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Building a Healthier Pasta Bowl: Quinoa Spaghetti with Tomato Cream Sauce! Plus, Some Thoughts on Oils in a Plant Based Diet

Posted Apr 09 2012 6:46pm

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In yesterday’s post— apricot almond muffins, daughter-made and mom-approved —I talked a bit about how and why my mom has been on a mission to improve some of her eating habits. Full recap is here, but to sum it up: my mom has made a ton of healthy improvements in the last year, minimizing dairy, cutting back on animal protein, exercising more, and ultimately lowering her cholesterol. That said, she’s still got a slight weakness for muffins, scones, cookies, and the like (who doesn’t?). And, as I learned on Friday when we were making dinner together, she also tends to overdo it on oils.

Oils seem to be a loaded topic at the moment: a lot of vegans are strictly against them, even in small amounts. The major claim here, which is argued eloquently by numerous vegan doctors, including Joel Fuhrman, Caldwell Esselstyn, and Neal Barnard, is that oils provide incredibly concentrated amounts of fat and calories without providing any nutrition. They are a processed food, and therefore inherently less valuable than whole foods, and on top of all of that, Esselstyn makes a powerful case that oils—even the so called “heart healthy” olive oil—contribute to heart disease just as surely (though not as drastically) as animal fats. Barnard allows for some very limited use of oil in his recipes; Esselstyn, not a drop.

So, where do I stand on this issue? I suppose someplace in between these perspectives and a more mainstream position. I agree that the vast majority of oils, olive oil included, are not a health food; in spite of the health mythology that surrounds olive oil (and the “Mediterranean Diet”), it provides little nutrient density for all of its concentrated stores of fat. Yes, mono and polyunsaturated fats are enormously important for health and satiety, but I basically agree with the lower-fat vegan docs that you can get these fats along with other kinds of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) in the form of nuts, seeds, and avocadoes.

Saying that whole food sources of fat are preferable to oils, however, is not the same thing as saying that all oils in any quantity are akin to poison. Oils may not be nutrient-packed, and I think they should be used in moderation (especially if you’re trying to lose weight or you have a history of high cholesterol), but they can work wonders in certain kinds of recipes—especially salads! And the nice thing is that (in my experience) a very small amount of oil can go a long way in cooking. I myself use oils regularly, as you know from my recipes, but I’m mindful of portions, and often rely on them primarily for texture, rather than as my main source of healthy fat. I make a point of balancing small amounts of oil with other kinds of fat sources; for example, my pesto recipes are primarily nuts/seeds, but I’ll use a tablespoon or so of oil to get things moving in the food processor. Many of my dressings contain oil, but a good many start with tahini or avocado instead.

That said? If using a small drizzle of flax or hemp oil on a salad is more likely to make you eat leafy greens, and replace animal proteins with veggies, I’m fine with it. And speaking of flax or hemp oils, it’s worth noting that these two may actually provide some nutrient value in exchange for fat. They both provide Omega-3 fatty acids, which are being shown to have an important impact on health, and which aren’t always easy to obtain. One of the problems with many conventional oils is that they’re very rich in Omega-6 fatty acids (olive oil, safflower oil, and palm oil all fall into this category), which most of us already eat enough—or too much—of. So using flax and hemp oil (in moderation) can help us to access some of those sorely needed Omega-3s.

Flax and hemp oil, however, can’t be heated (they have very low smoke points, which means that they can release harmful compounds upon heating), so for high temperature cooking, I recommend coconut or avocado oil, which have high smoke points. Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, but research suggests that it may not contribute to cholesterol in the same way animal fat does. So it’s best to use it with discretion, as with all oils, but you shouldn’t necessarily be horrified by the saturated fat content when you purchase a bottle (look for extra virgin coconut oil).

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As far as the evidence of heart disease goes, current research seems to suggest a mixture of findings. I don’t personally think that there’s enough evidence to claim that moderate amounts of flax, hemp, avocado, or olive oil will contribute directly to heart disease when paired with a plant-based diet; indeed, part of the problem is that we haven’t had enough studies on the role of moderate use of olive, avocado, flax, and hemp oils within a plant based paradigm. Of course a no or low-oil approach will be useful to those who come from SAD diets; in this case, any reduction of fat is probably useful and necessary! But there is far less evidence on the role of moderate intake of Omega-3 rich oils in healthy vegan diets. In the meantime, some of the most up-to-date research on oils rich in monounsaturated fats suggests that these oils may actually be beneficial in small amounts. My takeaway? Moderation and discernment: be mindful of quantities, and be smart about which oils you buy.

