How the boogieman became fat when fat became the boogieman.
I always get nostalgic during this time of year as we enter into the Holiday season. I begin to get a tingling feeling in my belly that I call anticipation. Anticipation for perhaps the most precious thing in our lives.
For me the Holidays are about food. It’s about spending time with the people you love the most, celebrating the real reason for the season. Eating foods with a high amount of butter in them.
It’s not surprising that people start the year off with “new-year-new-me” goals to exercise more, eat better and reduce their body fat. It’s also not surprising that people refuse to start pursuing those goals before first completing the food consumption marathons of the Holidays. Probably because butter is incredible. Even more so when it is in mashed potatoes AND in an apple pie, then mashed potatoes again.
The holidays were not always this positive for me. You see, I used to be afraid of butter. Specifically cold butter.
Cold butter is a lot different than melted butter. Melter butter will strike fear in a lobster, foreshadowing its ultimate demise, but cold butter says “I’m just not ready yet”. While the cockroach of the sea and other bottom feeders may not be afraid of cold butter, I would find myself trembling.The reason is because I had a bad experience with cold butter.
My Dad really knows his way around butter. By that I don’t mean that he is a butter science expert, but he knows when to eat butter and he knows how much to eat. But it did not always sit well with me. Especially when it was at sub-room temperatures.
Seeing him spread hardened butter onto his bread would vex me as I watched him handling those solid waxy squares. Each nearly an inch thick, he’d spread across his slice of enriched white-ish sweet bread, with his knife scraping roughly. Two swipes barely spread the thick pad of saturated fat across his loaf, tearing holes into the slice. As he took his first bite, I’d leer at the teeth marks in the yellow fat firmly pressed into the bread and think to myself “that’s pure fat” as my stomach turned.
Back in the 80s, and likely before that, we had determined that our health was in jeopardy because of fat. We began to notice that people were experiencing health issues related to things like heart attacks and vision problems (that is, vision being obstructed, not being able to see one’s feet over their belly). Even scientists and departments of agriculture found themselves saying “people are overweight and unhealthy, and fat is the problem.”
By the early 90s, fat began to be engineered out of our diets. Suddenly, every food item made in a factory was wrapped in a plastic advertisement that proclaimed “low fat” or even “fat free”. Lays launched the ‘WOW’ chip line with Olestra for ‘fat free’ and guilt free snacking. Snackwells boasted healthy treats in the form of its ‘fat free’ devil's food cookies which could be consumed with impunity.
America was engaged in the War on Fat, with each one of us enlisted.
It was in 1992 when the US Department of Agriculture endorsed the food pyramid created in the 70s, with fats in the smallest category and bread and pasta in the largest. By 1996 the FDA approved olestra as a food additive, and fat free was on labels across supermarket shelves.
The War on Fat yielded mixed results, including bad ones and worse ones. WOW potato chips blocked its consumers' biological ability to absorb nutrients, causing gas, loose bowels and embarrassment. Snackwells proved to be snacking unwell, if nothing more than because a single cookie was never satisfying, consisting of more air and sugar than actual flavor.
Basically, not having fat sucked.
Cold butter switched to cold margarine, which people could not believe was not butter. Margarine tasted better or worse than butter depending on which one you were most used to, but the ironic twist was that the spreadable-ness of it meant it was usually stored in plastic containers, rumored to be made of a nearly identical substance to the spread itself. Regardless of the truthfulness of this claim, for me, in its cold state it still caused terror, because I was afraid of fat.
It turned out, the food pyramid was the opposite of what it should have been and the FDA was wrong about olestra. Eventually the food industry wised up. I’m picturing it taking place in a highrise with a “Big Food” exec in the bathroom lamenting “what have I done!”.
Today, olestra is nowhere to be found, and fat free foods are less popular than in their glory days. My fear of cold butter persisted into my early adulthood. Bread was required to be heated to a temperature that would melt the product to a lobster taunting state, and ideally be absorbed into any food it is added to, concealing its fatness.
But fat was never the problem. It was insulin resistance that we should have been afraid of. The excess of glucose, blocking nutritional absorption. Medical News Today says that “Insulin resistance” occurs when excess glucose in the blood reduces the ability of the cells to absorb and use blood sugar for energy”. The CDC finds that 1 in 3 people are insulin resistant, a disease also known as pre-diabetes, distressing the US healthcare system. The result: cutting out fat basically had the opposite effect of what was desired.
I’ve gotten over my fear of fat in the form of cold butter, but also in other forms as well. I now know that fat is an essential nutrient for a healthy body, and a natural part of most whole foods. I can’t promise that I won’t eat too much of a good thing this Holiday season, but I can promise you I will have my fair share.
Here’s to facing our fears.