Saturday, April 30, 2011

No-Fat Versus Low-Fat Cooking

I have to confess that the very first recipe I tested for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook (featuring mostly fat-free recipes) I didn't like. Like other HH recipes, this one called for sauteing onions and garlic not in oil but in broth or water. I thought I didn't like the recipe because it lacked the flavor from sauteing in oil.

I'd just finished making recipes that I loved from Appetite for Reduction, which stressed low fat but not no fat. From the book: "If you remember that diet craze of the '80s, where people ate nothing but sugary cardboard cookies and didn't even lose weight, you'll know that zero-fat diets aren't a good thing. In fact, the truth is your body needs fat. You need it to properly absorb vitamins, and you need it to keep your body working as it should. Beyond health reasons, fat is a crucial component. Even minimal amounts of fat help you feel satiated. It brings out the flavor of foods and aids cooking by caramelizing and browning."

But Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon posted a controversial blog post that said there is no such thing as healthy oils: "...oil is a highly processed junk food full of fat and calories and lacking nutrition." She also says on her blog that, "A wholly fat-free diet deprives the body of necessary nutrients. I don't add any fats -- such as nuts, seeds, shortenings, butter/margarine, oils, coconut or avocados to my recipes. However, I do use wholesome ingredients that contain a little fat naturally such as beans, wheat, cocoa and tofu."

I was skeptical of fat-free cooking but went on to test dozens of HH recipes....and absolutely loved all of them except for that very first one. Lindsay's recipes proved to me that fat-free doesn't have to be flavor-free.

Here were two vegan chefs I admired and respected, both with fantastic recipes I loved but with two different approaches to cooking. Who was right? I think both are.

The photo at the top is one of my very favorite recipes that I make all the time. It's a Quiche with Greens, a Happy Herbivore recipe. Garlic and onion powder give it the flavor you'd get from sauteing garlic and onion in oil, but with no fat. At just 78 calories and 6.7 grams of protein, it's a delicious, low-cal, filling meal. And because it's so low-cal, I can easily have a handful of nuts or few slices of avocado or toast with peanut butter to get the nutrients from fats that my body needs without worrying about gaining weight from a lot of added fat.

I love HH recipes and will continue to make them. Making these recipes taught me that you don't always need oil to make a dish flavorful, and the calories I save I can use to eat whole foods that have healthy fats.

I'll also continue to make low-fat recipes like Appetite for Reduction that often call for a little (usually one teaspoon) oil, because I do agree that sometimes a little oil goes a long way. I wouldn't not make a dynamite recipe just because it called for oil.

I think mixing up no-fat and low-fat recipes--with occasional full-fat meals or treats like cupcakes thrown in because I don't believe any food I love should be off limits--is the key to staying satisfied and maintaining a healthy weight.

If you're watching your weight, which approach--no fat or low fat--do you use most in cooking?


  1. I pretty much agree with your sentiments! I can't see any evidence on how healthy plant fats, like what's found in whole nuts, seeds and avocados, are bad if eaten in moderation. As long as you're not suffering from chronic disease and/or you need to lose a bunch of weight, it doesn't make sense to me to limit (good) fat too excessively.

    That said, I agree with Lindsay completely about the fats in oil being basically empty calories, therefore making them a junk food. But for a healthy person, a little isn't much of a big deal, I think. It's like you said about the cupcakes!

    Thanks for this post and letting me ramble :)

  2. I find merit in both views, although I'm a little bit more on the Appetite for Reduction side when it comes to cooking. You need fat in your diet; end of story. But you don't need tons of it and I think a lot of people go overboard when it comes to adding things like oils. I do eat liberal amounts of avocado though.. I'm obsessed with them!

  3. fat free diets are very straining on the body. many vitamins are fat-soluble and actually need fats in the body to be processed.

    not all oils are overprocessed junk foods; that's an oversimplification. coconut oil is the best cooking oil and it's not overprocessed - it separates from the meat naturally at temps below 85 degrees as the coconut meat cools.

    anyone who chooses no fat eating/living is going to be depriving themselves of necessary nutrition. that's the bottom line.

  4. A good thing to remember too is fat is in everything--even bananas and kale! sometimes it surprises people when they look up the nutritional value of something like kale, and see it has fat. as long as you eat whole foods -- legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, even if you never eat nuts, seeds or avocado, you still get plenty of fat. its impossible to eat truly fat-free unless you eat foods that have been processed to have the fat removed.

    I say my diet is more no added fat, than low fat or fat-free.