What does tend to make me worry is what I call the “glug” effect: that’s watching someone prepare a dish with oil, and listening to the oil canister go “glug glug glug” as an enormous amount of oil is poured over naked vegetables. Which is precisely what my Mom was doing as she prepared a pasta dish on Friday night. “What?” she insisted. “It’s the Mediterranean diet!” I gently suggested that four or five tablespoons of oil on a simple, 2-serving pasta dish was probably a little too much; one tablespoon might be a better idea. My mom looked mildly horrified. “One tablespoon…?” she said, incredulously. “That’s barely anything!”

At moments like these, when someone is confronted with a habit change that feels huge, it’s best to focus on rewarding and positive changes, rather than rules or eliminations. So I let my mom know that there are tons of way to add flavor to pastas with moderate fat—not zero fat, but moderate fat. These include:

  • Using fresh, chopped herbs in the pasta, such as basil or thyme, to add flavor
  • Using two tablespoons of pesto, rather than two tablespoons of straight up oil—so much tastier, too!!!
  • Adding many more veggies to the pasta, which increase texture and taste
  • Using a variety of sauces—avocado cream sauce, red pepper hemp sauce—that provide flavor and taste along with nutrition and healthy fats
  • Nutritional yeast, which is not only a great stand-in for parm, but high in protein, too

And I vowed to make mom a tasty vegan pasta dish the next evening that would satisfy her taste buds without too much unnecessary oil. She said she was on board.

This vegan tomato cream sauce featured in this dish is just delicious. It’s also easy, and it’s the kind of recipe I know my Mom will make again, even if I’m not there. It’s all well and good to make recipes for people, but helping them to establish healthy habits also involves giving them the tools to re-create those recipes when you’re not around. Part of what makes the sauce tasty is this stuff:

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Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes! They’re packed with flavor, and they’re 100% organic. Plus, cooked tomatoes are great sources of lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant.

To the crushed tomatoes, I added white beans and nutritional yeast; together, these add iron, protein, and B-vitamins to the sauce. And finally, I added cashews, which create a creamy texture and satisfying amount of fat—all without 5 tbsp of olive oil. As you’ll see, I do use a teaspoon of oil or so to help keep the pasta from sticking. And on a different night, I’ll gladly make my mom a pesto dish that’s a little richer in oil. But for now, I’m just happy to have helped her to find new and more nourishing alternatives the the usual combo of olive oil and salt.

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Quinoa Pasta with Vegan Tomato Cream Sauce (vegan, gluten free, soy free)

Serves 4

8 oz quinoa pasta
3 cups broccoli, chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil, sliced thin
Salt and pepper
1-2 tsp olive or avocado oil

For the sauce:

1 can chopped, fire roasted Muir Glen tomatoes (or simply 1 can chopped organic tomatoes, not too salty)
1/2 cup white beans
1/4 cup cashews, soaked 2+ hours
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp thyme
1/4 cup + 1 tbsp almond milk
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Cook pasta according to package instructions. Drain and rinse when cooked to your liking, and toss with a tsp oil to keep from sticking, and a dash of salt and pepper. Mix in the broccoli and fresh basil.

2) While pasta cooks, blend all sauce ingredients together till smooth in a blender. Check for seasoning, and season to your tastes.

3) Toss pasta with as much sauce as you like–you’ll likely have some leftover. Serve hot, topped with nooch!

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Mom was very happy with her meal, and even requested to keep the leftover sauce. I call that a win!

Notice that this pasta dish has a few other added health benefits, other than the healthy fat switch up: I added broccoli (because no dish is complete without greens!) and we used quinoa pasta. Of all of the amazing, healthy changes my Mom has made in the last year, transitioning from all refined grains to whole grains is by far her most major. I am so, so proud! She’s warming up to the grains themselves, but when she does prefer pasta or bread for a meal, she almost always purchases a whole grain based variety. And now she’s turned me onto quinoa pasta, which I love.

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This meal would go beautifully with steamed veggies, steamed veggies and some legumes, or a sald with legumes. I myself had a fresh green salad with mushrooms and chickpeas!

I hope this post offers some helpful feedback on fats. All opinions are my own, naturally, but my friend Ginny Messina, the Vegan RD ,  is also a good resource when it comes to parsing through nutrition research. Additionally, I’m glad to mention her this evening, because she recently wrote a tremendously brave and impressive post on the recent PCRM “body shaming” campaigns which I’ve written about here and here . I’m proud of the stand she has taken, and think her criticisms are spot on. It’s also worth saying that Neal Barnard responded in the post with some strong points of his own, and that the comments are worth reading. Check it out if you can!

I’ll be back tomorrow with a final Mom/daughter healthy eating post for the week. See you soon!

xo

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