Fat debate something to chew on

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “Southern Living: The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

There’s a lot of talk about fat lately.

Recent headlines tout research that concludes saturated fats (the kind in beef, butter, chocolate, cheese, pork, coconut oil and palm oil) may not be the artery clogging dietary demons we once thought. Southern cooks feel a bit vindicated.

“I’ve known that all along,” says chef Sean Brock, of Husk Restaurant with locations in Charleston and Nashville. He says, “People have been eating butter and lard for generations in the South and those folks lived to be a hundred.”

Ted Lee, co-author of “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen” says, “Isn’t that great news for those of us who ignored the news saturated fats were all bad to begin with?”

The study stimulating conversation, published in the March issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, is an analysis of previous research that looked at heart disease rates compared to intake of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. The authors conclude that evidence does not clearly support current dietary recommendations to eat more polyunsaturated fats and limit consumptions of saturated fats. There’s even a new book on the topic called, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” written Nina Teicholz.

“What we think is healthy keeps changing on us,” says Adrian E. Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” “I hope this helps rehabilitate the reputation of soul food. Finally these traditional foods can be considered healthy.”

It’s still not all-you-can-eat

But before you slather more butter on biscuits and add more bacon to a BLT consider this. It’s likely the study groups who consumed less saturated fat may have had higher rates of disease because of something else they were doing such as replacing high-fat pastries with low-fat baked goods, which are often higher in sugar.

Dr. Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health says, “However, if saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat or monounsaturated fat in the form of olive oil, nuts and probably other plant oils, we have much evidence that risk will be reduced.”

Eating a variety of fats is a healthy move. Even foods associated with saturated fats, such as beef and butter, contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the mix as well.

“I have always been a fan of fat. Don’t be afraid of it,” says chef Steven Satterfield of Miller-Union restaurant in Atlanta. “Lard, olive oil, salmon, eggs and avocado keep your hair shiny, are good for your brain and fill you up.”

Current dietary recommendations are OK with eating saturated fats as long as we limit to less than 10 percent of total fat intake. I’ll take mine as crumbled bacon on a salad, a bit of fat back in a big pot of greens and a thin smear of farm fresh butter on artisanal whole grain toast.