My topics seem to be going in a few different directions these days. Today you will be subjected to a treatise on nutrition.
Fat. The saturated kind, even (a phrase that doesn’t really make a lot of sense for common usage, but more on that later).
Does it make you salivate, or cringe in horror? We’ve been told over an over by what should be very reputable sources that consuming fats will make us have higher cholesterol levels, die of heart attacks, and (worst of all) gain weight. Every doctor, every FDA recommendation pyramid, and every yahoo answers post on the topic tells us to avoid this so-called evil food category. But we know two things:
- Our grandmothers all cooked things in lard and butter, drank and gave their children full-fat milk, and probably didn’t carefully trim all the skin off their chicken, and
- Despite the widespread ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding nutrition, the world is becoming increasingly sick, with growing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. etc. etc.
I’m totally not trying to draw any real conclusions from the numbered items above. They constitute a correlation only, and are of course merely a tiny snippet of the overall picture. But bear with me here.
Why are we told, with monotonous consistency, that saturated fats are bad, and polyunsaturated fats are good (it seems they can’t quite make up their minds on monounsaturated fats, but generally follow the simplistic principle that more double bonds makes for a healthier lipid)? As alluded to above, your grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents, depending on you family’s breeding rates) didn’t know this ‘wisdom,’ and did just fine, thank you. They made and ate tasty food, and didn’t all fall over at the age of 20 from clogged arteries and too much cholesterol, or else you wouldn’t be here. When did this change happen?
a semantic side note
I love language. I love that there can be such marvelously specific and precise ways to say things, and hate it when people think that ‘pretty’ means exactly the same thing as ‘resplendent,’ because it doesn’t. Many synonyms are not, in fact. However, a true synonym should be treated as such, and then you should just bloody use the easier one.
I appreciate precise scientific lingo as much as the next girl, especially when the alternative is ambiguous or has a different meaning, but what’s the deal with running around always talking about ‘saturated fats’ vs. ‘unsaturated fats’? There’s a bijective map from those phrases to the much easier to deal with words ‘fat’ and ‘oil.’ If a lipid is saturated, it is solid at standard room temperature (think about animal fats and coconut oil), and unsaturated ones are liquid at room temp (olive oil, canola oil, really any plant-based oils other than coconut). The converse is also true, in that solid edible lipids are saturated, and liquid ones are unsaturated. This has to do with the physical shape consequences of the molecular structure of the different types of molecules. Saturated lipids hold as many hydrogen molecules as they possibly can, and have no double bonds, and are consequently very linear, and can sit very nicely next to each other. A pound of dried spaghetti can fit into a very small volume, since each noodle can snuggle right up to the other noodles. Thus, we get a denser material with a high melting point. Each unsaturation point creates a double bond between adjoining carbons to use up those extra electrons floating around, and makes a kind of kink in the molecule. A pound of fusilli will take up a lot more space than the spaghetti, because the noodles don’t fit very well together, and so it’s a less-dense material that will have a lower melting point.
So anyway, why bother with the long versions outside of scientific journals or biology textbooks? Is it to lend a sciency vibe to the pseudoscientific claptrap that nutritionists put out there? What gives?
On that note, using a ‘calorie’ as a unit of food measurement is problematic at best. The word calorie has a real definition, in that it is the energy required to raise the temperature of one mL of water one degree Celsius. That’s a pretty clear definition. Okay, so that must be what they’re talking about, right? What are you so upset about, Miss Geekypants?
They’re not using that definition. The ‘calorie’ on the nutrition label for that soda can in your hand is NOT the same calorie used in chemistry lab. Nope. The one on the nutrition label is one thousand times larger. It’s a kilocalorie, and occasionally, especially in older literature, it is capitalized to Calorie in order to at least give a passing nod to the definition conflict. But usually it’s used quite cavalierly in a form that is a direct namespace collision. This ticks me off. This isn’t even going in to the fact that attributing an estimated energy-you-would-theoretically-get-from-this-food-after-thorough-and-perfect-metabolism, and then treating that number as scripture, is total crap. Everyone’s metabolism is unique (yes, you are a special snowflake), and there are just too many variables to contend with to have much confidence in a single numeric value.
…okay, I’m back. Sorry about that.
So why is it that our grandmothers knew that food was food, but our mothers were suddenly sold a worldview in which foods were either SUPER DUPER AMAZING AND THE CURE TO EVERYTHING or evil toxic things to be avoided? In particular, what happened to the thousands of years of cultural cuisine development surrounding the concept of cooking things in fat, which is a great source of energy and is needed by the body?
Profit. That’s why.
