First published in Beyond India, August 2016 edition.

Ms Pallavi Nagpal

It’s an experience that can’t be articulated in words, yet we all know it. The smell of love as suji, ghee, and cardamom find each other. The feelings of excitement as your spoon finally reaches the kadai, and a sense of comfort that only comes from that first bite of warm halva.

Why do ‘fatty’ foods taste so good, and do we need fat in our diet?

Dietary fat plays a significant role in the texture, flavor, and aroma of foods. Think of the creamy mouth-feel of ice cream or butter chicken. At 37KJ per gram of fat (compared to 16KJ per gram of carbohydrate), it is also the most concentrated source of energy and helps us feel full and happy.

Fat also contributes to vital body processes, such as making hormones and assisting the absorption of vitamins. Making it an essential part of a balanced human diet.

Are there different kinds of fat?

Fats can be classified into four groups: saturated, trans, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Saturated: raise LDL blood cholesterol levels (the “bad” kind) and contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke).

Found in processed foods (e.g. chips, biscuits, pastries, bhujia), fried and fast-food (pizza, samosas, pakoras) and animal derived products such as meat and dairy. Additional sources include coconut cream/milk and Ghee; a clarified butter consisting of pure fats (~60% saturated), commonly used in traditional Indian cooking.

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated: These ‘unsaturated’ fats act to lower blood cholesterol levels and are protective against cardiovascular disease; among other benefits.

Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and canola oil, avocados and nuts such as almonds, peanuts, and cashews. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, especially oily fish, oils such as safflower and soya bean, Brazil nuts and walnuts.

Trans fats: generally results when unsaturated fats undergo processing and begin to behave like a saturated fat. Not only do they act to increase LDL cholesterol, they also lower HDL cholesterol blood levels (the “good” kind).

Found in many packaged foods (read the nutrition label) and processed foods such as pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits, samosas, and spring rolls.

How much dietary fat can I have?

The recommendations suggest fats contribute 20-30% of your overall energy intake, with less than 10% from saturated fat. In practice, this is really difficult to gauge. Instead, consider the following strategies:

  • While dairy and meat are natural sources of saturated fat, they also contain protein, vitamins and minerals. Instead of cutting them out of your diet, choose low-fat dairy options and trim the fat / skin off all meat products.
  • Replace butter and ghee with small amounts of unsaturated fats such as margarine, olive or canola oil.
  • Replace snacks such as bhujia, pappad, chips and biscuits with nuts (only a handful!), avocado on 3-4 wholemeal crackers, fruit, yoghurt, or homemade popcorn.
  • Limit foods such as halva, methai, cakes, pastries, samosas, and fried goods.
  • Replace coconut cream / cream with Greek yoghurt in curries.
  • Eat fish at least once a week and add vegetables wherever you can.

Remember, even healthy fats eaten in excess will contribute to weight gain!