When I was growing up, fat was considered a pariah. For good health and weight maintenance, it was to be avoided at all costs. We had nonfat cookies and breads and even low-fat peanut butter. When I went to college to study nutrition, I learned that the reasoning behind this no-fat trend was sound: Fats have more calories per gram than do carbohydrates or proteins, and some dietary fats can increase the risk of health problems such as strokes and heart disease. So, if someone wants to eat fewer calories, limiting fat intake is often the most efficient way to do so-and as an additional benefit, one can reduce the risk of some pretty serious diseases. It’s a win-win situation, right? Not entirely.
The more I learned-and ate and cooked-the more this reasoning failed me. Here’s why: The dietary fat in nonfat and low-fat foods is often replaced with refined grains and/or sugar. Sometimes the low-fat version of a food product has more calories than the original! It turns out that fats from vegetable sources are not risk factors for heart disease and actually work to reduce your risk. And even though vegetable fat is still high in calories, people who eat it tend to eat fewer calories overall than those who stick to a fat-free diet. Digest that for a minute (pun intended!). Eating some fat from plant-based sources can help you eat fewer calories throughout the day, which is what is most important for weight control. As a dietitian, I tell people to stir-fry their vegetables in olive oil. Why? Because the vegetables might taste better that way. Fat is a flavor carrier, and when vegetables taste good, we eat more of them.
I wrote the nutrition sections for Isa Moskowitz’s cookbook Appetite for Reduction, and even though the book’s emphasis is on maintaining a healthy bodyweight, the recipes are far from fat-free. It turns out that nuts, seeds, beans, and olive oil are not only good for you but also delicious. Does this mean that you can have your vegan cake and eat it too? Not exactly. Calories are still calories, and if you eat too many, you could gain weight. But eating plant-based fats can be a strategy that leads to eating more vegetables and fewer total calories-not to mention that plant-based fats are good for both your heart and your taste buds.
Matt’s Perfect Peanut Sauce
As a kid, I use to sit in front of the television and eat peanut butter out of the jar. Luckily, my use of both peanut butter and my free time has improved since then. One of my current favorite uses of both is this sauce. It’s quick to make and better than anything that you’d buy in a bottle. Peanuts are magical legumes that have an unbelievable number of uses.
I make this recipe so often that I usually don’t even measure the ingredients. It is easy to adjust this sauce to your own taste. You can alter the amount of garlic that you use (remember: it’s raw and therefore very strong) as well as the spiciness, the sweetness, and the thickness. If you don’t have fresh garlic or ginger, powdered versions will work too. This sauce is fun to make, and the directions are simple. It also keeps well in the fridge, so I like to make a large quantity of it and enjoy it for several days. I even like to dip raw vegetables into it while it’s cold! Yum.
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1-2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. sweetener (agave, maple syrup, unrefined sugar, etc.)
2-4 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp.-size piece fresh ginger
Sriracha hot sauce, to taste
Makes 4 servings
Matthew Ruscigno, M.P.H., R.D., is a registered dietitian, a longtime vegan, and an athlete who loves to cook. He teaches college in Los Angeles. You can read more of his writing at www.truelovehealth.com.
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