Is fat a four-Letter word?

It’s confusing about fats—what’s in, what’s out, and what’s okay today.  Want some lasting advice?  Eat what your great-grandmother ate.  Butter, olive oil, and lard—that’s likely what she had in her pantry.  For millennia butter was churned from the cream of pasture-fed cows.  The French not only enjoyed rich buttery sauces, they also had low rates of heart disease.  Butter makes everything taste better.

Olive oil, much mentioned in the scriptures, is another ancient food.   Unlike vegetable oils, which are chemically extracted from seeds, olive oil is pressed from the flesh surrounding the seed. The trees that provide olives may live for centuries and a branch is traditionally used as sign of goodwill.

Lard is also a traditional cooking fat.  After a century of slander, top chefs have rediscovered its merits especially as a shortening, and public interest is spreading.  Maybe your great-grandmother left piecrust tips behind, or a recipe for her lard-roasted potatoes.  Butter, olive oil, and lard—what more do you need?

In the last century each of these traditional fats fell from favor and then was rediscovered.  How did we go so wrong?  Well, when food becomes a big business, the consumer can get lost in the process.  It makes me think of the bon mot, “’Every man for himself’, called the elephant as he danced among the chickens.”  

Take soybean oil, for example.  Soybean oil is our #1 food oil; it accounts for 2/3 of the vegetable-sourced oil we eat.  It’s an ingredient in just about every processed food.  We eat more than we think, about 25 lbs. a year, or an ounce each day.   For years essentially all soybean oil was hydrogenated to remove the omega-3 fats, which extended shelf life.  Hydrogenation creates trans fats and we all grew up unaware we were eating a toxic man-made fat (plus being deprived of needed omega-3s).  Voices of protest were raised—the work of Dr. Mary Enig comes to mind—but they were ignored and even harassed.

The evidence against trans fat finally became so impossible to ignore that the FDA—rather than simply ban them as the Institute of Medicine advised—required the industry to disclose trans fats on the nutrition panel, effective 2006.  (Though they gave them a little wiggle room by allowing food with less than 0.5 grams to be labeled as zero trans fats.  So in the way that language is misused in advertising, we don’t actually know if zero really means zero without searching for the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredient list.) 

Eliminating trans fats from our diet was the goal of our second Healthy Change. To remind, trans fats move LDL and HDL cholesterol and inflammation in the unhealthy direction and are a cause of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. 

The food industry, once the defender of trans fat, is now racing to replace them with some new man-made fat.  Genetically modified soybeans with reduced polyunsaturated oils (less omega-3) have been introduced.  If you check the chip aisle in your grocery store, you’ll find that most chips now claim, “zero trans fats”.  Are these genetically modified oils healthy?  We don’t know for sure.  Concerned scientists have voiced concern but it will take time before any harm can be proven.

Likewise with margarine and shortenings, new methods of processing soybean oil are being developed.  Hydrogenation is being replaced, for example, with the hard-to-pronounce process of interesterification.  Are products with these new man-made fats healthy?  Same answer: We don’t know for sure.  It will take time before any long-term harm can be proven. 

Here is a food rule to consider:  Allow a century of use before assuming a new man-made food is healthy.  All this brings us to this week’s change:

In a future post we’ll share what we learned on a walk through the butter and margarine aisle at the local grocery.  Please share your experience with fats.

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 (14)

I changed to traditional fats about a year and a half ago and I've not gained weight, quite the contrary. Combine with exercise, I managed to go down to 123 pounds and from a size 9 to a size 3. Of course it didn't happen all of a sudden. Lately (since christmas) I went through a lazy phase (I usually make everything at home, cookies, pizza dough, etc) and gained 6 pounds, even though I was exercising. I'm pretty sure I gained weight because of all the processed food I ate. So now, I<m back on the healthy wagon, and I'm pretty sure I'll see results soon!

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkanmuri

After my father's cholesterol level sky-rocketed, we made the switch from traditional fat like butter (which we religiously spread on our breads every morning) to Bertolli's olive oil spread which simulates the texture (but unfortunately) not so much the full-bodied rich taste of butter.

Would you consider that to be a healthy change?

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercin

This is a hot-button topic for me. I've followed what seems to be the sage advice for losing weight for years: High protein, low fat, carbs from whole grains, fruits, and veggies. However, it wasn't until I started experimenting with the Paleo diet (no grain, no legumes, no sugar) and embraced full fat fare, including cold pressed coconut oil, that I felt what it was to be truly full after a meal.

I will admit that it turns my brain into summersaults to do this, however. It has been so ingrained us for all my lifetime that low fat is the way to go that I have to talk myself out of that mantra as I prepare my food. I won't lie - I'm still not there yet, and I'm not convinced on a personal level that full fat eating and focusing on cutting out sugars and carbohydrates is the solution either.

