The skinny on fat

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Remember when fat was an evil substance to avoid at all costs?

It was a feat that required constant vigilance – no oil in your salad dressing, no butterfat in your milk, no butter, period.

Diets of the day counseled a daily fat intake of less than 20 percent. The well-known Dean Ornish Diet weighed in at less than 12 percent. (You surely lost weight, but you lost your sanity, too, for who can survive without a dollop of whipped cream or a spoonful of peanut butter every now and then?)

Grocery store aisles were full of no-fat and low-fat cookies, crackers and even potato chips. Dairy aisles were crowded with no-fat versions of milk, cheese and sour cream.

Dining out was an exercise in near total self-denial – salad with a squeeze of lemon, a baked potato with nothing but a sprinkling of salt, a chicken breast devoid of its flavorful skin. It was downright depressing.

But no more. The bad old days that inspired the comedy line about chocolate: “I don’t know why I’m putting this in my mouth, I should just apply it directly to my hips,” are dead and gone.

Suddenly, fat is the new health food.

Eat butter. Drink whole-fat milk. Slather on the olive oil. Treat yourself to a porterhouse. Even, dare we say it, indulge in bacon.

It’s revolutionary, I know, but really, I’m not making this up.

Go to any dietician, nutritionist or naturopath in town and they will tell you to eat more fat, up to 30 to 35 percent of your total diet. Further, they say American society’s slavish devotion to a low-fat diet has ruined our health, causing long-term medical issues such as diabetes, joint pain, hormone malfunction and heart disease, among others.

“The low-fat thing has been pervasive in American culture for 30 years,” said Jess Kelley, a nutrition therapist at Namaste Health Center. “It’s counter intuitive. You need fat to burn fat.”

There are three kinds of natural fat – monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated, all of which the body needs. The first two are from plants, the last from animals.

And of course, there are good fats and bad fats. Extra-virgin olive oil, good. Corn oil, bad. Butter from grass-fed cows, good. Hydrogenated fats, bad. Avocado, grapeseed, coconut and walnut oils, all good. Margarine, palm, canola and soybean oils, all bad.

“All fats are not created equal. Don’t just blow it off and get the value meal at McDonald’s,” said Nicola St. Mary, a local naturopath.

In general, health-care providers recommend avoiding fried food because fat breaks down at high temperatures and loses its nutritional value. Similarly, eschew hydrogenated fats found in products such as peanut butter and refried beans to stabilize and boost bulk. And bypass soybean and corn oils, the two most genetically modified vegetables on the market and frequently the cause of inflammation.

As for meat and poultry, which contain their share of saturated fat, they’re a perfectly fine source of protein on one condition: that the animal is raised outdoors, is not treated with artificial hormones or antibiotics and is fed healthy, additive-free food.

But whatever you do, stay away from no-fat and low-fat dairy products.

“Cows don’t produce low-fat cheese,” Kelley says.

So trade the skim milk for whole, the low-fat sour cream for full fat and the fruited no-fat yogurt for plain yogurt that has 6 grams of fat per half cup (although you wouldn’t be faulted for adding a teaspoon of honey or maple syrup.) And while you’re at it, make sure it’s organic.

So, excuse me, but what happened? Those of us who diligently watched the fat content of our food, who rejected butter, ate only lean cuts of meat and saved ice cream for our birthdays, demand an explanation.

Simply put, the science changed. In the World War II generation, physicians linked a high-fat diet to a high-cholesterol body, which was believed to lead to the horrors of lingering illnesses like obesity and heart disease and a cause of early death.

Fast forward 60 years and the research shows a different result. Not only is fat not bad, the body requires an ample amount of it – the good kind, of course – to function properly. The blood stream needs it to regulate glucose, the heart needs it to control the flow of sodium and potassium, reproductive organs need it to produce hormones.

The new enemy of the body and a healthy long life is now sugar and its most common host, carbohydrates.

And therein lies the rub. While it’s wise to add more good fats to your diet, those extra calories don’t come with impunity.

“When we say increase the fat in your diet, what we’re really saying is decrease the carbohydrates and some of the calories,” says Dr. Bruce Andrea, a Durango cardiologist.

He suggests a balanced diet that comprises 30 to 35 percent fat (as opposed to the old paradigm of 15 to 20 percent), 50 percent carbohydrates and 15 to 20 percent protein. The new calculation, he points out, is not permission to pig out on BLTs and Ben and Jerry’s.

But still, for food lovers, it’s a wonderful thing. Fat is flavor, after all.

“I like the new thinking,” said Laura Rickart, a health-conscious eater who once ascribed to the low-fat way of life. “Hey, butter, bacon … I’m loving it.”

I say take the butter and run. Pass the organic whipped cream, please.

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