5.18.10 The Fats of Life

Fats 790 xxx
photos by george billard
At a photo shoot almost 20 years ago, a hairstylist (I think it might have been Sam McKnight) said something that I remember vividly to this day: Animal fats make me fat. At the time it struck me as rather profound. Of course, I thought, that makes perfect sense. But it really doesn't. I hope you'll stick with me as I take you through all the reasons why. If I’ve done it right, you will clutch butter, coconut oil and, yes, even lard to your bosom, and forever shun margarine and canola oil for their evil anti-nutrient ways. I’m very passionate about this subject but also a little afraid I’m going to come across like Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton, running around a parking lot, stark naked and raving about the injustices of big agri-business. There’s tons of relevant information on just this one topic of fats, and I so want to make it palatable for you. This will be the first in a series of posts on nutrition from a more macro perspective but don’t worry, I will always keep feeding you recipes for delicious, wonderful, flavorful treats, interspersed with this food for thought.
Lard 790 xxx
pure lard
We all know about the obesity crisis in this country, right? The scary rise in diabetes and coronary heart disease are no secret. But what the popular media and health “industry” have been spewing about the cause of this is largely bunk. I’m no conspiracy theorist (though I confess to a healthy dose of cynicism), but I recognize that there’s been a huge market invented for all these “lowfat” products and they, along with a pathological ignorance, are actually at the root of this widespread problem. Convenience, diet and processed foods (often one and the same) are going to kill us. I’m going to give you a lot of topline information here, but to consult my primary source and to acquire more truly invaluable knowledge, please take a look at Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. If you buy one cookbook this year, make it this one.Billed as “The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats,” this book has become my bible. (Thank you, Dr. Jennifer Sudarsky of Watson Wellness in Los Angeles, for bringing this amazing read to my attention. I am forever in your debt!) It shows you that all our old-timey practices were developed FOR A REASON. You’ll learn about raw milk, whole grains, real fats, soaked and sprouted nuts and grains, lacto-fermented foods—everything that humans used to eat before industrialization fucked Mother Nature and us with it. I love seeing most people’s reaction to the idea of raw milk: eewww, germy! Well, did you know that virtually every case of milk-related salmonella has come from pasteurized milk? High heat processing of anything—dairy, oil, grains—essentially kills all the important enzymes and bacteria, rendering these foods much less nutritious and sometimes even toxic. Before I get carried away, let me focus once again on fats. It’s a great place to start because they’ve been terribly demonized by the Diet Dictocrats, and I want to give you the skinny…Before 1920, coronary heart disease was practically non-existent in the country. By the mid-50s it was the leading cause of death among Americans. We have been led to believe this was due to an increase in the consumption of animal fats, but this was not the case. By 1970, the proportion of traditional animal fat in the American diet had declined from 83% to 62%, and butter consumption had plummeted from 18 lbs per person annually to just 4. The use of margarine, vegetable shortening and refined vegetable oils had increased 400%, while the consumption of sugar and processed foods had gone up 60%.  A few other interesting facts to ponder:*Mother’s milk provides a higher proportion of cholesterol than almost any other food. It contains over 50% of its calories as fat, much of it saturated. This is essential for the growth in babies and children, especially the development of the brain. Yet the American Heart Association is now recommending a lowfat, low cholesterol diet for children, and most commercial formulas are low in fat, or made from soy and completely devoid of cholesterol. Lowfat diets have been linked to failure to thrive in children. WTF?!*Vegetable fat consumption correlates with high rates of cancer; animal fat consumption does not.*There is no real evidence for the claims that lowering cholesterol reduces heart disease. Those eating butter run half the risk of developing heart disease compared to those eating margarine. The Japanese, the French and the Greeks all eat diets high in animal fats and are renowned for good health and longevity. (Although once these cultures begin incorporating lots of sugar and refined foods, their health suffers.) Fallon discusses tons of studies in her book whose results fail to support the perceived wisdom of animal fat = heart disease.
