Fatties in the VeloKitchen

February 15, 2015

Yesterday I rendered beef fat in a cast iron skillet to make tallow. A month ago, melting animal fat for tallow or lard was not on my ever-growing bucket list of foodie activities. The last time I may have given tallow a passing thought was in the fourth grade when I read “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Fatty in the Snow

I’ve been thinking about fat. I look out the window and see my husband pedaling in the snow on his fat tire bike with four-inch tires pumped to a pressure of around eight PSI. Flipping the page on my calendar, I see that Fat Tuesday is around the corner. Reading “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” by Nina Teicholz has made me think about the fat we eat.

What if everything you have been told about saturated fat was based on a shaky premise and built on a century-long, Kafkaesque trail of soft science and research funded by corporate interests and money, a lot of money? I picked up “The Big Fat Surprise” thinking I would learn about nutrition. Instead, I became engrossed in a page-turning conspiracy about how the diet-heart hypothesis met food politics and transformed saturated fats, like tallow, lard, butter and tropical oils, into modern villains.

The idea that “eating fat makes you fat” dramatically changed the food industry, transformed the fat we consume from animal products to vegetable oils and commutated what we eat. Surprisingly, these steps did not achieve their good intention of reducing heart disease. Instead, diet-heart recommendations, which caused vegetable oils to be substituted for animal fats and tremendously increased our consumption of carbohydrates, have been, quite possibly, the most significant contributors to the rise of a host of other illnesses like cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Independent, investigative reporter, Nina Teicholz, spent nine years researching this topic and makes a compelling case for consuming saturated fat. She summarizes the scientific research for the regular reader while never talking down to her audience. She walks us logically through the history and science of fat: mono-, poly-, trans-, unsaturated and saturated, and tropical and vegetable oils. The diet-heart hypothesis that has ruled nutritional guidelines in the last 100 years appears to be another example of an idea that began with the best of intentions, but ended up, like many other situations in recent history: flawed and “too big to fail.”

I’m trying to reprogram the fat messaging I have heard all of my life. Before the invention of Crisco in 1911, butter, tallow and lard, were the main, fat staples in the American kitchen. Since then, doctors, scientists, researchers, authors and “experts’ have trained us about good fats, bad fats and the evils of cholesterol. The food industry spends zillions of dollars a year trying to convince us their new-fangled inventions produced in their corporate laboratories are better for our bodies. After studying this book, I want to get my head around bringing back healthy, nineteenth-century, grass-fed and GMO-free fats into my kitchen.

I’m persuaded to go back to the full-fat (organic) dairy I gave up wistfully 25 years ago, eat the yolks of (cage-free) eggs, indulge in (grass-fed) butter and red meat a little more often, and enjoy bacon (in moderation) with less guilt. To me, eating a healthy diet and feeding my family is still about balance, portion size and eating a variety of in-season foods. There are proven reasons saturated fats are satisfying in our diet, and it’s a comfort to know we can enjoy them (in moderation).

The generally-accepted scientific conclusions of the diet-heart premise have not convinced me that a glass of watery, non-fat milk could be better for my cardiovascular health than one filled with creamy, whole milk, but the mental and physical benefits of aerobic exercise are clear. Winters in northern Idaho tend to be long and cold, but we keep moving. We are hopping on our fatties and going for a ride. Meanwhile, I’m hoping to hear the likes of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman chime into the diet-heart debate.