Got a Fat Tooth?

We may be programmed to crave fatty foods, but there are ways to get satisfaction without harming our health.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 23, 2007

Make way, sweet tooth; scientists believe we reach for the greasy french fries, creamy premium ice creams, butter, and other fatty foods because of a different culprit -- the "fat tooth." And that this is probably why our palates feel deprived when reduced to eating a diet of nonfat or low-fat foods.

A 2005 study identified a protein, CD36, that acts as a possible "fat sensor" in the tongue (also known as a fatty acid transporter, or FAT). Mice missing the gene for the protein don't have a craving for fatty foods, compared to mice with the gene.

In people, "Some scientists think that we're programmed to like fatty foods, others think it's learned," says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor at New York University. No matter, we crave fat. And now we can blame it on a pesky protein receptor on our tongues that may detect and taste the substance. It joins other, well-known, taste sensors for sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

If there is in fact a fat tooth, that's even more reason to monitor intake of fatty foods, which have a way of creeping into our diets. "You can program yourself to desire fewer fatty foods," says Elisa Zied, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for The American Dietetic Association and author of Feed Your Family Right! "Once you wean yourself from unhealthy choices, you no longer desire them as much."

The trick is to gradually eliminate most fat from your diet but allow yourself to indulge now and then -- a pat of butter or a paper-thin schmear of cream cheese. "Without some of the taste of fat, you'll grab the cookies later," Zied says.

"Fat is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way," says Nestle.

Curb Your Enthusiasm for Fatty Foods

Not all fat is equally unhealthy -- the unsaturated kind found in nuts, fish, and some liquid vegetable oils is better for you than the saturated fat found in meats, diary, and palm oils. Trans fats can increase your "bad," or LDL, cholesterol.

But fat-free is not always best. "Research shows that vitamins from salad greens are better absorbed when there is some fat in the dressing," says Karen Collins, RD, a spokeswoman for The American Institute for Cancer Research.

Most official dietary recommendations suggest that no more than 30% of our total calories come from fat. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that's 600. If that sounds like a lot, remember that fat is "hidden" in almost everything we eat -- from beans to grains to eggs and fish.

The upshot? The amount of added fat -- from spreads and cooking oils -- should be about 2 tablespoons a day for a person who consumes 2,000 calories a day. "This isn't very much," says Nestle.

Since reading food labels is about as much fun as waiting for a red light to change, stick to a diet with lots of vegetables, grains, fruits, and fish and monitor the added fat. Use them as sparingly as possible -- 1 teaspoon of olive oil or canola oil per serving when sauteing, or a two- to three-second squirt of a butter-flavored cooking spray in a nonstick pan.

Reduced-Fat Menus That Taste Good

For breakfast, it's best to skip the bagel and cream cheese. Try 1 tablespoon of peanut or almond butter on a whole-wheat English muffin or slice of whole-wheat toast. "This will provide whole grains, protein, and fiber early in the day, which will fill you up and prevent hunger for a few hours," says Zied. Another good choice is a slice of whole-wheat toast topped with low-fat cottage cheese or ricotta cheese. Or scramble two eggs (using one yolk), with 1 ounce of full- or reduced-fat cheese in a nonstick pan sprayed with a small amount of a butter-flavored cooking spray instead of butter.

For lunch, think soup and salad. Salads are a great base for heart-healthy beans, nuts, fresh fruits, and a lean meat. Add a few olives or avocado slices to get a fat fix. Or make half a sandwich on whole-wheat bread or pita and have it with a cup of vegetable-based bean soup.

Broiling and grilling meat or vegetables are the healthiest methods of preparing foods because very little added fat is necessary. Sauteing in a small amount of fat is healthier than deep-frying and a great way to get the mouth feel of fat that is so satisfying. Use a brush to "paint" a thin layer of canola or olive oil on a skinless chicken breast and saute in a nonstick pan.

Fat makes food taste better and provides a silky, satisfying texture in the mouth. But science, or rather technology, is coming to the rescue: There are now ways to get the mouth-feel or creamy texture of fat without the calories. Slow- or double-churned ice creams are lower in fat than premium brands, but almost as creamy and rich.

Suggestions for Cutting Fat

Here are some suggestions for reducing fat:

  • Select loin or round -- the leanest cuts of meat -- or flank and sirloin steaks. Stay away from porterhouse and T-bone steaks, which are high in fat.
  • Pour reduced-fat salad dressings or a homemade dressing into a cruet or a bottle with a small opening. Add a dash of sesame oil or walnut oil to a canola or olive oil dressing for extra flavor.
  • When sauteing meat or vegetables, use a small amount of chicken broth or wine in place of some of the oil or butter.
  • After sauteing, blot food with a paper towel to get rid of any excess oil. Remember that sauteed eggplant sops up oil.
  • Substitute applesauce, pureed prunes, or low-fat yogurt for half the butter or oil in recipes for baked goods. Don't overbake -- a slightly moist texture is more satisfying than dry.
  • When cooking a dish with both vegetables and meat in it (a stir fry or stew), reduce the amount of meat by one-third and increase the amount of vegetables by a third. You will hardly notice the difference!
  • When using butter-flavored cooking sprays, a two- or three-second spray is all you need.
  • Use phyllo cups instead of puff pastry, which is laden with fat.
  • Stir-fry vegetables in olive oil, using about 1 teaspoon per serving. Or grill with the same amount of oil and add herbs for flavor.
  • For a satisfyingly fatty taste, add avocado slices to sandwiches -- it's a healthy fat, although high in calories.
  • Look for low-fat diary products that are "whipped," "slow churned," or "double churned" for a satisfying mouth feel.
  • Use olive oil and canola oil whenever possible; limit butter and stick margarine, especially.
  • Buy low-fat cheese -- skim mozzarella, for example -- in pre-wrapped single servings. It's harder to overindulge this way.

Show Sources

Published March 23, 2007.

SOURCES: Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor, New York University. Elisa Zeig, RD, spokeswoman, The American Dietetic Association; author, Feed Your Family Right! Karen Collins, RD, American Institute for Cancer Research. WebMD Medical News: "Mouth May Have a 6th Sense for Fatty Foods."

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