Big Fat Deal: Local chefs dish up healthy menu options, minus the trans fats

Monday, August 11, 2008 at 12:18am
Some local chefs are focusing on healthy, flavorful fare such as this halibut dish from Radius 10.Joon Powell for The City Paper

California has long been recognized as a culinary trendsetter. And last month, the Golden State made history by becoming the first U.S. state to ban dangerous trans fats from restaurant food.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is making headlines of a different kind.

According to a recent study by CalorieLab (an online health site offering nutritional and fitness information), Tennessee is the sixth-fattest state in the nation, with 67 percent of its adult population considered either overweight or obese in 2007.

Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study indicates that Tennessee’s obese population exceeded 29 percent over a three-year average (with obesity defined as a body mass index of 30 or more).

The good news is that a growing number of restaurants — including many big-name chains — are taking steps to make their menus more heart healthy, beginning with the elimination of trans fats.

But before you rush out to celebrate, it’s important to understand the big fat picture.

What’s all the fuss?

“We’re hearing a lot about trans fats these days, but they’re really nothing new,” said Kitty Fawaz, a registered dietician at Saint Thomas Hospital. “There are studies dating back to the 1950s talking about the harmful effects of trans fats.”

Fawaz says that there are four basic kinds of fat — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which primarily come from fish, nuts and plant oils; saturated, which is generally found in animal fats and foods such as beef and dairy; and of course the artery-clogging trans fat, which is often used for frying and in processed foods such as cookies and snacks.

While small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products, most are created by an industrial process known as partial hydrogenation, says Dr. Kevin Niswender, assistant professor of medicine, diabetes, endocrinology and metabolism at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“By adding hydrogen molecules to vegetable oil, you can stabilize the oil, giving products a longer shelf life,” he explained. “The problem is that this type of fat is particularly bad for you. Trans fats are very hard to metabolize and they actually raise the so-called bad LDL cholesterol while lowering the good HDL cholesterol. This can lead to serious health problems and increase your risk of heart disease.”

So eliminating trans fats is good news, right? Maybe, says Fawaz.

“It’s great that restaurants are eliminating trans fats. But then the question becomes what are they using in their place? If they’re simply substituting with a saturated fat, we’re not really addressing the problem. And consumers need to understand that even without the trans fats, fried food is still not good for you.”

Finding fresh alternatives

So what’s the solution to our obesity problem? Dr. Niswender recommends more exercise, smaller portions and a balanced diet.

“The best diet includes moderate calorie and fat intake, with a balanced approach to nutrition. Many people achieve this with a Mediterranean diet based on seafood, olive oil, whole grains and unprocessed fruits and vegetables.”

Kalamata’s offers the perfect example, with plenty of Mediterranean favorites made with fresh ingredients. And because chef/owner Maher Fawaz is married to a dietician (Kitty Fawaz), he feels a particular responsibility to keep the menu light.

“Our entire concept was built around low-fat, healthy recipes,” Fawaz said. “My co-owner, Beth Collins, worked with my wife through Saint Thomas’ Heart Healthy Cooking School. So our menu really was planned around that idea.”

Fawaz says that while many people assume healthy cooking must be bland, that doesn’t have to be the case.

“We start with quality ingredients and use fresh herbs to add flavor. The menu centers on salads with fresh-cut romaine and vegetables. We make our vinaigrette in house using olive oil. We use no trans fats. There’s only one item on the menu that is fried — falafel — and it’s prepared using canola oil. We use the leanest cuts of meat and offer fish specials three or four times a week. Add some pita bread and you have a very balanced meal.”

As chef/owner of radius10, Jason Brumm agrees that health-conscious diners don’t have to sacrifice taste.

“One of the our most popular items is the pan-seared halibut with heirloom tomatoes,” he said, “It’s very simple but packed with flavor. We use canola blends or olive oil — no trans fats — and I buy from the farmer’s market as much as possible. There are no hidden ingredients, everything is fresh and I’m very open to special requests. If you want to substitute asparagus for potatoes, that’s no problem. Of course, some people are still going to splurge on the grits or mac and cheese, but I try to offer a variety of healthy choices.”

Variety also seems to be the watchword for Arnold Myint, chef/owner of PM.

The Belmont-area restaurant features a wide range of Pan-Asian entrees, sushi, rice bowls and small plates. Myint also offers light variations on old favorites, including a wild mushroom moo-shu and a tasty veggie burger.

“There’s something for everyone,” Myint said. “It’s important to me to offer a balanced menu with lots of healthy dishes. If we can cut back on fats and get creative with vegetarian options, so much the better.”

Myint proudly posts nutritional information on his menu, highlighting vegetarian and vegan selections as well as indicating those that are gluten free.

“I mark everything clearly on the menu so customers know we’ve taken the time to do our research. We understand that some people have specific dietary needs, and we can meet those,” he said.

For Lars Kopperud, general manager and co-owner of the popular Italian eatery MAFIAoZA’s, the trans fat issue is “a no-brainer.”

“I can understand that [cooking without trans fats] could be a challenge for chain restaurants. But for a place like ours where everything is made in house, there’s no reason you can’t avoid it,” Kopperud said. “Yes, it costs a little more to use healthier alternatives, but it’s important. I mean I’m a father, and I know I don’t want my kids eating that stuff. So we’re not going to serve it to other people’s kids either.”

And while pizza is not exactly considered health food, Kopperud says that MAFIAoZA’s menu features fresh, seasonal ingredients, plenty of fresh salads and piccolo morsi — an Italian tradition that means “a few bites.”

“At this point we don’t have a lot of customers asking about trans fats, but that could change as more people become aware of the issue. I don’t think people are going to stop eating out, but I think they are going to choose restaurants that use fresh ingredients with no additives ‘— it’s just a healthier way of eating.”

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