Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The (endangered) Fat of the Land


Eat lots of GOOD fat, says a book that was passed to me recently and almost furtively by a woman I’ve known for a long, long time but not well; a woman I would have sworn would eat the most purely vegetarian diet, with lots of soy and no fat.

Eat lots of fat, Mary Enig and Sally Fallon advise in Eat Fat Lose Fat, from grass-fed beef and their whole, unpasteurized milk and cream and butter; and from foraging hogs and sunshiny, run-around chickens and their eggs. Eat it from the brown bottles of cod liver oil and wheat germ, and eat it from the hairy brown shell of the coconut and the palm kernel.

I dug my nose out of the book and glanced up at my old acquaintance with shock and awe and the beginnings of understanding.

Eat SATURATED fat, the book said, the kind that stands up and hardens up and makes strong bones and arteries and hearts and brains and nerves, and that satiates us so we don’t overeat, and that gives us energy to do what we must do; that contains enzymes and vitamins and cholesterol and Omega 3s to combat stress, food cravings, and physical dis-ease.

The worry lines on my friend’s face smoothed out into relief as we both laughed gleefully at sharing this secret – we both appreciated FAT, that wonderful and maligned substance, and agonized over the disturbing and destructive pronouncements of the various government and health officials over the last fifty years that have made the public fear it. Those are the same fifty years, you’ll note, that have culminated in epidemics of obesity, depression, and diabetes. Not even to mention heart disease. Osteoporosis. Alzheimer’s. The sad list goes on.

... Too soon old, too late smart

That was a constant comment of my grandmother’s, one that I recall more and more often as I get older.

I grew up on farms. I slogged barefoot down the pasture path to “get the cows” every afternoon. I drank the milk from the pail of it Grandpa slung inside the kitchen door every night; ate the thick cream skimmed off it on my cereal; slathered the butter made of the rest of the cream on my bread; picked berries with Grandma down by the swamp, watched her make piecrust out of lard to bake those berries in, helped her weed the vegetable garden, fed the chickens that scratched in the henyard, stole their eggs out from under them and, late on November nights, sat on the kitchen counter thumping my heels impatiently into the cupboard door as I waited for the cracklings and chips Grandma was frying in the vat of lard she’d rendered from the pig that had been slaughtered that early morning.

Little did I know at the time that in the coming years every one of those foods would be declared criminal; that they would kill me sooner or later, as they did my grandmother, finally, at the age of 87. And, if I had known, it wouldn’t have made any difference. That was food. There wasn’t anything else.

There still isn’t, unless you count industrialized commodities made in factories of stuff grown on fields that have been devastated by chemicals and monoculture, many of them from genetically modified seeds; seeds and fields owned by gigantic chemical and drug companies. Or of animals that never see the light of day, raised in crowded and filthy conditions.

Thanks. But no thanks.

But those are the entities that the federal government deems worthy of massive farm subsidies. In his devastating April 22 article in the New York Times, “You are What You Grow”, Michael Pollan says, “A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives.”

... Rumors about food

There were whispers in the late 1950s among my weight-conscious friends that one should not eat meat anymore, but macaroni and spaghetti did not interest me besides a passing note that the world was full of idiots. In college I gave up food completely – drank coffee and ate out of tins, and also found that 69 cents worth of rice would feed two of us for a week. But there’s nothing like new maternal feelings to bring you back to Food Earth, so it was that with the birth of my first child I found Adele Davis, liver, nutritional yeast, and brown rice, and when I told my dad I needed to find a health food store, he said, “Isn’t that redundant? Food IS healthy.” The irony of this became clear ten years later when he mentioned that his doctor had told him to quit eating eggs. “Dad,” I said, “There can’t be anything healthier than eggs, everything needed for life wrapped up in one neat little eggshell.” But he obeyed his doctor, and when he died two years later of a massive heart attack, he had not eaten an egg for years, nor a pork chop with its fat intact, nor a good sirloin, his heart’s love, but there was a box of Twinkies in the freezer that my mother found, nearly empty.

Pollan on Twinkies: “Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

... a hero

But the real proof of the suet pudding came to me personally in the form of a man whom I admire greatly – Dr. Atkins, who fearlessly published the first high protein and fat, low carbohydrate diet. I followed it in the mid ‘70s, lost thirty pounds in the twinkling of an eye, hair great, skin, too, and felt wonderful. But of course this couldn’t be healthy, I thought, abandoning every bit of sense I’d been born with, and back came the grudging fat-avoidance, the occasional chip, piles of mashed potatoes (have one pile and you immediately want another), wonderful batons of French bread....... I “did” Atkins again a couple of decades later in spite of having been told I needed to lower my cholesterol. Again, almost effortless weight loss, great strength, shiny hair, bright eyes. So it was with dread that I went to have my cholesterol checked: It was down twenty points and the HDL was sky high. Well, that did it. I went back to my computer to try to find out where the fear of fat had come from.

...Who’s the Culprit

What I found was a morass of studies and statistics dating back to the early ‘50s, and a lot of questions, and the realization that the biggest challenge of all was following the dollar. Who sponsored which study, and who benefited. And I came to realize that the entities that were perfectly positioned, back then, to satisfy the demand for an alternate and supposedly healthier fat were the big food companies with names like General Foods, National Biscuit Company, and Kraft. They already controlled the cereal fields from which vegetable oils could be processed: Corn, peanuts, soybeans, and lately the Canadian oil – Canola – that is extracted from a selectively bred and genetically altered rape seed formerly used as an industrial lubricant and never, ever as a human food (In fact, almost all of the seeds that make up these oils are grown from genetically modified seeds). Those companies melded into conglomerates in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and wielded tremendous power over the government and the public, becoming almost a dictatorship as they were taken over by tobacco and pharmaceutical companies in the ‘90s and into the present. The fields they plow and plunder are immense, the great heart of our country. And where would they be now without our carefully inculcated Fear of Fat. Theirs has been an insidious creep to power and I’m not sure how anyone would recognize it who hasn’t experienced it.

