Once upon a time, we drank whole milk and put butter on our bread. Schmaltz was something you cooked with, not just a soppy song or movie, and lard was a pantry staple.
And most of us were a whole lot ... thinner. Say what? Can the diet advice Canadians have been swallowing for 40 years all have been a big fat mistake?
Urged to reduce fat, especially the kind found in meat and dairy products, we’ve been choking down fat-free yogourt, skinless chicken breasts, low-fat salad dressing and skim-milk lattes.
And all the while, our girths have been expanding. Twenty-three per cent of Canadian adults were obese in 2004, compared to 14 per cent in 1978-79, according to Statistics Canada. An additional 36 per cent were overweight in 2004.
We might as well have been enjoying triple-cream Camembert, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding (baked in drippings, of course) and cream in our coffee.
At least, so says Jennifer McLagan, author of the recent cookbook Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes (McClelland & Stewart, $37.95).
The Toronto chef and award-winning cookbook author is among a chorus of contrarians who say fat has been getting a bum rap.
For decades, health authorities have warned that a diet high in fat packs on pounds and clogs our arteries, putting us at risk for heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.
But critics contend low-fat diets actually fuel obesity and disease, by increasing consumption of starchy, refined foods like bread and cereal.McCLELLAND & STEWART Jennifer McLagan’s cookbook counts duck rillettes among its fat-friendly recipes.
“We’ve been eating fat for hundreds of thousands of years,” says McLagan, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where her mother kept butter, lard and a jar of pan drippings in the refrigerator. She says she has never been overweight despite an avowed taste for crispy bread fried in bacon fat, duck confit and foie gras with its layer of unctuous fat.
“Your brain is mostly made of fat,” she points out. “All body functions operate with fat.”
McLagan argues it’s better to savour small amounts of high-quality fat than to scarf down low-fat imitations that leave us hungering for more.
“I tell people if you eat fat, you won’t be fat, because you’ll be satisfied,” she says.
“You don’t want to eat hollandaise sauce every day.”
Packed with recipes like Spanish-style pork rillettes (a terrine of shredded pork belly and back fat), potatoes fried in lard and all-butter shortbread, her book is a paean to foods exiled to the dietary gulag for so long, few of us even remember what they are. What is tallow, anyway? Or crackling, suet, fatback or marrow?
Back in the 1950s, when Canadians got 38 per cent of their calories from fat, most of it came from animal sources, says Catherine Field, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Alberta.
Today, fat intake has dropped to between 30 and 35 per cent of food energy, mostly from vegetable oils like canola and soybean. Canada’s Food Guide recommends limiting daily fat consumption to two or three tablespoons of unsaturated fat such as canola, olive and soybean oil and soft margarine. Limit butter, hard margarine, lard and shortening, it advises.
Susan Barr, a professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia, says the guide is based on sound principles. “If you look at Canadians’ nutritional status, one constant is overweight and obesity. A high-fat diet can contribute to that,” she says.
But in recent years, research has poked holes in what once looked like an airtight case against fat.
“We’re going through a paradigm shift, not only with fat, but also with cholesterol,” says Peter Jones, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Manitoba.
“For many years, we thought that dietary fat leads to cardiovascular disease,” he says.
But there is growing evidence that overeating and lack of exercise, rather than the proportion of fat in the diet, are causing obesity and disease, Jones adds.
The quest to substitute healthier polyunsaturated vegetable oils for saturated fats like butter and lard has also led to a far worse unintended consequence: trans fats. These nutritional nasties are formed when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to create a solid fat like margarine or shortening. Trans fats, linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, lower so-called good cholesterol (known as HDL, or high-density lipoprotein) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein).
Meanwhile, foods long considered cholesterol culprits – like milk and eggs – are being rehabilitated.
“Now it’s widely known that egg consumption is good,” says Jones.
“We have dispelled the myth that fat is bad.”
Nature’s perfect baby formula is high in saturated fat, the University of Alberta’s Field points out.
“Over 40 per cent of calories in breast milk come from fat. I don’t think anyone has shown something is healthier.”
Research shows a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and whole grains reduces the risk of disease, says Field. But simply eating less fat produces no benefits, she adds.
The case against fat dates back to the 1950s, when Ancel Keys, a University of Minnesota physiologist, linked it to heart disease. Keys is also known for inventing K rations for U.S. troops during the Second World War and for his starvation experiments on conscientious objectors who volunteered for wartime research on famine.
In his Seven Countries Study, Keys demonstrated that Finns, who ate large amounts of saturated fat, had much higher rates of heart disease than Cretans, who ate a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and olive oil, which is high in monounsaturated fat.
His low-fat gospel gained widespread acceptance, and by 1977, the U.S. government was issuing dietary goals urging Americans to reduce fat intake to 30 per cent of calories, with no more than one-third of that from saturated fat.
The problem, says Gary Taubes, an award-winning science journalist and author of Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease (Knopf, 2007, $35.95), is that the low-fat guidelines were based on inconclusive evidence.
