As for the connection between fatty foods and weight, it’s controversial as well. Obesity was never the target of Congress’ efforts, although the low-fat recommendations were instituted to help people manage their weight. They haven’t. Since the guidelines were adopted, Americans have indisputably gotten fatter. “In the early 1990s, we ate low-fat everything and we didn’t get thinner,” says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “There’s your proof.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, roughly 14 percent of Americans was obese. Today, more than 30 percent is, with another 30 percent classified as “overweight.” Same goes in Europe, where consumption of fat has dropped and obesity rates have risen. In the U.K., obesity rates have tripled since 1980. In the Netherlands, the percentage of moderately overweight adults increased from 28 in 1981 to almost 36 in 2008, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. The percentage of obese people more than doubled, from 5.1 percent to 11.2 percent, in the same period. According to the Society for the Study of Obesity, roughly half the population of the European Union is overweight or obese.
In three decades, while scientists have learned more about what eating fat will and won’t do, consumers have wholeheartedly embraced the “low-fat” doctrine. In the 1990s, more than 1,000 reduced- or low-fat foods were introduced each year, according to the AHA. By the end of the decade, more than 90 percent of the population reported consuming low-fat products. According to one survey, two out of three adults believed “a need exists for food ingredients that can replace the fat in food products,” and one out of every two saw the appeal in food advertised as “reduced in both fat and calories.” In other words, given the chance to replace fat with something else, we opened wide.
So given the blanket condemnation of fat, what did we eat instead? If we cut fat out of our diets, we have to get calories from somewhere. When food companies offer reduced-fat versions of cookies, salad dressings and sauces, sugar and carbohydrates generally make up the difference. When we consciously reduce the fat in our diets, we don’t typically eat fewer calories; we eat more rice and pasta, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And low-fat products have their own problems. “If you reduce the fat, you have to replace it with something,” says Samuel Klein, a professor of medicine and nutrition in the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “So it’s sugar.” It’s true: Either for taste, or to replace fat’s richness and moistness, the food industry began using sugar.
But as researchers studied fat and weight, they learned more about the effects of sugar, which as it turns out may inspire more weight gain than fat does. When we eat sugar–or refined carbohydrates, which break down into sugar–the body produces insulin to transport the sugar to the muscles and organs that burn it as fuel. Insulin, though, also regulates fat metabolism, and when insulin levels are high, the body stores fat rather than burning it. The issues and consequences of producing too much insulin are still open to debate, but many researchers believe that replacing fats with sugars and carbohydrates has the potential to wreak havoc on your metabolism. And ironically, even sugar substitutes, like aspartame, the sweetener in NutraSweet and Equal, have been linked to weight gain. Scientists aren’t sure why, but they seem to encourage people to eat more, or disrupt energy expenditures.
Sugar substitutes work well for baked goods, salad dressings and processed meats. But they can’t be fried, making them useless in potato chips, which account for 35 percent of the $46 billion global market for savory snacks, according to the research firm Datamonitor. So food scientists developed an indigestible fat, sucrose polyester–more commonly known by its brand name, Olestra. Researchers found Olestra inhibits the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and other important nutrients.
Overall, as Americans replaced regular foods with low-fat products, nutrition sometimes suffered. One study found that women who used fat-modified products weren’t getting enough vitamin E or zinc, prompting the authors to recommend “additional dietary guidance.”
Study after study found that people who said they ate low-fat diets didn’t eat any less than people who kept eating fat. The government’s message had perhaps worked too well. People thought fat, not quantity or quality of food, was the villain. The Food Marketing Institute in Virginia reported that buying food products labeled “low-fat” was the most common way people improved their diets. According to Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink, marketing professors at INSEAD in France and New York’s Cornell University respectively, subsequent studies showed that “low-fat labels lead all consumers–particularly those who are overweight–to overeat snack foods.” After all, a reduced-fat version of a cookie often has just as many calories as its “original” counterpart (not to mention more sugar). Chandon and Wansink extended their theory to fast-food restaurants that claim to be healthy. When foods are perceived to be good for you people eat too much of them.
Fortunately, the tyranny of the low-fat diet seems to be waning. Three years ago, Toronto-based chef and food writer Jennifer McLagan struggled to drum up interest for her idea for a cookbook about animal fat. Her 2005 effort, Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore, had won a James Beard Award, annually conferred on the best chefs, cookbook authors and restaurateurs in North America. Even with that pedigree, fat, apparently, was pushing it. Polite publishers told her the concept was too contrarian. Others flat-out called it “disgusting.”
She eventually found a taker, and her book, Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes, with Recipes, is unapologetic. It’s adamant in its defense of fat’s benefits; the cooking instructions range from how to render your own pork fat to recipes for Brown Butter Ice Cream and Bacon Baklava. And McLagan is winning followers. Pork belly and marrow are common on menus; barbeque has gathered legions of fans outside its native South; it seems in every major city you can find at least one restaurant willing to roast a whole pig for a hungry party. And guess what? In May, Fat too won a James Beard Award.
As the obesity epidemic was later to arrive in Europe, the pro-fat backlash isn’t yet in full swing there, but signs are emerging. A recent study in the NEJM fingering total calories, not fats or carbs, as responsible for weight loss, made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. And anecdotes abound. British celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson has been blatant about using lard in his restaurants. In Norway, sausage consumption is up.
Even mainstream nutritional experts have recanted. The blanket message that “fat is bad for you” has few remaining adherents. The AHA, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the American Council on Science and Health have all modified the message, from their original admission that unsaturated fats are good for you to the grudging acknowledgement that even trans fats may not be as bad as they’ve been portrayed to be. “We should apologize for making people think about ‘percentage of calories,’” says the AHA’s Eckel, adding that the focus should be on total calories. “You want to eat steak? That’s fine. Just make it six ounces rather than 16.”
To undo decades of fat-phobia, it’s going to take a more rousing endorsement. And for that, it’s necessary to leave the realm of science and enter the kitchen, where it’s easier to consider the possibilities. Take guacamole, or the pat of butter that finishes a risotto or a chocolate pudding. McLagan includes fat in everything from salad to dessert, with recipes for grilled steak and red wine sauce topped with bone marrow. For a sweet, try salty bacon brittle with pork cracklings. These are beyond rich–the animal fats give the dishes depth and an almost medieval earthiness–and they’re delicious, enough to make even confirmed skeptics salivate.
“Go ahead,” McLagan says. “It won’t kill you.”
Janet Paskin, who wrote about social stock markets in the May issue, gained three pounds reporting this story. This story has reporting by Ursula Sautter.
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