MIREILLE BLACKE, RD, CD-N
“Once encountered in its ripened state, the avocado easily turns into an obsession. Feel free to embellish practically any soup or main course with it if you are among the addicted.”
–Huntley Dent, “The Feast of Santa Fe”
America is fat-phobic on many levels, but not all dietary fats are created equal, and some of those feared fats are actually good for you. New Orleans cuisine is not considered particularly heart-healthy, but knowing the facts can help in making wiser choices, especially when it comes to often-confusing information about fat. At least one double-bonded carbon atom makes the difference between artery-clogging saturated fats (“the bad fats”) and unsaturated fats (“the healthier fats”), which have been shown to improve serum cholesterol “profiles”, reduce triglyceride levels, and generally lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. [Note: You want to avoid man-made trans fats altogether!] Unsaturated fats liquefy at room temperature, can be grouped into mono- and polyunsaturated types, and are typically found in foods like nuts, soybeans, flaxseed, vegetable oils (such as canola and olive), and fish. Some of these “healthy fats” may be found in some unusual sources.
Take the avocado, the primary ingredient in guacamole. Due to its pear shape, rough texture, and dark green skin, the avocado has earned the nickname of “alligator pear.” More than half of this fruit’s calories come from monounsaturated fat, and if you have fallen under the spell of its rich and creamy bite, you are hardly alone. The origins of this avocado voodoo began with the Aztecs over 700 years ago. Believing avocados had aphrodisiac qualities, the Aztecs invented guacamole dip using a mortar and pestle, by mashing avocados with tomatoes and onions and eating the dip with flattened corn bread. When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they were similarly helpless against the allure of this fruit and brought it back with them to the New World, where it has become a staple of Central and South American cuisine ever since.
This Cinco de Mayo, why not bring the guacamole to your celebration? It is pretty simple to make, even with some twists. Try this recipe for Grilled Onion Guacamole from the Mansion from Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas, or this basic one from the California Avocado Commission.
One medium-sized avocado provides 250 calories, 22 g total fat (3 g saturated fat), 10 g fiber, 3 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate, minimal sodium, and no cholesterol. One serving is considered 1/5 of the avocado, providing 50 calories, 4.5 g of fat, and roughly 20 nutrients, including potassium, vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin E, B vitamins, magnesium, fiber, folic acid, and beta-carotene. That translates to one nutrient-dense and flavorful food source that will benefit your health (in moderation). 63% of the fat found in the flesh of this fruit is monounsaturated oleic acid, which boosts cognitive function and lowers serum cholesterol. Avocados are also a significant source of lutein, which helps to maintain eye health and protect against cancer as we age. The anti-inflammatory properties of foods rich in monounsaturated fats like avocados have also been shown to ease the severity of pain from migraines and arthritis.
Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):
1) Tame that craving and still get your fix. Humans crave fats and oils in order to optimally function physiologically and psychologically. But keep in mind that a little goes a long way in terms of calories, and heart-healthy does not necessarily mean low-calorie (all fats contain 9 calories per gram). Choose between high-calorie, “good fat” options, such as a serving of avocado or nuts, for example: select one, not both.
2) Yes, they’re lying to you. Just because it says avocado on the label doesn’t mean it actually contains avocado. Be wary of some prepared dips that make false claims and contain no avocado: check the ingredients. Also, many restaurants are hopping on the avocado trend and list it on the menu, but do not actually use it (or do so in miniscule amounts) as an ingredient. (Avocado ice cream and martinis, I’m looking at you.)
3) Be creative. Substitute an avocado spread for mayonnaise, butter, or cheese in your sandwich, or add some avocado slices to a salad. Try Terra brand Taro chips instead of the corn tortilla version.
4) Don’t be a dipstick. All fats provide 9 calories per gram, even the “healthy” ones, so it is important to moderate your intake of guacamole and similar dips, particularly when paired with tempting companions such as tortilla chips. As with red wine or dark chocolate, eating more of something “healthy” does not translate to greater health overall; calories are still important in weight maintenance and moderation is key. (In other words, rein in the dip).
5) Trick your kids. It isn’t easy to convince finicky children to try unfamiliar foods, especially if the food in question is green and/or healthy. Mashing an avocado into guacamole is an encouraged form of deception when attempting to work healthy fats into children’s diets. Or steal this recipe for glazed Chocolate-Avocado Cupcakes and take them to your next social function. I experimented with these on fellow dietetic classmates (they know food!), using avocado as the oil substitute, and they were reviewed as very moist, physically filling, and satisfying to chocolate cravings.
So I suggest working some avocado voodoo for yourself. The secret identity of the “alligator pear” makes for an interesting trivia question, particularly for the South, and there are worse forms of addiction!