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Lard to Believe

Can high-fat diets really promote healthy lives?

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Vegetables are delightful. But they're even better -- and much healthier -- if you smother them in lard.

So says Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation and keynote speaker at next week's conference "Farm to Table: Nourishing a Sustainable Pittsburgh." The day-long event will focus on integrating local, organically produced foods into a healthy diet -- where to buy that kind of food and why it's important to the local economy and environment, including our own internal ones.

As the presence of a speaker like Fallon suggests, there is considerable skepticism toward the industrial agriculture many of us take for granted -- and toward the science that undermines it.

There has been a "backlash" against food that's genetically modified and highly processed, says David Eson, Western Pennsylvania director of programs for Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and one of the conference's organizers. "We're realizing the food we're eating is making us sick," he says.

Thanks in part to recent food scares regarding peanut butter and fresh spinach, people are taking a heightened interest in the origins of their dinners, Eson says. As a result, they're shopping at places like Whole Foods and farmers' markets and devouring books like The Omnivore's Dilemma, the Michael Pollan work that traces the origins of four meals.

The conference comes after months of outreach by American HealthCare Group, Inc., a local health and wellness group, into schools and senior centers. It aims to show people how to include local, sustainably raised food in their diets -- from farmers' markets to local, grass-fed beef and pork suppliers.

Erin Hagan, another conference organizer and health-benefit services director for American HealthCare, says she hopes the conference can also demonstrate the financial benefits of shopping local. "Buying local keeps the money local and keeps the farmland farmland," she says. Without a solid customer base, small farming operations can hardly compete with huge corporate farming interests.

Like many "real food" advocates, Eson and Hagan bemoan a culture that would rather prescribe medication for health problems stemming from poor food choices. Historically, people didn't have Lipitor or doctors who prescribed "bland food" diets, Hagan says. If you want to stay healthy, she says, "Look to see what traditional medicine is saying."

That's also the message of keynote speaker and animal-fat fancier Fallon, though she reaches conclusions many would argue with.

Fallon adheres to the teachings of dentist Weston A. Price, whose studies on the teeth of indigenous peoples in the 1920s and 1930s indicated that our ancestors had a pretty good idea what to eat -- fad diets be damned. She advises people to eat what their ancestors ate based on where they lived -- those descended from coastal people, for instance, would do well to eat plenty of fish. And everyone, she claims, needs animal fats and plenty of them.

She's written two books on the subject: Eat Fat Lose Fat and Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats.

"We have just gotten everything backwards with this phony cholesterol theory," Fallon says in an interview. "We need the fats and organ meats of animals." Those fats, she says, are essential to brain function and the developing reproductive systems of young people. In order to have healthy babies, she says, men and women need to be eating liver, egg yolks, butter, seafood, cod liver oil and a quart of raw milk a day.

She calls the introduction of skim milk into public schools "genocide. This is creating infertility. I don't care who challenges me on this: The people who are responsible need to hear this." She says we have a fertility crisis in America, and that low-fat milk is to blame.

The Price Foundation's message, that high-fat foods like whole raw dairy milk and out-of-favor organ meats are nature's perfect foods, flies in the face of recent theories on healthy eating.

Leslie Bonci, director of sports medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, agrees with Fallon, up to a point. When we eat dietary cholesterol, she says, our bodies compensate by simply making less of it. And, she says, organ meats are generally safe and very low in fat and high in iron.

But the inclusion of raw milk gives her pause for a few reasons. "Is there something more nutritious about raw milk than what you get at a grocery store? No," Bonci says. She says there are no special benefits to it, and it may not be as safe: "When you have something that's not pasteurized, you run the risk of some food-safety issues."

Raw milk is also high in fat. "You're doing a full-fat milk," Bonci says. One of the things about dairy milk is that it contains the fatty acids that are more likely to clog the arteries than even some from red meat.

Fallon's argument that skim milk causes infertility doesn't quite hold water with Bonci, either. Diets extremely low in fat, she says, could potentially have reproductive consequences because testosterone production lowers. But most people eat more than enough fat to keep hormone production normal. "The other argument I would present is that there are a lot of vegans who conceive quite nicely."

Fallon calls the recent craze for low-fat, high-fiber eating "food Puritanism" that is supported by the vegetable-oil industry, which has powerful economic pull and "men in white coats" saying that plant-based fats are the only healthy ones to eat. In fact, she says, plant-based diets are dangerous -- without some animal fat, it's difficult to absorb all the nutrients in plants. Veganism, which she calls "extremely fashionable," is dangerous because it leads to nutrient deficiencies.

"Half my shopping cart is vegetables: They're such a wonderful medium for fats. I cook them in lard. I put cream on them. It's a lot healthier when you put fats on them. They taste better."

She says that vegans have been known to criticize her group's emphasis on animal foods, but without much force. "Very often, when they start talking to us, they stop being vegans."

A similar transformation occurred for Carrie Hahn, president of the local chapter of the Weston Price foundation. A former vegetarian, Hahn credits eating locally -- including local meat and dairy -- with freeing her and her husband from debilitating sinus allergies and keeping their young children healthy even when their classmates are sick.

The family doctor, she says, "rolls his eyes" at her and think she's "some kind of hippie food extremist." But, she says, "he's got to admit we're pretty healthy."

Their way of eating, she says, is "politically incorrect" because of its emphasis on fats. It's not always popular with her two children, either: They bemoan the practice of ingesting cod liver oil, which Hahn says is an important way to get vitamins into the diet. "Even though they hate it, they do know it's making a difference. We'll go out to dinner and they can't stand the food."

Farm To Table: Nourishing a Sustainable Pittsburgh. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., March 31. Bidwell Training Center, North Side. 412-563-8800.

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