fat city

In the last post—The Short And Sweet Of It?—we briefly discussed the health consequences of America’s love affair with sugar.  We know we eat too much sugar, it’s likely our biggest health problem, but the sugar habit is hard to break.  So this first step was proposed as Healthy Change #1If you consume sodas or other sugared drinks, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week.  We’re not done with sugar, we’ll return to reducing sugar intake in later posts.

This post gets after the next unhealthy food we persist in eating:  hydrogenated trans fat.  In the 20th century we abandoned traditional fats like butter and lard in favor of modern factory-made fats, such as Crisco and margarine.  We now know this was a very big mistake.  As our consumption of traditional fats declined in favor of factory fats, there was a parallel increase in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. 

 In the last 30 years we went on a reduced-fat binge, which meant avoiding animal fats in favor of factory-processed vegetable oils.  Another big mistake; the result was we ate more trans fats and less of the healthy omega-3 fats.  By now, just about everyone knows that trans fats should be avoided.  So here is a good start on doing this (more to come):

This means no French fries, no onion rings, no corn dogs, no donuts, and especially, no deep-fried Twinkies.  The language of this Healthy Change does leave a door open:  you can cook these foods at home, using healthy oil.  Because this is difficult, in our home we replaced French fries with oven-roasted potatoes (recipe coming soon!).

How did trans fats become so entrenched in our diet?  It started with the invention of hydrogenation and the introduction of Procter & Gamble’s Crisco in 1911.  Crisco shortening was followed by the introduction of a butter substitute, margarine.  Both these products are full of trans fats and depleted of healthy omega-3 fats.  Because hydrogenated oils are cheap and have a long shelf life, they also found their way into a multitude of processed foods and fast foods. 

What was most remarkable about Crisco was how easily it replaced a product people had used for centuries—lard.  It happened practically overnight.  A 1921 book, The Story of Crisco, tells how the product was presented:  It seems strange to many that there can be anything better than butter for cooking, or of greater utility than lard, and the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation, born in an age less progressive than our own, and prone to contend that the old fashioned things are good enough.  It was a clever pitch that disarmed the wisdom of tradition and it worked.

As it turns out, the “older generation” was quite wise in preferring olden ways.  The rest of us ate Crisco and margarine for a long time before we learned how harmful trans fats were to our health.  Today the merits of the old fats—butter, olive oil, and lard—are being rediscovered. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (33)

While I agree fully with everything you've said, I've been curious recently about shortening and margarine that are trans fat free. The Crisco in my cupboard (that is there solely for pie crust as I haven't found a great substitute for that recipe yet) has zero grams of trans fat. Is it still bad for me? If so, why?

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTianna

What else is this goal trying to avoid, aside from trans-fats? I ask this because in my neck of the woods, trans-fats have been outlawed. Still, I'm sure there are other reasons to be avoiding fried foods.

Also, are other fats in my own cooking alright? I generally have some sort of grain hot cereal in the morning with some butter in it.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGdub

I am so excited about your blog! I'm in! I've needed some sort of motivation to get on a healthy plan.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRandi

This blog is doing everything I have been wanting to do for a few months. But you are doing it far better than I ever would. I'm an amateur at this stuff. I've been a vegetarian for a few years but have been getting really interested in eating better, less processed foods ever since reading Eating Animals by Foer and a few of Michael Pollan's books.

You are officially on my google reader.

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachael C

For Tianna: Thanks for your comment and question. For me, the best replacement for shortenings and margarines is to return to the traditional fats, butter, lard, etc. Chemical processes like interesterification are being used for newer shortening and margarine products but these are new chemicals and their long term healthiness is unknown—we are the guinea pigs. I think I'll stick with the traditional fats and oils.

There is also a loophole in the FDA labeling rule for trans fats: If the trans fat is less than 1/2 gram per serving, they are allowed to claim "zero" trans fats. This is strange because the Institute of Medicine, perhaps the most respected body in the world, has said the safe level of trans fats is ZERO. Use what your great-grandmothers used--doesn't that make sense? Skip

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkip

I just had my first, and hopefully, last order of French fries in 2011. It's going to be a tough resolution to keep, but with any extra 30 pounds to shed, I've got the motivation.

P.S. Loving the site!

January 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy K. at The Boom Club

I'm visiting from Black Eiffel, but I just added you to my reader. I love your blog and can't wait to see what you have in store for us. I'm totally on board with what you've written. Congrats on the blog!

