But critics contend low-fat diets actually fuel obesity and disease, by increasing consumption of starchy, refined foods like bread and cereal.
Urged to reduce fat, especially the kind found in meat and dairy products, we’ve been choking down fat-free yogourt, skinless chicken breasts, low-fat salad dressing and skim-milk lattes.
And all the while, our girths have been expanding. Twenty-three per cent of Canadian adults were obese in 2004, compared to 14 per cent in 1978-79, according to Statistics Canada. An additional 36 per cent were overweight in 2004.
At least, so says Jennifer McLagan, author of the recent cookbook Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes (McClelland & Stewart, $37.95).
The Toronto chef and award-winning cookbook author is among a chorus of contrarians who say fat has been getting a bum rap.
For decades, health authorities have warned that a diet high in fat packs on pounds and clogs our arteries, putting us at risk for heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.
“We’ve been eating fat for hundreds of thousands of years,” says McLagan, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where her mother kept butter, lard and a jar of pan drippings in the refrigerator. She says she has never been overweight despite an avowed taste for crispy bread fried in bacon fat, duck confit and foie gras with its layer of unctuous fat.
“Your brain is mostly made of fat,” she points out. “All body functions operate with fat.”
McLagan argues it’s better to savour small amounts of high-quality fat than to scarf down low-fat imitations that leave us hungering for more.
“I tell people if you eat fat, you won’t be fat, because you’ll be satisfied,” she says.
“You don’t want to eat hollandaise sauce every day.”
Packed with recipes like Spanish-style pork rillettes (a terrine of shredded pork belly and back fat), potatoes fried in lard and all-butter shortbread, her book is a paean to foods exiled to the dietary gulag for so long, few of us even remember what they are. What is tallow, anyway? Or crackling, suet, fatback or marrow?
Back in the 1950s, when Canadians got 38 per cent of their calories from fat, most of it came from animal sources, says Catherine Field, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Alberta.
Today, fat intake has dropped to between 30 and 35 per cent of food energy, mostly from vegetable oils like canola and soybean. Canada’s Food Guide recommends limiting daily fat consumption to two or three tablespoons of unsaturated fat such as canola, olive and soybean oil and soft margarine. Limit butter, hard margarine, lard and shortening, it advises.
Susan Barr, a professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia, says the guide is based on sound principles. “If you look at Canadians’ nutritional status, one constant is overweight and obesity. A high-fat diet can contribute to that,” she says.
But in recent years, research has poked holes in what once looked like an airtight case against fat.
“We’re going through a paradigm shift, not only with fat, but also with cholesterol,” says Peter Jones, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Manitoba.