While sweet foods most surely delight the senses, it is fair to say that what the body really craves is fat. Perhaps the reason is that compared to proteins and carbohydrates fats are more abundant sources of energy. With our comparatively huge brains, 60% of which is made entirely from fat, our evolution as a species can be defined by our drive to acquire this nutrient. Imagine if you were sitting around a campfire 200,000 years ago with an empty belly – what food would most satisfy your hunger? Sure, fruits and vegetables have their appeal, but if you don’t want to spend all day chewing vegetation, what food fills your stomach best, and then gives you energy to do other stuff? Beyond any other food, fat was prized by traditional peoples all over the world, and as the rendered essence of an animal or a plant, was a kind of valuable currency that could be stored and traded for other goods. In Ayurveda, fat is the most nourishing of foods, and Hinduism is equated with the goddess Lakshmi, the bringer of wealth, beauty and abundance. Everyday in India millions of people massage their bodies with oil to keep them youthful and healthy. Fat protects, comforts and soothes. Fat is like money in the bank.
And yet despite the auspiciousness of fat, there is perhaps no better example of a group of foods that have been so clearly targeted and maligned. Beginning in North America in the early 1900’s, and then soon after in Europe and now spreading all over the world, industry and government have been trying to wean people away from their traditional high fat diets. Armed with an apparent avalanche of research reported on by the media, consumers have been led to believe that fat is killing them, despite the fact that the prevalence of our most common illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes have been steadily increasing since this marketing campaign began.
Despite this ‘low fat’ marketing blitz that has permeated our fast-food culture for several decades now, the evidence for the benefits of eating a high fat diet is slowly being accumulated by scientific research. The difficulty thus far in validating the benefits of dietary fat is partly because research models continue to lump all dietary fat into the same category. For example, both French fries and herring oil are rich in fat, but clearly one will make you very sick if you eat it regularly, while the other is something humans been thriving on for tens of thousands of years. Often the claim is that the problem is saturated fat and cholesterol, and yet traditional peoples have survived for millennia on such fats. In China the traditional cooking fat has always been lard, and since researchers have been studying this population, the Chinese people have had lower rates of diseases such as diabetes when compared to Western countries. Flash-forward to modern times and now much of the Chinese population are using refined cooking oils – and sure enough – their disease rates such as diabetes are starting to match the West. If saturated fat and cholesterol were ever truly harmful to humans, we would have died off long ago.
In part two, we’ll explore the wonderful world of fat chemistry. Stay tuned!