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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Real Food Basics: Fats

The Real Food Basics series covers the difference between industrial (grocery store)  food and traditional, real  foods.

If ever my mom wanted to lose weight while I was growing up, she would count her fat grams. It was an "eat less fat, be less fat" kind of mentality. That was the wisdom of the day, and continues to pervade a lot of our thinking.
Even now, most people are scared of fat. Doesn't fat make you... fat? No! It doesn't. Fat is necessary and keeps our bodies alive and healthy. But fat must be fattening, right? No again! Eating fat doesn't make us fat.

Fats essential roles:

Source of energy
Slows down the absorbtion of food and helps us feel fuller longer
Builds cell walls
Needed to absorb fat soluble vitamins

But aren't some fats bad?

Yes, but maybe not the ones you think. We have been taught that animal fat is bad.  How many times have you heard to avoid red meat, avoid butter, avoid egg yolks? This is actually the kind of fat we need to be eating for our health. There is a lot of science out there to prove this, and there's no way I could include all of it in this one post. Instead, I'll explain why our family eat the fats we do, and why we're not afraid of fat. If you want more information, see my suggested reading list, or feel free to post any questions in the comments section.

New Fats and Old Fats

Think back a hundred and fifty years or so. Pioneer times. Ladies in long dresses and bonnets, men out working on the farm. What kind of fats would they have used? They would have used primarily animal fats: lard, butter, beef tallow, chicken (or other poultry) fat. In other parts of the world, they used olive or coconut oil. 
There was no grocery store to go buy vegetable (soybean) oil, of course. Margarine hadn't been invented yet. Canola oil, the newest of the oils in the market, surely wasn't available either.
So, what happened? Michael Pollan talks about having a food culture. Mothers are in charge of this food culture, because traditionally, they have been the ones feeding their families. In our country, the food culture changed. Instead of trusting in the wisdom handed down from earlier generations, we turned to science to figure out what to eat.

In the 1950s, a researcher named Ancel Keyes was instrumental in changing our food culture. He did studies that "proved" that saturated fat was dangerous and causing heart disease. Here's a short video clip from the movie Fat Head that is kind of funny and does a great job of explaining how we all came to believe that saturated fat is bad.

How I decide
Sometimes studying all this conflicting information about nutrition is enough to make you crazy! (For example, if you watched the clip, you notice that the authors didn't seem to think wheat was a good thing either. I disagree with that one, and we are wheat eaters at our house!) For me, I read and study what I can, but I ask myself two questions when deciding what my family should eat:
1. Is it traditional? (Have people been eating this food for a long time? Or is this a new product, something that a corporation came up with?)
2. Is this how God designed it to be eaten? (Is it in a whole form or has it been chemically altered?)
I used to be more mainstream in my thinking. I was always jumping on the next new science. But when I started reading some of the lierature out there, I realized that not only does science not have all the answers, much of what they've taught us has been wrong.
In the concluding paragraph of her section on fats in Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon says,
"In summary, our choice of fats and oils is one of extreme importance. Most people, especially infants and growing children, benefit from more fat in the diet rather than less. But the fats we eat must be chosen with care. Avoid all processed foods containing newfangled hydrogenated fats and polyunsaturated oils. Instead, use traditional vegetable oils like extra virgin olive oil and small amounts of unrefined flax seed oil. Aquaint yourself with the merits of coconut oil for baking and with animal fats for occasional frying. Eat egg yolks and other animal fats with the protein to which they are attached. And, finally, use as much good quality butter as you like, with the happy assurance that it is a wholesome-- indeed an essential-- food for you and your whole family."


  1. Like you, I try to do as much research as I can, but almost everything I find seems to be biased in some way or another. It seems like every study I look at is only trying to prove the truth they want and not look at things objectivly. How do you know what to trust. Then you have things like GMO's thrown in, and its hard to know what foods are modified and which ones arn't because the government says they don't have to tell us. It seems like a battle I can't win and I've barely gotten started.

  2. It IS hard to know who to trust. I guess that's why I go back to what's traditional. I think it's helpful to decide HOW you will make your food decisions. I shared in this post my criteria for making those decisions, maybe while you're getting started it would be helpful to establish some guidelines for how you will decide when things are conflicting.

  3. Sorry about the words running off the page, etc. after the video clip. I can't figure out how to fix it, so if anyone has any tips for me, please share!