Flaxwalnut 790 xxx
flax seed and walnut oils
Fatty acids are classified like this:Saturated – Stable; do not go rancid, even when subjected to high heat; found in animal fats, tropical oil; generally solid at room temp; your body makes these from carbsMonounsaturated – Relatively stable but not quite as dense as saturated, so tend to be liquid at room temp; don’t go rancid easily and can be used in cooking; found in olive oil, as well as almond, pecan, cashew, peanut and avocado.Polyunsaturated – Your body cannot make these, so they’re known as “essential”; liquid, even when refrigerated; highly reactive so they turn rancid easily and must be treated with care; NEVER heat or use in cooking; always buy expeller-pressedAll fats, whether animal or vegetable, are some combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. A hundred years ago, a typical diet was rich in butter, lard, tallow, coconut oil and small amount of olive oil (saturated and monounsaturated fats). The modern diet features soy, corn, safflower and canola oils (polyunsaturated). The latter constitutes about 30% of our calories, when the best evidence indicates we shouldn’t be consuming more than 4%—and getting that from legumes, grains, nuts, green vegetables, fish, olive oil and animal fats, NOT from commercial vegetable oils which have been proven to contribute to cancer, heart disease, liver damage, immune system dysfunction, reproductive organ malfunction, asthma, digestive disorders, depressed learning ability and weight gain. DO I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION YET?One reason they cause so many health problems is they become oxidized or rancid when subjected to heat, oxygen and moisture, as in cooking and processing. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals, compounds that are extremely reactive chemically and are known as “marauders” in the body for the way they attack cell membranes and red blood cells, causing DNA damage.SATURATED FATTY ACIDS ARE GOOD FOR YOU because they:*Give cell membranes stiffness and integrity so they can function properly*Play a vital role in bone health. For calcium to be effectively incorporated into the skeletal structure, you need 50% of your fat intake to be saturated.*Lower Lp(a), a blood substance that indicates tendency for heart disease*Protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins*Enhance the immune system*Help in the metabolism of essential fatty acids, which are better retained in the tissues when saturated fats are present*Act as food for the heart, which draws on fat reserves in times of stress*Protect you against harmful bacteria in the digestive tractSCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE DOES NOT SUPPORT THE ASSERTION THAT SATURATED FATS CAUSE HEART DISEASE. And, along these same lines, cholesterol has been incorrectly demonized.All this is not to tell you to start eating nitrate-loaded bacon three times a day. But I want you to start realizing that the high heat processing of food, and the lauding of vegetable oils, is leading you down the wrong path. Start using more coconut and nut oils, eating more avocados, and cooking liberally with butter and olive oil. Do not take the skin off your chicken; enjoy a beautifully marbled grass-fed steak; stir some crème fraiche into your soups.Although this is just a drop in the bucket, I’m going to stop here for today because it’s a lot to take in. Next, I will tell you about hydrogenation and homogenization. And the corollary to this conversation about fats is a whole other discussion about cutting back on sweets and refined carbohydrates. That goes hand in hand with losing the rancid vegetable oils. I know I’m going to sound a little bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder crossed with your high-school chemistry teacher, but this is all going somewhere very important for you: towards better health, increased energy (and libido), clearer skin, improved mood and longer life. Cross my heart. (Please ask questions if I am confusing you; I really want you to be clear on this stuff. Your life—and your children's—depends upon it.)Here are a couple of recipe from past posts to get you started on the road to good fats: fresh butter and homemade mayonnaise.


Thanks for this terrific post. I just ordered Nourishing Traditions from amazon. You must have also seen the Jennifer McLagan book called Fat? Terrific recipes, and lots of interesting cultural background. Looking forward to more posts like this.
david on May 18, 2010 at 6:29 pm —
So glad you're getting the book. It's endlessly fascinating! And I've just ordered Fat which I've definitely heard about and look forward to reading.
laura on May 18, 2010 at 6:50 pm —
You've got this so right. Not politically correct. But so right. Good for you for saying.
Walt K on May 19, 2010 at 8:45 am —
I LOVE clutching lard to my bosom! Seriously, thanks for a very interesting post full of good news about fats.
Eliza on May 19, 2010 at 4:38 pm —
A great, passionate post! Though we are not fans of organ meats, I really like Nourishing Traditions and the margin notes are good reading - it's the cookbook most parents at my daughters'' school (SC Waldorf) have. I'm trying to get a "share" in a pasture-fed cow so that we can get some raw milk straight from the udder, chock full of saturated fats and no pathogens. There's lots of competition for those shares, but that's the stuff I want to make my butter with (thanks to your previous post...)!
Peggy on May 19, 2010 at 9:25 pm —
One of the many great things about NT is how adaptable to diverse diets, even vegetarianism. So glad you're on the path...
laura on May 20, 2010 at 7:17 am —
Nourishing Traditions- Laura, a sister after my own heart- one of my best friends from childhood directed me to this book when i started making homemade stock- and i absolutely adore this book. i love this write-up, i am going to send the link to this and Part II to my father- i know he will enjoy reading it loads. please put up more of these sorts of posts. am off to boston and cambridge, mass now (my undergrad alma mater- Mount Holyoke beckons). have a lovely weekend, lovely. x shayma
shayma on May 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm —
Thanks, Shayma, sweet friend! I will do a post at some point about stocks as well since they are so valuable in the kitchen. Have a wonderful time--is it your reunion? I went to my 25th last year and had loads of fun!
laura on May 21, 2010 at 12:23 pm —
i was there (the Amherst area) for my sister in law's graduation from Hampshire,so Mount Holyoke was a nice treat on the side-just wanted to see my professors. the food here in Boston is lovely,ah,i miss the USA! hope youre having a lovely weekend. x shayma
shayma on May 22, 2010 at 7:58 pm —