Can You Believe It? Fat is Good for You!

A few years ago I read a cookbook called Fat, a celebration of flavor written by Jennifer McLagan. A few days later, I tried the sage butter sauce recipe with pasta: Fry 30 fresh, whole sage leaves in ½ lb. butter on medium heat for about 10 minutes, just until the butter begins to brown and the leaves turn crispy. Meanwhile, boil ­­­3/4 pound of pasta in salted water and drain when done. Pour the sauce over the cooked, hot pasta and serve with a simple green salad and some fruit. I added steamed beet greens to the pasta as well. It was heavenly. The sage lost its tangy, sharp, fuzziness as it was transformed into something much softer around the edges. The gentle, flavorful crunch paired with the chewy, slippery pasta was unbelievably satisfying, and we ate nothing more that evening — no popcorn, no chocolate, no ice cream.

One-half pound of butter?! It sounds like a lot, though each serving ended up with significantly less, of course. A small portion is extraordinarily satisfying; a large portion is overdoing it. You need fat, and you’ll get it wherever you can if you don’t get it from nourishing sources. The “French paradox,” the observation that the French remain slender despite the quantity of butter and cream in their diet, is only a paradox if you believe that fat is the enemy. There is no paradox. Fat is nourishing. Good fats, that is.

Fat nourishes and satisfies. Fat is absorbed by a pathway that uses virtually no insulin. That’s why, one hundred years ago, before there were any medications for diabetes, the ONLY treatment for diabetes was a high-fat diet. Fat is dense with nutrients, vitamins and, most of all, flavor.

The low-fat, no-fat message is a major contributor to America’s diabetes and obesity problem.

You may already know about the variety of nourishing fats in olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate, nuts (and nut butters), seeds (like pumpkin or sunflower), and deep sea fatty fish. If not, I hope you’ll start to include a lot more of them in your diet.

The butterfat in dairy products is unique, in part because it contains an unusually diverse collection of fatty acids. These fatty acids serve as building blocks for the ceaseless repair and remodeling that goes on all our lives. Of course, they are especially important for all young mammals, who are busily building and growing their bodies in the months and years immediately after birth. 

Which fats aren’t food? The fats that were invented in the 20th century. Like soybean, corn, “vegetable,” cottonseed oil. When did cotton enter the food supply? I’m not sure about canola either, frankly. Canola stands for CANadian Oil Association. That’s not the name of a food.

Where do you find those fats? In synthetic fat products, such as margarine, Crisco, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, coffee whiteners, and refined, ultra processed oils. These products are not food. They are food-like, but they do not nourish you. You may put them into your mouth and swallow, but they do not sustain you. Let’s talk about margarine. Any way you slice it, margarine is not butter. Most margarines are made from hydrogenated soybean oil. Sometimes with a little bit of butter. But don’t be fooled.

The word margarine is related to margalit, the Hebrew word for pearl. Margarine exits the machine a pearly gray color. My mother, born in 1936, remembers when “oleo” was sold with a tiny bead of red food coloring. Kneading the red bead into the gray, waxy material, as she did with her thoroughly modern Aunt Helen, slowly turned the gray wax into a yellow-colored product that more closed resembled butter. In those days, the dairy lobby was more powerful than the soybean lobby. Now it’s the reverse.

One way to identify products that are not really foods is by their names. Instead of being called by names our great-ancestors would have recognized (like butter and yogurt), they have fanciful names with healthful, pseudo-scientific, old-fashioned, or playful connotations that are meant to evoke all kinds of warm, cozy feelings. 

Product categories like margarine, with its endlessly creative, industry-generated names, are not food. Think about Smart Balance (seesaw), Blue Bonnet (hi granny!), Promise (not really), Country Crock (old-fashioned, homemade), Benecol (bene means good, col evokes cholesterol), or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (why not—we just told you?). These are not foods, and your own granny would likely have told you the same.

One last point I’d like to make. When you choose animal-based fats, such as dairy from cows or eggs from poultry, do your best to choose products that come from the most well nourished animals to which you have access. I know these products cost more, but if that means you eat better quality animal-based food less often, and eat more vegetables and beans at other times, that’s a win. 

Remember that you are what you eat, and you are also what what-you-eat eats. Any time you eat anything that ate a substandard diet, you concentrate it up the food chain. Into you.   


