Singing the praises of fat

lard, butter, fat, high fat cooking

We all know the downside of eating too many calories and too much fat ... or do we? What if we were to tell you that many nutritionists now believe that fat isn't so bad for you after all? Would you offer up a prayer of Thanksgiving, or simply say FAT CHANCE? Please withhold your judgment until you've seen Rita Braver's Cover Story:

In a kitchen in Toronto, the fat is on the fire ... sizzling, baking, bubbling ...

"I'm happy to be the 'fat lady,'" That's what I call myself, and it always gets a laugh," said chef Jennifer McLagen. "But I wanna point out that by eating fat you're not going to get fat. I'm an example of that!"

McLagan says people eat less of fatty foods because they're more filling, and she calls fat the "misunderstood" ingredient.

"We all think of phrases like a 'tub of lard,'" said Braver, "that sounds sort of big and bulky and disgusting."

"Lard [is] really a four-letter word," McLagen laughed. "You know, it doesn't sound that good. But it's a shame because it's a fabulous fat."

McLagan, author of the James Beard Award-winning cookbook called - you guessed it - "Fat," argues that eating a moderate amount of animal fat can be healthy and delicious, persuading even a skeptical reporter to try a taste of rosemary-infused lard.

"It has a lovely, like, a delicate flavor," said Braver. "it's a surprise, I admit."

Also surprising is that fat can be rich in vitamins and omega-3's.

Click here for fat-friendly recipes from chefs Jennifer McLagen and Chris Cosentino, and other delicious dishes from this year's "Food Issue" !

"We've been eating animal fats for 10,000 years, right? It's been part of our diet up until this crazy thing where all of a sudden we decided fat was bad for us," said McLagen. "And if fat HAD been that bad for us, we'd all be a lot healthier today, because we've seem to have given it up - and we don't seem to be any healthier or happier."

It does seem that we've been in a fight over fat for years. Foods containing saturated fat, like milk, eggs and bacon, were once considered the hallmark of a healthy breakfast.

But in the late 1970s, a Senate committee on nutrition, led by former presidential candidate George McGovern, warned against eating animal fats.


Even then, scientists, including Dr. Robert Olson of St. Louis University, challenged the findings: "This is not, senators, a question of the last iota of proof. This is a question of any proof."

Still, the Senate report ushered in an era of low-fat products, like low-fat yogurt.

But not everyone jumped on the low-fat bandwagon:

Gary Taubes has been studying and writing about our fat phobia for more than a decade.

"I mean, it's just completely ill-conceived, this low-fat diet, this low-saturated fat diet," said Taubes. "You know, the idea that we should not eat butter, that we should eat low-fat yogurt instead of full-fat yogurt."

Taubes scoffs at idea that eating animal fat is unhealthy:

"You're just going against the science," he said. "The studies have never been able to prove it. And you've got clinical trials that demonstrate the opposite, that demonstrate that a high animal fat [diet] is a healthy diet."

Indeed, according to a 2010 study published in Annals of Medicine, higher-fat, lower-carbohydrate diets worked better to reduce cholesterol than lower-fat, higher-carbohydrate diets.

But before you reach for another piece of bacon, here's the tricky part:

Cardiologist Gordon Tomaselli, president of the American Heart Association, cites other data indicating that eating animal fat can be unhealthy.

"From our perspective, excessive consumption of saturated fat is a bad habit to be in," Tomaselli said. "The epidemiologic evidence tell us, other studies tell us that saturated fats, when consumed, will increase levels of cholesterol."

In fact, the Heart Association website calls saturated fat a "bad" fat, and suggests limiting it to 7% of your calories.

"If you've been staying away from the skin on your chicken, that's probably a good thing, and you should continue to do it," he said.

But it seems there's no stopping the urge to chew the fat.

At the San Francisco restaurant Incanto, chef Chris Cosentino says that cooking with fat is a family tradition.

"My grandmother lived to 98, he laughed. "My great-grandmother lived to be 99. Obviously they did something right."

And, Braver admits, the egg he offered that was cooked in olive oil didn't compare to the one cooked in chicken fat. ("That tastes pretty good!" she said. "A huge difference in flavor.")

"Massive difference," said Cosentino.

"I know, 'cause I want to eat that entire egg!" she laughed.

"I mean, if you consume gallons of animal fat each day, of course you're going to get ill," said Cosentino. "Excess in anything is bad for you. But a good balance of animal fat with protein is actually good for you."

So until the fat fight ends, maybe the key to healthy, happy fatty eating is moderation.

For more recipes from this year's "Food Issue" click here!

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