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Over the past hundred years, our diet has changed more dramatically than at any other time in human history. Although we have been told that a low fat diet is healthy, as we reduce our intake of animal fats we increase our consumption of sugar and carbohydrates, along with the number of calories we eat. We substitute fake and man-made fats for butter and natural animal fats, which has not made us healthier. On the contrary, it has contributed to a rise in obesity and diabetes. So, is everything we’ve been told about fat wrong? Well, most of it.

Fat doesn’t make us fat
It is easy to believe that the fat on our plate will end up on our body. This is just not true. In fact, good animal fats, like butter, are very satisfying and make us less likely to overeat or snack between meals.

A low fat diet is not necessarily good for us
It turns out that diets low in fat leave us hungry, depressed, and prone to illness – as anyone who has dieted knows all too well. Over time, as we replaced animal fats with trans fats, sugars, and other refined carbohydrates, we didn’t lose weight – we gained it. We forgot that fat and protein were satisfying, while starches and sugar led to cravings and weight gain.

Fat is an important part of a healthy diet
Fat supports the essential building blocks for our body, our cells. Everything from our brain to our hormones, from our immune system to our bones, needs fat to function.

Why do we need fat to cook?
Since humans made their first fire, fat has been an important cooking ingredient. Cooking without fat is difficult. Fat stops food from sticking to the pan, and uniformly conducts heat to the food’s surface, helping it to brown evenly. Fat can be heated to temperatures high enough for browning to occur and, depending on the fat, it adds flavor. The external and internal fat in meat adds flavor and bastes the meat as it cooks, keeping it succulent. Fat is also a good carrier of flavors.

Why use animal fat?
We often use high temperatures when we cook. Animal fats, which are lower in polyunsaturated fatty acids, are the best fat to use in the kitchen. They are stable and, when heated, don’t easily turn rancid easily. Many aromas and flavors are only soluble in fat, so unless you use fat in your cooking, the flavors are not released.

Polyunsaturated fats are not better for us
All fats are not equal. Highly polyunsaturated fats are very unstable and oxidize easily, especially when heated, which makes them unsuitable for cooking. Oxidized fat makes us sick and damages our cells’ DNA. If these fats are hydrogenated to make them stable at higher temperatures, they are full of trans fats. In addition, polyunsaturated fats can suppress our immune system, and our increased consumption of them has adversely affected the balance of the essential fatty acids in our bodies.

All trans fats are not bad
All man-made trans fats are bad. These are created when liquid fat is made solid by hydrogenation. Our bodies cannot process these fats. However, there is a natural trans fat found in the fat and meat of ruminants called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). This fat is beneficial in protecting us against cancer, heart disease, and weight gain.

We do and don’t need more essential fats
Most of us are getting too much omega-6 fat because we consume large amounts polyunsaturated fats. Too much omega-6 restricts our intake of omega-3 and is linked to cancer, heart disease, liver damage, learning disorders, weight gain, and malfunction of the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. We all need more omega-3 in our diet and that omega-3 is found in butter and the fat from grass-fed animals.

Food author Jennifer McLagan contributed this page to WebExhibits. Her book, "Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes" is published by Ten Speed Press.