“You couldn’t tell from the science what a healthy diet was, but it certainly wasn’t a low-meat diet,” he says.
In fact, survival rates for heart disease and stroke have improved significantly in recent decades, but many experts credit earlier intervention and improved medications rather than eating less fat.
In 2002, Taubes penned an explosive cover story in the New York Times Magazine suggesting that the low-fat diet backed by the medical establishment – not fat consumption – was fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Nutrition experts were outraged. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-protection group, published a rebuttal titled Big Fat Lies in its popular health newsletter, and the Washington Post ran a 4,600-word critique accusing Taubes of cherry-picking facts.
Yet subsequent research has largely bor ne out Taubes’s claim that, for most people, a low-fat diet does not prevent disease.
In 2006, an eight-year study of 49,000 middle-aged women showed a low-fat diet did not reduce rates of cancer or heart disease. The $415-million (U.S.) study was part of the Women’s Health Initiative of the National Institutes of Health, a 15-year investigation launched in 1992 by the U.S. Department of Health.
Research has also confir med Taubes’s contention that high-fat, low-carbohydrate weight-loss schemes like the Atkins diet are more effective than low-fat regimes.
Yet fat has been vilified for so long, it’s hard for anyone to believe it’s not a killer, Taubes says.
He recently spoke at a seminar for young jour nalists where audience members were incredulous at his claim that fat does not cause obesity or disease.
“It’s as if I was telling them that cigarettes were healthy,” Taubes says.
The notion that humans can thrive on a high-fat, meatbased diet shouldn’t surprise anyone, Taubes maintains. After all, meat was a staple food of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
“Significant evidence suggests that mostly meat diets were healthy diets,” he says.
Starch was linked to obesity as far back as 1825, when French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin blamed fatness on white flour and sugar in his seminal La Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste).
A century later, Cleveland dentist Weston Price toured remote regions of the world, from the Scottish Hebrides to Fiji, to investigate why preindustrial peoples had better teeth than developed societies. He attributed the differences to good nutrition, particularly a meat-based diet devoid of processed foods. People exposed to white flour and sugar invariably developed cavities, crooked teeth and poor facial structure, he found.
In the 1970s, a Los Angeles housewife, Sally Fallon, read Price’s 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration and raised her four children according to its principles. Fallon, who now lives in Alexandria, Va., founded the Washington, D.C.-based Weston A. Price Foundation.
“It is the fear of saturated fats that is keeping people from eating a healthy diet,” says Fallon, who preaches the virtues of raw milk, pastureraised meat, cod-liver oil, liver and eggs. Her cookbook Nourishing Traditions (NewTrends Publishing, 2003, $25), written with Mary G. Enig, has garnered a cult following for its health advice and wholesome recipes.
One of the problems with polyunsaturated vegetable oils, Fallon says, is that they tend to become rancid when subjected to oxygen or heat.
That concern is one reason cookbook author McLagan favours a return to traditional ingredients like butter and lard. But she’s talking about fresh lard or suet from a butcher, not an industrial product from a supermarket shelf that could contain trans fats.
The cookbook includes instructions for making your own butter from whipping cream and grating suet for oldfashioned steamed puddings.
McLagan is a fierce advocate of organic meat, local ingredients and family dinners, and attributes rising obesity to the non-stop barrage of food products and advertising all around us. “People are eating all the time because it’s everywhere.”
It’s a misconception that animal fat is purely saturated fat, she adds. “Every fat is a mixture of saturated and unsaturated.”
Indeed, researchers are discovering that fat is a lot more complicated than scientists once suspected, says the University of Alberta’s Field.
Emerging evidence of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is shedding new light on the fats we eat.
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid found in such fish as wild salmon and some plants. It is associated with reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis and mood disorders.
The switch to polyunsaturated oils over the past 50 years has increased the proportion of omega-6 – another essential fat, plentiful in corn and soybeans – in our diet, Field says. Too much omega-6 could increase our disease risks, she adds.
Research is also exploring the benefits of naturally occurring trans fats in the meat and milk of cattle, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). It is believed to boost metabolism, reduce belly fat and fend off cancer. The meat and milk of pasture-raised cattle have higher concentrations of CLA than that of feedlot animals, Field says.
While the good news about fat is starting to emerge, Jones of the University of Manitoba believes no one has the last word on how much of it we should be eating.
Remember Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat, and his wife, who could eat no lean? Just like the couple in the nursery rhyme, human cultures have widely diverging approaches to fat, Jones points out.
“Look at the Inuit,” he says. “Their diet is 70 per cent fat. They’re very healthy. Look at the Chinese. They eat a highcarb diet based on rice. They’re healthy, too.
“What’s consistent in those populations? They’re lean and they’re active.”
For cookbook author McLagan, time-tested traditions suggest fat deserves a place on our table.
“I put more faith in grandmothers than the gover nment,” she says.
“It’s about eating real food that you’ve cooked yourself.”