Brain cramp.

I love that you wrote this post because you seem like a sensible folk with a lot of knowledge and wisdom on the matter.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramanda

Cin, you ask a difficult question because it questions your father's doctor's guidance on diet. So without commenting on the Bertolli olive oil spread I would call attention to our confusion about heart disease and saturated fats. For a generation we were led to believe that fats, especially fats high in saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, were causing heart disease. Unfortunately, attempts to move to less-saturated fats (like the hydrogenated vegetable oils) and lower-fat foods did not show a benefit.
The saturated fat theory of heart disease has fallen from favor and the disease is now seen as more multi-factorial with other lifestyle issues including dietary mistakes given greater importance. (Trans fats and high sugar intake are diet error examples.) See the article, "Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease", published in AJCN Jan. 2010 which reexamined 21 major long-term studies and found no link between heart disease and saturated fats.
But medicine does not spin on its heel so there continues to be a lot of guidance away from butter and full-fat milk, and meat that is not lean. When will we learn how to prevent heart disease? This is a very difficult question—a lot of people depend on heart disease for their income and that makes it hard for us to get serious about prevention.

March 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Amanda, I'm in the same boat as you. So far in life, the only approach that seems to allow for weight loss is cutting the carbs, and currently the healthiest approach to that seems to be the Paleo lifestyle.

As for the fear of heart problems from saturated fats, it's a definite scary risk. But, can you wait for scientists to really pin it down in order to change? I'd rather err on the side of less-processed and more natural food sources. My grandparents and back made high use of animal fat and other saturated fats and there's absolutely no history of heart disease. To me that seems to point to the truth of what Skip is saying.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGdub

Here is a chance to enjoy a small bit of rendered bacon fat and olive oil. This web address includes a recipe for "apple, bacon, and provolone salad with apple cider honey mustard dressing."

So delicious.

March 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamille

I'd like to hear your thoughts on coconut oil. It is being touted as a great oil all over right now. I have been using it for about a year now (the good raw kind not the hydrogenated crap they sell at Walmart).

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarla

Carla, thanks for mentioning coconut oil. If you follow Dr. Mary Enig, you know of her support for the tropical oils, especially coconut oil Oils pressed from the flesh of the nut (coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil) avoid the harmful effects chemical extraction processing. The tropical oils also provide a good mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. We'll get to these healthy oils in a future post.

March 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Starting in high school, I began to limit my fat intake. Being a dancer, I was trying to make sure I stayed slim. When I had my first child, I knew it wasn't right for her to be on a low-fat diet. She needed fat and a lot of good quality foods to help her grow and develop. I realized if it was good for her, it must be good for me, too. Fat is an essential part of our diets to many processes in the body and also for nutrient absorption. We are big fans of olive oil, small amounts of butter, and full fat dairy for the kiddos. Thanks for another great post!

P.S. Did you see this article? I thought it was interesting that more are starting to recognize the benefits of fat.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

My great grandmother "Nana" lived to 104. She was born in 1893. She grew up on the fats you talk about, on a farm in Arkansas. She always had butter (room temp!) on a dish at the dining table and it went in and on everything. No doubt she cooked with lard too. She didn't smoke, didn't drink a lot, but did eat all those foods that we are taught are so bad for you (like the fats you discuss here). She was super healthy until the very end of her life. She also never wore a pair of pants, ever. She only wore skirts and dresses. She was an amazing woman and many of us in the family have marveled at how she could be so healthy for so long without cutting out all the "unhealthy" foods. Maybe Nana was on to something... :)

Great post. I have learned so much from your blog. Can't wait to read more.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I recently read an article in the February 2011 readers Digest that talked a great deal abot the benifit of fats and meat ina diet. the article was favorable to the Atkin diet that was once popular. With it and what you say here Maybe Ineed to change what I eatand how I eat.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeran

You mentioned trying lard in your healthy tip. My question is, what exactly is lard? And where do you find it?

We switched from margarine to butter about 10 years ago when my husband was diagnosed with high cholesterol, and our doctor told us in no uncertain terms to STAY AWAY FROM MARGARINE (and all other forms of fake butter)! I was thrilled, because I'd always preferred butter, but it was more expensive, and I thought it was less healthy.

Recently, we have added healthy olive & coconut oils to our list of preferred fats. Coconut oil especially can be expensive, though, so we don't use it as much.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte

Thought this article on an 64 year old edible can of lard would be of interest to you, Skip, and this post an appropriate place to post it!

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

Thought this article on a 64 year old edible can of lard would be of interest to you, Skip, and this would be a good place to post it!

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

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