...Heroes and Unwitting Villains

Michael Pollan, like a charming bloodhound, is snuffing his way along the littered trail of our wrecked food chain in numerous articles and books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Mary Enig, a well-published bio-chemist and nutritionist, and an expert on fats, has been marginalized by the industry for her investigations into trans fats and vegetable oils, but she keeps plugging away spiritedly. Her comprehensive review of the studies and findings at the beginning of Eat Fat is extremely helpful.

We’re all going to have to keep plugging away, because the myth of the danger of saturated animal fats, as well as the myth of the healthfulness of polyunsaturates, is by now deep in our American psyche. The whole story struggles to get out, but our translators of knowledge – reporters and journalists – can’t quite let it. They report the facts and then they fall back into assumptions that knee-jerk their way into the story.

In an article called “So Bad, it’s Scary”, ostensibly about the dangers of trans-fats, (Herald, 4/12/06) Lisa Ryckman concentrates instead almost solely on the dangers of saturated fats. As in, now that we can’t eat partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, what CAN we eat? Not (shudder) animal fat! An article called “Better Choices Healthier Kids”, by David Aguilar (Herald 4/16/07) is accompanied by a photo of three tubes of fat – Tube 3 is full of fat from a quarter pound cheeseburger. Tube 2 is half full of fat from 1 cup of whole milk; and the first tube is a third full of fat from 4 graham crackers or 10 saltine crackers. Now what do we learn from that? That it’s healthier for a kid to eat 10 saltines than a hamburger? That after eating their ten saltines s’he’s going to be satiated, have an ounce of energy? On April 18th, Lauran Neergaard wonders “If Foods Dump Trans Fat, Are They Really Getting Healthier?”

“It become very clear that trans fat is far worse than saturated fat,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Although he doesn’t go so far as to endorse animal fats, he does say, in an interview for PBS’s Frontline, “some types of fatty acids in the diet, in particular the omega-3 fatty acids, can actually reduce the heart arrhythmias that really cause people to drop dead in the street.” Omega-3s are found in fish, flax, grass-fed animals, and – who-knew – eggs-yolks. Sorry, Dad. Very often,” Willett says, “science is presented to the public in a way that is conclusive when in fact the science behind it is often very preliminary, very inconclusive.”

And then there’s pure idiocy. Just today a New York Times article interviewed bakers who are being forced to use processed shortening instead of natural butter in their products because there is an infinitesimal amount of trans fat naturally in butter.

... Experts

I’ve had dinner with a couple of doctors, at their homes, in the last couple of years. Each time, there was the little tub of margarine plonked in the middle of the table. “You’re still eating that stuff?” I would say accusingly. “What else?” they would ask. “How ‘bout good old butter?” I would suggest. “Cholesterol,” they would shrug their shoulders. Willett explains, “Unfortunately, as a physician back in the 1980s, I was telling people that they should replace butter with margarine because it was cholesterol free, and professional organizations like the American Heart Association were telling us as physicians that we should be promoting this. In reality, there was never any evidence that these margarines, that were high in trans fat, were any better than butter, and as it turned out, they were actually far worse than butter.”

Doctors are not nutritionists, and most nutritionists, themselves, must assume to be true what the American Heart Association and other professional health organizations tell them. I was in a meeting with a nutritionist recently, a very nice woman, who wanted to push an AHA recipe “a very healthy recipe, that uses a lot of rice and just a little chicken!” My suggestion that it would be a lot healthier if it had a lot of chicken and a little rice, a lot fewer refined carbohydrates and a lot more protein, was met with eye-widening shock, and perhaps pity at my ignorance.

It breaks my heart to see my friend The Doctor noshing down that chemical substance that is margarine in preference to the wholeness that is butter, and knowing that he is advising his patients to do the same.

... What to do, what to do?

What do we do about this fear of food foisted on us by the powers that be, which have, in the process, almost wrecked our food supply and our environment? I can only tell you what I’m doing. I’ve got a quarter of a grass-fed beef in my freezer. My favorite butcher told me I’d hate the taste of grass-fed beef. Well, guess what? It’s the most delicious beef I’ve eaten since I was twelve! I’m looking to buy half a pig that has been naturally foraging on what it naturally wants to eat, and has not been bred for lean. A friend is raising some free-range chickens for me. I’ll plant my garden soon, buy organic and natural produce and other foods from the Co-Op and the Farmers’ Market. I’m reading Enig, and Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions; I may even dig out my old copy of Adele Davis. I’m working with people to get a kitchen into the Co-Op so they can show people how to cook real food on-site, which will give them the confidence to buy and prepare local food. I’m talking it up. I’m weighing the advice that comes pouring in. And I have hope that if we begin to utilize our local cuisine, eating au terroir, our own foods grown on our own soil, we can begin to undo some of the harm that’s been caused by big business and government.

And maybe when I’m eighty I’ll be smart enough to be sixty.

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald May 01, 2007

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