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WHEN DISCUSSING SATURATED FATS, WE TALK OF “GOOD” AND “BAD” BUT IT IS MUCH MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT.

Blame Hollywood. We live in a culture where we want to reduce everything to an A vs. B construct. Cops versus robbers. Rich versus poor. Fat versus fit. Kind versus mean. Hairy guy versus bald guy (if the girl has a shaved head, she’s a tough character). In the movie formula, you usually know who you’re rooting for early in the movie.

But not always. Some films get it right, capturing the complexity of life with a mixed view of good versus bad.

Food and nutrition are often seen in a good versus bad context, but in fact it’s really a mixed bag. Twenty years ago we considered all fat to be bad, but in its banishment we missed out on what we later called the “good fats” – those derived from plants (nuts, avocados) and fish, mostly. Alright then – the word was avoid the “bad fats,” those lipids that come from things with feet (cows, pigs and chickens).

But the food and biology picture still is a little trickier than even that. In fact we need some saturated fats for proper body functions. Saturated fats, converted to phospholipids, are the building blocks for all cell membranes throughout the body. The brain in particular is comprised of these phospholipids, and the lungs have a surfactant that is dependent on phospholipids to keep them functioning. Saturated fats help bones absorb calcium, protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins, contribute to natural immunity functions, and help tissue retain the Omega 3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins.

All of this is a good thing, because in fact these “bad” saturated fats are almost unavoidable. It’s in avocados, olive oil, fruits and vegetables (most in very low concentrations), and of course animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy), as well as fish.

When it comes to saturated fats, the trick is balance

So, we can’t avoid saturated fats, and good thing because we need it. Anyone pursuing an absolute banishment of saturated fats is doomed to fail, and misguided. (Note that transfats are another category, however. A creation of food technology, transfats are good for shelf stability of food but are always bad for people, always to be avoided.)

But it’s not like all those imperatives to eat less beef, more fish, legumes, nuts and vegetables were completely off base. Most western diets skew too heavily to animal proteins, and the obesity crisis is no small indicator of that.

It’s all very complicated. Like a good movie. And there is a plot twist.

Humans evolved on some animal protein sources, so it makes sense our bodies metabolize and thrive on some amount of that. But the animals of yesterday are not the same as today. Modern factory farm methods have changed the diets of animals we eat from grass to grain, altering the Omega 3 and Omega 6 balance in the nutrition we receive. Quantities too have changed – even up to the earlier parts of the 20th Century, only well-to-do households had a regular and bountiful amount of meat on the dinner table. But now a hamburger can cost less than a dollar, and we eat millions every day.

“In a society where everything is accessible, understanding how to eat healthfully can be overwhelming,” says Jill Houk, partner in Centered Chef Food Studios, a Chicago-based company that provides individualized, nutritious prepared meals for its clients.

Saturated fats: Healthy guidelines

The American Heart Association guidelines call for 7 percent of total daily caloric intake be from saturated fats, and 25-35 percent from fats overall. Translated to a workable level, here’s how that plays out:

Person who exercises moderately (30 minutes of exercise x 3 days/week)
Total daily calories: 2200-2500
7% of that is 153-175 calories
9 calories per gram of fat = 17-19 grams of fat per day

Person who exercises rigorously (60 minutes of exercise x 5-7 days/week)
Total daily calories: 2500-3000
7% of that is 175-210 calories
9 calories per gram of fat = 19-23 grams of fat per day

For reference:

  • McDonald’s Hamburger: 3.5 grams of saturated fat
  • McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese: 12 grams of saturated fat
  • McDonald’s Angus Bacon and Cheese: 17 grams of saturated fat?McDonald’s Large French fries: 3.5 grams saturated fat
  • Pizza Hut Hand-Tossed Style cheese pizza (one slice): 4.5 grams saturated fat
  • Pizza Hut Hand-Tossed Style Meat Lovers pizza (one slice): 17 grams saturated fat

Of course, we hope you cook a few meals at home. Jill Houk’s staff dietitian, Sara Haas, RD LDN, suggests meals accented with a little bit of meat, but still heavy on the vegetables, as a balancing measure. Bacon, for example, is high in sodium and nitrates, a preservative. “Some all natural brands are free of nitrates,” says Haas, who uses a little bit of bacon in several recipes. She provides one here that makes use of antioxidant-packed Brussels Sprouts and is so simple that perhaps cavemen really could have made a version of this dish:

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Lemon

Makes 8-12 servings.
Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, cut in half lengthwise
    6 thin slices bacon, diced
  • 1 lemon, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise

Method

  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook Brussels spouts in medium saucepan of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 7 minutes.
  • Drain.
  • Spread Brussels sprouts on cookie sheet in a single layer.
  • Sprinkle with bacon, and lemon slices. If desired, sprinkle with black pepper. Roast until Brussels sprouts are tender and beginning to brown, stirring every 10 minutes, about 30 minutes. Transfer to bowl and serve.
  • The total amount of saturated fat from six slices of bacon is 3.7 grams (33 calories of saturated fat).

This is a dish that serves well at parties and potlucks – and can be the star of the show, at least to those people who understand the importance of a little bit of saturated fat.