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Judith J. Wurtman, PhD Headshot

Pass the Chicken Fat! They Say It's Good for You...

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It turns out that eating butter, cream, egg yolks, fatty meats, and full fat cheese is no worse for our hearts than olive or canola oil, according to a recent study published by Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury and his colleagues in the Annals of Internal Medicine (1). Maybe Paula Deen was right all along: We should be eating fried butter, cream, and cheese-laden casseroles, as well as egg yolk and whipped cream-stuffed desserts. This article appears to vindicate Ms. Deen because now (finally) we have scientific evidence that such foods will not immediately send us to the emergency room with chest pain.

As someone with a several generation-deep history of heart disease, I think I will pass on the lard, butter, and whipped cream, though. Even though the statistics of the study seem to show otherwise, I don't want to be my own statistic in the cardiac intensive care unit. But most people aware of the study are tossing their tofu and running, not walking, to eat marbled steaks and buttery croissants. Indeed, one remarkable example of the current trend to embrace saturated fat comes from a recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine. A two-page spread prominently features an ingredient previously reviled for its artery-clogging (or so we thought) proclivity. The ingredient: chicken fat, or as it is known in certain circles, Schmaltz.

As someone whose grandmother taught her at an early age how to render chicken fat into a golden, chicken flavored spread for rye bread and potatoes, but who stopped eating it after a fair number of relatives died at an early age from heart attacks, I was astonished to see it making a comeback in, of all places, a magazine devoted to gourmet eating.

As a corollary to the safety of eating saturated fats, we are also told in this study that we must avoid starch since it, rather than lard and bacon, is contributing to heart disease, diabetes and other life shortening conditions. This poses a conundrum. Whereas it is possible to eat bacon with one's fingers or along with eggs (a good source of saturated fat), how does one eat butter, or cream cheese, or whipped cream, or indeed, chicken fat, without something starchy or bready underneath? Dr. Atkins had many recipes that eliminated all starch but for many, no starch grew tiresome. How many butter-coated strips of bacon can you eat without feeling a wee bit nauseous? Whipped cream might taste good by itself, but it certainly tastes better when incorporated into a chocolate mousse.

Carbohydrate-free foods have been developed but rarely are they eaten more than once. Of course one could follow the suggestions of Bon Appetit and add duck or chicken fat, or failing that, more butter or lard to slow cooked vegetables. It is curious however, that years ago, we were all told that the delicious but oh-so-unnutritious method of cooking greens for hours with salt pork should be stopped, immediately. We were all to steam our vegetables and not even allow a smidgen of butter to pass over them. But now? Pass the salt pork!

Sometimes it looks as we won't live long enough to know what we really should be eating or not. Or if "they" are wrong, maybe we won't live long at all. Moreover, what seems to be lost in the "I told you so," or "How can they say that?" responses to every new conclusion about our diet and our health is that:

1. Unless we eat foods with the nutrients our bodies demand, we certainly are not going to be healthy as we should be;
2. Moderation in all food consumption has never been challenged; and
3. Excessive calorie intake, regardless of its source, it going to make us fat.

To be sure, collard greens cooked in salt pork, or turnips cooked in schmaltz for the better part of an hour, may taste better (to some) than the same vegetables prepared without gobs of saturated fat and cooked quickly. But the nutrient poverty of such dishes after their vitamins have been cooked out of them should not be overlooked. Maybe they should be eaten with a vitamin pill chaser.

Eating moderate amounts of most foods (except those to which people are allergic) rarely causes any harm. But given the tendency of those in our country to do things in excess, how certain are we that giving a green light to eating butter and bacon will not result in the overconsumption of fatty foods? After all, none of the scientists in this study pointing out the non-relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease has suggested making these foods staples in the diet.

What about calories? Will they go away just because no one is talking about them these days? What happened to the concept that if we eat more calories than our bodies need, the excess, regardless of where they came from, will end up in our fat cells? It is prudent to consider that all fat, whether it comes from olives or a chicken, contains 9 calories per gram. Protein and carbohydrate contain 4 calories per gram. My grandmother expended more calories than I because she had no clothes dryer, no car, she lugged her groceries up many steps, chopped meat into hamburgers with a wooden bowl and chopping knife, rolled her dough for noodles with a heavy wooden rolling pin and beat rugs with a broom handle. I beat the keys of a computer.

So let's have a helping of common sense along with the pats of butter and dollops of whipped cream. It will go a longer way in keeping us healthy.

References:

1. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638
2. http://www.dining.ucla.edu/housing_site/dining/SNAC_pdf/CaloriesCount.pdf

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