance of protein, fruits and vegetables, with limited animal fats and dairy won’t make you obese—it’s portion size and lack of moderation that do that. Eating a small meal or snack every three hours, to include small amounts of protein, is the perfect way to kick start the metabolism. Keeping it fueled with the proper ingredients will ensure stability in the way the body processes what it is receiving.”
“Fat is not the culprit,” he continues. “It’s actually good for the body. Essential fats are important for maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and the proper function of the nervous system. The fat in our diet helps us absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A, D, E and K. Following a very low-fat diet makes you more likely to be low in these vitamins, and that can affect your immunity. It’s better to focus your diet on the healthier fats by including more fish, nuts, and vegetable oils like olive and avocado.”
Finding healthy fat-balanced options with local flavor is not as big a chore as one may think. Seed on Prytania has figured out ways to creatively deliver dairy-free, vegan and gluten-free fare to the Creole palate. Gumbo made from collard greens and okra or corn nachos with cashew queso and veggies satisfy your craving without the calories or allergen fillers. Buddied up on the next corner is The Green Fork, with their slew of fresh juices and smoothies and daily pre-packaged take-away grabs of salads and the nutritional like. In the French Quarter, Cafe Envie hits home runs with sandwiches that settle the breakfast or lunch hankering. Grilled asparagus, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and thin slices of prosciutto are panini-pressed on sourdough and accompanied by potato salad. Hearty and healthy in moderation. Marcello’s on Saint Charles offers those healthy omega fats in their Pesce Del Giorno: fresh fish beautifully presented with zucchini and squash ribbons and saffron burro bianco. Their antipasti Lobster Panzanella and Long Stemmed Grilled Artichokes are fine starters that are low in calories but high in flavor.