On a recent weekday night, I was thankful even to be granted a table at Tap Tap, the Haitian restaurant on South Beach's busy Fifth Street. My forehead wet and my dank running shorts clinging to my body after a workout on South Pointe, I was underdressed, even by casual dining standards.
My dining companions and I were ravenous, skating on the verge of "hangry" (hungry-angry), which mitigated our shame about our clammy smell. I knew there were some vegan options on the menu, which made Tap Tap a logical choice.
I ordered the legim, a stew featuring carrots, cabbage, and chayote (AKA pear squash), among other veggies. Perhaps noticing our languor, our kind, hippie-haired server kept the cold water flowing until our dishes came steaming out of the kitchen.
Soon, I received an orange-colored bowl of vegetables, served with a mound of plain white rice. (The server said the rice-and-beans dish that normally comes with entrées had been rendered "un-vegan" by butter.) I usually prefer unrefined grains, but on this night, I just needed calories, fast.
The dish was simple and tasty. However, halfway through the bowl, a strange thing happened. I became sickly full. Normally a champion plant-eater, I could not stomach another bite.
I looked down at the dish and realized why my eating efforts had been thwarted. As evidenced by the sheen over the squash, this dish was loaded with oil.
Probably thinking he or she was enhancing the flavors of this meal, the chef had tucked spoonful upon spoonful of 100 percent fat, micronutrient-deficient vegetable oil into my food. The chef transformed an otherwise low-fat, high-fiber meal into a starchy orange oil slick.
Oils are inherently processed foods, and they're the most concentrated sources of calories in the world. In a fraction of a second, a tablespoon of oil can transform a fat-free, seven-calorie cup of salad greens into a 127-calorie cup of salad greens, loaded with 14 grams of fat. We impair the health value of our food by mindlessly dousing it with oil.
For the calories they pack, oils (yes, all oils, including canola, olive, coconut, palm, grapeseed, and sesame) are nutrient-poor relative to their calories. Unlike whole-foods fat sources -- like avocado, seeds, and raw nuts -- oils contain no fiber and therefore take up comparatively little room in the stomach.
This makes it easy to load up on empty calories without experiencing the crucial stretch of the stomach walls, which sends a signal to your brain that it's time to stop eating.
When you eat an oil-free, plant-based diet, you can eat many more mouthfuls of food while still consuming fewer calories than you would on an oil-slicked diet. Better yet, those whole-foods plant-derived calories are more valuable, because they bring loads more health-boosting, cancer-fighting, antioxidant-rich phytonutrients than do the calories that constitute the standard American diet.
If I'd made an oilless version of Tap Tap's legim in my kitchen, I would have been able to chomp down the whole bowl, passing up hundreds of empty fat calories while taking in more of the beta-carotene, potassium, fiber, and invaluable micronutrients from the vegetables. I would have also avoided the heavy feeling that accompanies slurping a bunch of oil.
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Of course, Tap Tap is not the problem. In fact, the restaurant's menu is loaded with vegetable-rich dishes, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
What I'm trying to point out is that in our commercial and home kitchens, we can increase the nutritional value of every meal while trimming our waistlines simply by reducing or eliminating the use of extracted oils.
So try it. Trust me: It might sound wild, but before long, you'll wonder why anyone ever cooked with that sludge in the first place.