Newsflash: The American Diet Causes Obesity

Have you ever heard anyone say that all you have to do to make your diet more nutritious is to stop eating white flour and sugar? Does that seem radical to you? What’s wrong with white flour and sugar? What would such a change accomplish? I’m not going to say you can never eat white flour and sugar. My motto is moderation. Most people can tolerate a treat now and then. But let’s look at what’s really happening. Why are two-thirds of Americans currently overweight or obese? Because the standard American diet is so nutrient-poor that most people are literally hungry all the time. So they eat. It’s not about willpower; it’s about nutrition. Continue reading


Sweet New Year Soup

Tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, we will begin our celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Traditional Rosh Hashanah foods tend toward the sweet and the circular: sweet for a sweet new year, and circular to represent the seasons that run one into the next, year after year, around and around. Instead of the usual braid, we even twist our challah (egg bread) into a round this time of year.  Continue reading


Keepin’ It Movin’, All Year ‘Round

I think of wellness like a pyramid with three major pillars: eating patterns, activity pattern, rest & relaxation patterns. This week I’m talking about activity patterns. Your muscles are going to need a little warming up if you want them to help move you in the direction of good health. Cardio, balance, resistance, flexibility. It’s pretty easy to tell who’s been protecting their balance and flexibility for the past few years. It’s not just about marathons, or weight lifting. And you definitely don’t need to train for the Olympics. You just want to increase your opportunities to move. And for that, you could probably use a plan. Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Summer’s Caramelized Corn Salad

This beautiful and elegant recipe, with its mix of so many different colors and flavors, will certainly make your tastebuds sing! The sweetness from the pepper, sour from the lime, heat from the Sriracha, brightness from the parsley, all come together to form an absolute culinary orchestra. And sauteing the corn in olive oil? Well that’s what gives it that little bit of sweetly caramelized late summer magic. Enjoy! Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Golden Gazpacho Soup

You can think of gazpacho as soup and salad, both, at the same time. It will make a great first course at a nice dinner, but you can also take it to work for lunch (maybe with Mary’s Gone Crackers or a slice of toasted whole-grain bread). It would also make a scrumptiously satisfying mid-afternoon snack. Continue reading


When it’s Not Really Fruit or Vegetables

If I had just ten seconds to share nutrition advice, I know exactly what I would say: Eat more fruits and vegetables. And I don’t think that would surprise anyone. We all know that fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, rich in not only fiber but also phytonutrients, and everyone knows it’s a good idea to eat more of them. Especially since most of us don’t eat enough produce to begin with.

Now, the brand managers in the food industry know that we know we should eat more fruits and vegetables. This is why there are so many processed food items containing fruit-related words, or some version of the actual word “fruit.” Vegetables, too, to a lesser extent. Like vegetable oil. And which “vegetable” would that be, please? Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Joe’s Sassiest Asian Slaw Ever

My buddy and longtime fan Joe Gardewin has come up with what he calls “the very best and sassiest Asian slaw ever.” He says it’s great on turkey tacos but you should also feel free to eat it plain, right out of the bowl, if you want! His list of veggies is somewhat flexible, but includes cabbage, daikon radish, and hot peppers at the very least, and he is proud to say that he is a legit food snob since he hand-cuts his slaw. Go, Joe! Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Chocolate-Pecan Bars (df, gf, vegan, no bake)

My friend Lia brought these to book club a couple weeks ago. OMG. You should make them. Technically they are meant to be dessert, but they would be great for breakfast, too. I would bring them to folks young and old. A reunion of friends. A picnic. A gathering of neighbors. A special meal. An ordinary one.

Food like this creates all kinds of moments, like moments in time and moments of gratitude. It’s a personal reminder that food is meant to nourish not just the body, but the heart and soul as well. And the best is when our food does all three at the same time. Thank you, Lia.

Date-Pecan Layer

  • ½ cup unsalted, natural almond butter
  • 1 ½ cups unsalted pecan halves, divided
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 5-7 pitted Medjool dates (1/2 cup packed)

Chocolate Layer

  • ½ cup vegan chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup PLUS 1 Tbsp. natural almond butter, unsalted

Topping

  • ¼ cup pecans, chopped

Directions

  1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, greased foil, or wax paper. Set aside.
  2. To prepare the date-pecan layer, add dates and almond butter to a food processor. Blend approx. one minute until sticky and crumbly, like chunks of wet sand or dough. Scrape down the sides of the processor intermittently, as needed, between processing.
  3. Add 1 cup pecans, vanilla, and salt to food processor. Blend continuously until pecans are fully incorporated and mixture is soft and crumbly. When the mixture holds together when pinched, it’s ready. Add remaining pecans, and pulse only a few times until pecans are just barely incorporated, with medium-small pieces still visible.
  4. Pour the contents into the prepared baking pan. Press gently with a spatula, and smooth into an even, tightly-packed layer.
  5. To prepare the chocolate mixture, add chocolate chips and (¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp.) of almond butter to the top of a double boiler, or heat in a microwave (in a microwave-safe bowl) in 20-second increments until soft and melted. Stir until smooth.
  6. Pour chocolate mixture over date-pecan layer. Smooth into an even layer using a rubber spatula. Sprinkle evenly with chopped pecans, and press gently into the chocolate.
  7. Freeze for 20-30 minutes. Remove from freezer and slice into 16 generous bars or 20 bite-size pieces.

Thank you to Beaming Baker for a prior version of this recipe.