Around the turn of the century, two fellows named William Procter and James Gamble had a company, and that company owned cottonseed oil factories but couldn’t figure out what to do with all the surplus oil, since these newfangled electric light thingies were putting a damper on the candlemaking business. Then a chemist by the name of E.C. Kayser figured out how to take that useless oil and, through a process called hydrogenation, done in a lab, make it look and behave an awful lot like what cooks were accustomed to working with. That is, he took this industrial material and made it (through the miracle of modern chemistry) seem like food.
On a side note, saturation pretty much eliminates the potential for oxidation, resulting in a shelf-stable material. Unsaturated ones, on the other hand, have a definite tendency toward rancidity. So the development of the hydrogenation process made it possible to not only make this pesky superfluous product look like something people might be willing to actually consume, but also transformed it from a product with spoilage problems into a more stable one. It’s pretty nifty, from an engineering standpoint.
Then a massive advertising campaign was undertaken, in which lard was painted as dirty and tainted, while this new product (called Crisco) was purity and goodness itself.
The hydrogenated cottonseed oil was not sold because it was actually healthy, because it filled an empty niche, nor because it tasted better. The shortening phenomenon happened because of clever marketing and a need to dispose of a waste product. But this was only the beginning!
Okay, fine, so companies wanted to sell their oil. Their advertising tactics were kind of slimy, but they always are. But ultimately it was a good thing, right? I mean, veggie oil is better for us. The heart doctors all know that.
Nope. One, doctors receive astonishingly little nutrition education. So while I’ll certainly trust one when she tells me that I’ve gone and broken my pisiform, I’m not going to just swallow her lecture on what kind of food I should be putting into my own body. Two, the studies that led to the development of the so-called heart healthy diet were exceptionally flawed.
In the 1950’s, some extremely sketchy correlations were drawn from extremely incomplete data by scientist Ancel Keys and then used to assert that animal fats caused heart disease. Oh no! Whatever will we do? Oh hey, we’ve already conveniently convinced people that our processed-in-a-lab profit-making hydrogenated cottonseed oil is good for them. Maybe that can be used to our advantage.
Additionally the seed oil industry at large was in trouble around the end of WWII, since petroleum was supplanting their materials in manufacturing processes. Keys’ inconclusive, faulty studies caused dollar signs to appear in the oil companies’ eyes.
Suddenly the industry could claim that is polyunsaturated oils were not only suitable for consumption, but also actually healthy! Despite having been shown to increase heart disease and cancer, these substances were touted as ‘heart-healthy,’ and the so-called Prudent Diet was born. This diet emphasized corn oil, margarine, starches, and chicken. Sure, the people on the diet study had slightly lower cholesterol, but they had drastically higher rates of heart disease. This study was in 1957, people!
Even before 1980, there were lots of researchers who had made it clear that not only are the highly-promoted oils not healthy, but actually encourage cancer, heart disease, mitochondrial damage, hypothyroidism, and immunosuppression! In fact, their immunosuppression effect was quite handy in the 1960’s for preventing rejection of grafts!
Today, if your doctor was to recommend a diet, especially if you have any sort of vascular condition, what would it look like? Low fat (and only polyunsaturated when used at all), low to no salt (don’t even get me started on this one. It’s a rant for another time), lots of starch, and a small amount of super lean protein. Okay, so it's boring. I could live with that, if it actually helped. But it doesn't seem to. You need fat, and you need variety. People probably would never have started using ‘vegetable’ oils (have you ever looked at the ingredient list on that bottle of oil with all the pictures of zucchinis and tomatoes on the front? I promise you it has only one: soybean oil) instead of all fats if it had not been for the combination of extremely faulty science, clever marketing, fear tactics, and a culture that’s focused on finding miracle nutrition solutions instead of just eating real food.
Some people have done extremely well by eating grain-free, high-fat diets (just look at the Primal folks). But then, some people do well on an Italian diet. Or an Asian diet, or a salmon-cauliflower-rutabaga diet, for all I know. People are different, their metabolisms are different, and no advice is universal. Except for this: the Standard American Diet (SAD) of highly processed industrial waste is not good for anyone. Eat food that actually makes you feel good, for crying out loud!
So what, I should eat pork rinds covered in bacon for breakfast every day now? You’re saying that’ll be good for me?
Not at all. I’m just saying that as a culture we’ve been quite thoroughly duped by the agriculture-industrial-advertising complex into believing a bunch of crap about what we’re supposed to be eating, and it (along with our penchant for crummy fast food) is taking quite a toll on our health. I’m saying don’t listen to the nutritionists. I’m saying that no food is evil, but all things are good in moderation. I’m saying that the ‘low-fat,’ artificially sweetened cookie you got from the health food store is not food. I’m saying to not trust your own formative nutritional training, which may have come from television, fast food joints, or a well-meaning parent who was unfortunately fooled by the prevailing parenting advice and was trying to do the right thing. I’m saying to eat food.
Now pardon me while I go stir-fry some veggies in tasty lard.
Now pardon me while I go stir-fry some veggies in tasty lard.