Feeding Your Family: Putting Fear (of Fat) in Its Place
I first started thinking the low-fat movement was off its rocker back in the '90s, when a chef I knew questioned my almost daily avocado habit.
Of course, now we know that avocados are great for you; even Weight Watchers considers avocados a "core food" and allows almost unlimited access. Meanwhile, the margarine that most of us were still being advised to eat a decade or so ago is now recognized as a source of unhealthy trans fats. Thanks a lot, nutritionists!
The low-fat push continues, and to this day the saturated fat in steak, eggs and bacon is widely seen as a direct route to a heart attack. But some researchers are questioning this logic, saying it's a hypothesis that was never proven.
In his book Good Calories, Bad Calories (Knopf, 2007), Science magazine writer Gary Taubes argues that much of the evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease is based on faulty science. He makes a convincing - and thoroughly unsettling - case that much of the conventional thinking about nutrition and health is wrong. The consumption of fat, he says - including saturated fat - does not cause heart disease, obesity or any of the other so-called "diseases of civilization." Taubes suggests that we go back to the wisdom that prevailed until about 40 years ago: that refined carbohydrates cause weight gain. It's not the butter on the toast, or the sour cream on the potato, it's the white bread, the potato and the white pasta.
Since the low-fat movement has failed to improve the health of America, I'm open to considering Taubes' argument. And I'm always ready to point the finger at refined carbohydrates. Since reading Taubes' book, I've cut back considerably on my sugar and flour intake.
But one thing Taubes doesn't discuss is the quality of our current fats. The fats that people consumed 100 years ago did not come from animals raised on grain and antibiotics. Back then, cattle fed on grass, and usually roamed a bit more freely than the average industrial cow of today.
This makes a difference, according to some researchers, because grass-fed beef may have a different nutritional composition than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef, for example, has two to four times the omega-3 fatty acids of grain-fed beef. This isn't surprising; grass contains lots of omega-3's. Grain contains lots of omega-6's. Just as we are what we eat, so are cattle.
These researchers believe that omegas are the next buzz word. We need equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; but, by some estimates, the American diet has a ratio closer to 20 omega-6's for every one omega-3.
More research needs to be done. But, in the meantime, I take it as just another giant neon arrow pointing out the right way to us. Traditional methods of raising foods worked for us in the past. Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Bloomsbury USA, 2007), points out that in the early 1900s, when lard and butter were the most widely used fats, heart disease and obesity were almost nonexistent. "The so-called 'diseases of civilization,'" she writes, "are caused by the foods of civilization."
So instead of worrying about every gram of fat, I'm thinking about where the fat - and all my food - came from. Support your local farms, and your local food industries. Eat grass-fed beef and pastured dairy products. Quit corn oil and corn sweeteners. Your taste buds - and your body - will thank you.
Larissa Phillips is an award-winning writer, cooking instructor and food writer for Parenthood.com and Dominion Parenting Media. Email her at FeedingYourFamily@Parenthood.com. Check out Larissa's food blog at Mmothershipmeals.
Putting Fear (of Fat) in Its Place | Tapenades and Pestos | What’s in Season? Salad Greens | Gadgets & Goodies: Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planter | Health Check: Smart Fish Choices | Larissa Phillips' Blog