Hi, I am so happy to have been given the link to your blog from a friend. It is so fun to meet like-minded people when it comes to nutrition. I've recently begun writing on my own blog about nutrition ( I have been studying many things through my journey towards eating more real foods, but I have taken a particular interest in the Word of Wisdom. I love it! I am becoming quite passionate about following it in a much different way than simply avoiding alcohol, tobacco, etc. As I've researched and had questions about what changes we need to make, it always amazes me that every single time, if I simply open up the Word of Wisdom - I have my answer. It is so well aligned with what science is beginning to tell us (benefits of a plant-based diet) that it's no wonder it's scripture. God knows what's best for us. I appreciate this blog and am very excited to continue following it!

On the topic of why Crisco or margarine would be bad for you - I would say it is because of the process of hydrogenation which is far from traditional. Here's an excerpt from Nourishing Traditions about the process:

"This is the process that turns polyunsaturates, normally liquid at room temperature, into fats that are solid at room temperature - margarine and shortening. To produce them, manufacturers begin with the cheapest oils - soy, corn, cottonseed or canola, already rancid from the extraction process - and mix them with tiny metal particles - usually nickel oxide. The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas in a high-pressure, high-temperature reactor. Next, soap-like emulsifiers and starch are squeezed into the mixture to give it a better consistency; the oil is yet again subjected to high temperatures when it is steam-cleaned. This removes its unpleasant odor. Margarine's natural color, an unappetizing grey, is removed by bleach. Dyes and strong flavors must then be added to make it resemble butter. Finally the mixture is compressed and packaged in blocks or tubs and sold as a health food." - Nourishing Traditions pg. 14

Ew. I'll eat my butter, thanks :)

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKami

great blog Skip! It's nice to have more info on healthy eating. It helps me feel motivated.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

when i read "in defense of food" i thought, this is the word of wisdom! i really appreciate what you're doing. i'll be reading!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterabby

This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with me and my fellow confused Americans. I'll be reading!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersimply heidi

This one is going to be SOOOOO hard for me Skip, I will try...I love french fries so much! (I'm gonna be realistic and cut it back to once a week first and then try to cut it out) :-)
I'm glad Brooke sent me this link. So glad you are doing this! I think I will print out all your recipes and keep them in a folder.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLou Ann

Thank you for doing this. I will look forward to reading this every week.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

For anyone looking at lard, beware of grocery store the ingredients...they're adding vegetable shortening to many lards.

For the poster who said this will be will be, for a month, then you'll find if you go back to fast food french fries, you're mouth will be coated with oil and they won't be good to you.

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

my husband is vegan, so my diet is 90% vegan and my cooking is 100% vegan. so no real butter for us - luckily there are some non-hydrogenated vegetable oil spreads out there in the world now. it's not as simple, but it allows him to follow his moral path more healthfully.

January 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkatie

I'm so excited to have found your blog (via your daughter's blog). I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say each week and incorporating the healthy changes into my own family's eating. It's nice to let someone else do the thinking and planning!

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

Shannon, I hope the site helps in your diet reformation. Besides recipes we'll work on menus and shopping lists also. Please contribute your ideas and thoughts, that's what makes the site bounce. Best to you, Skip

January 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Hi , Can you help me me to eat more veggies? ;)

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlynelle

Lynelle—you're a clever girl. There are a few challenges in WoW diet reform, and working the 4-5 servings of vegetables into the daily diet is one. The government puts out "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" every five years and the 2010 version is overdue and should be out soon. I expect the 9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables will still be the recommendation. It works with the WoW so we have made that our goal.

One way to get a head start on the daily servings is to make a snack plate and put it where you go for snacks. Include vegetables you can eat cold on the plate, carrots, celery, etc. Also, enjoy a salad of dark leafy greens and other vegetables with your dinners. We'll keep coming back to vegetables. Health to you, Skip

January 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I just found your blog through your post on Mormon Lifehacker. I like what you are doing here. I look forward to getting your articles in my rss. I am in the process of improving my own eating habits and this is definitely an area where I still need improving. I'm better than I used to be but still not perfect. We made the switch to real butter and olive oil and I really don't like eating fast food as much as I used to. Even when I do fast food I try to opt for grilled chicken and I never order the combo meals but still help my kids eat the french fries in the kids meals. Still, this is only a few times per month that we eat out.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicah

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