Domini Kemp: We need to talk about ... fat

Fat is not all bad, our bodies need it to function efficiently, but we should get it from a variety of sources

Chicken and walnut salad with gypsy salad. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Chicken and walnut salad with gypsy salad. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Fat. It’s a loaded word, and it causes controversy wherever it goes. Fat isn’t like sugar. Unless you’ve been living under a stone somewhere, everyone knows that sugar isn’t good for you, partly because it’s so light on nutrients. It’s often delicious, but it’s just empty calories.

But fat is different. Fat has a mission in the body. Some key nutrients can’t be absorbed without it, and it’s also essential for the smooth functioning of healthy cells, especially in our brain, which consists of at least 60 per cent fat. And in times when carbs aren’t available to us – historically, in winter – our metabolisms can even burn fat for energy. Pretty nifty, really.

But if you read everything published about the role of fat in our diets, your head would be wrecked. Confusion and misinformation have left many people utterly bewildered about which fats to eat, which ones to avoid and which to eat in abundance, if any.

In the past couple of years, however, evidence has been emerging showing the crucial importance of fat to the health of our brains, digestion and bodies generally. And this includes saturated fat.

In essence, it boils down to a few simple guidelines. Mix it up. Don’t eat too much of any one fat. There are plenty to choose from: olive oil, ghee, coconut oil, and if you eat butter, (which I do) make it butter from grass-fed cows. Irish butter does this very nicely indeed.

Recent nutritional studies have been questioning the link between saturated fat and heart disease. But this does not mean people can be adding three tablespoons of butter to their morning coffee to celebrate.

I believe we shouldn’t be as terrified of saturated fat as we once were. But variation and keeping an eye on your calorie intake is important when dealing with these kinds of energy dense foods.

Fats have a positive role to play in our diets, and while the right balance of nutrients should be a priority, so too should maintaining a healthy weight.

My first recipe this week showcases the joys of good fats in the diet. Poached chicken gets a delicious, nutty sauce resembling a sort of dryish pesto, with walnuts, olive oil, herbs and, of course, garlic. It’s devilishly good, and makes a great lunchbox treat.

To go with it is what I call a gypsy salad – one with its origins in more than one country, though it’s fair to say it’s inspired mostly by Middle Eastern cooking, with pomegranate and mint to lift the onions and peppers above the everyday.

This chicken dish is rich and full of fat, but it’s extremely filling and delicious. A little goes a long way.

dkemp@irishtimes.com

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