Everything Bad is Good Again

Lots of readers are writing in asking the same basic question: how is it that fat — and especially lard — has come to be seen as such a good thing all of a sudden? A year or so ago I was in the checkout line at my local Whole Foods. There I noticed a health magazine cover that featured a piece of bread slathered with what appeared to be…lard. The headline exclaimed something along the lines of: fat is good for you! The bullet copy proceeded to run down all the ways fat aids the metabolism. I’m not going to disagree with any of it, though like everyone I get whiplash reading health mags.

So what happened? How did fat — especially pig fat — go from anathema to all-but-health-food status? Sure you had Tom Colicchio serving his famous braised pork belly at Gramercy Tavern seven years ago. Yes Mario Batali always sang the praises of guanciale and, later, lardo. But such elite indulgences would never have captured the public imagination were tectonic shifts not already occurring in the realm of food and health.

What were those shifts? One of them was of course the public move away from trans fats, which began to occur almost a decade ago and which needs no further examination here. The other major — but much less publicized — event was the completion of the Women’s Health Initiative.

If you don’t know what the Women’s Health Initiative is, you’re not alone. Suffice to say it was no ordinary medical study, no run-of-the-mill piece of university research that samples a mere eighty or so subjects (the kind that are churned out by the thousands each year). Rather the Women’s Health Initiative was designed to be the grandaddy (I guess technically grandmommy) of all dietary fat studies.

Conducted by the US government at a cost of $415 million, it was a fifteen-year study of some 50,000 women — the biggest, longest such study ever undertaken. One of its primary objectives, to demonstrate definitively and for all time the connection between fat consumption and heart disease, cancer and strokes. For years before the results of the study were ever tabulated and published, the dietary scolds of America were licking their chops at the prospect of ruining the enjoyment of grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches forever.

And then, in January of 2006, the report came out. To say it stunned the American health establishment is putting it mildly. Doctors, nutritionists and dietitians were left numb, stupefied. For the results of the study showed, and showed clearly, no connection between the intake of fat — any kind of fat — and the incidence of disease. Cheers went up at fried chicken stands around the nation.

Of course not everybody was convinced. A variety of health experts and journalists (including the ubiquitous Mr. Michael Pollan) came out against the study, citing its various defects. Had the results gone the other way, however, I’m quite certain none of them would now be scrutinizing the methodology and calling for a do-over.

Do I myself completely buy the results of the WHI? I’d be lying if I said yes. I can’t quite accept the notion that diet and health aren’t somehow linked in that way. However I think it’s beyond obvious that the biggest problem we moderns have is not what we eat so much as how much of it. A little tempering of our enthusiasm for mass consumption would serve us well. Also a little less stress and a little more exercise come to think of it.

But a little pig fat every once in a while, people are coming to see, isn’t a bad thing. It’s certainly no worse than butter, plus it has a way of making a person quite happy. And that is a very healthful thing indeed.

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