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Fat Fiction documentary: a review and a few thoughts

I watched the “Fat Fiction” documentary with great interest. In the end, I was far from disappointed for having done so: informative, well researched, well informed and at times dissonant in connection to what many of us believe to be “normal” when it comes to breakfast, lunch or dinner.

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In the way I understand it, the gist of Fat Fiction comes down to “if you think that there’s health and well-being in a ‘food pyramid’ diet based principally on carbohydrates and low-fat foods…. think again, because here’s ample evidence for the opposite”.

Many eye-opening books and critiques have been written regarding the political and economical agenda behind the “food-pyramid” guidelines. Denise Minger’s “Death by Food Pyramid” is one of them. Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” is another. The reading list is long but you can find a few suggestions here.

All in all, investigative journalists and thinkers do present ample evidence of what a low-fat and high-carbohydrate (metabolizing into sugar) diet can do: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure etc. Reacting to this picture, Fat Fiction suggests real life examples as to how – in the documentary’s opinion – a diet based on fat and animal protein (the Ketogenic or “Keto” diet) can reverse the effects and illness caused by a low-fat, high-carb diet.

I will not argue in favour or against the documentary’s claims because my subject here is neither the food pyramid, nor the vilification or commendation of dietary fat.

My subject here is Fat Fiction’s sense of “moderation”, or rather: the lack of it.

Throughout Fat Fiction I couldn’t help but witness a metaphoric pendulum swinging from one extreme (American food-pyramid diet, low fat) to the other extreme (Ketogenic diet, full fat).

The argument, my argument, is that neither of the two (food pyramid, Keto) takes into account the middle dietary ground many people in the World, and North America, live by.

Ask any Italian about pasta. He or she will not reject pasta as a food choice but he or she will indeed reject eating pasta… in excess.

Our bodies need fat and there’s no other way of looking at it. (Personally I never subscribed to the “low-fat” message; the few times I tried “low-fat” foods left me always hungry and always eating – much to the delight of the processed food industry, no doubt.) However, dietary fat, particularly animal fat, can and will become questionable when consumed… in excess.

Eating meat is no different; most ancient cultures include a little meat in their diets. E.g. red meat is often present in East Asian plates of food; but just one American or Canadian restaurant-size beef portion is probably enough to feed an Asian family of four.

We now know that excessive consumption of meat brings on gout and other unpleasant diseases, not to mention the depletion of resources excessive production of meat is all about: each kg or 2 lbs of beef brought to the market takes 15,416 litres of water to produce – not to mention that the three largest North American meat producers (Cargill, Tyson and JBS) emitted in 2016 more green-house gases than… France. (The Guardian even suggests that if all Americans exchanged beef for beans, their country would be close to meeting the greenhouse gas goals agreed by Barack Obama.)

Other cultures incorporate complex Lent and fasting rules in their understanding of how to go about life. E.g. the Greek Orthodox (religious) dietary code prescribes going vegan in regular intervals spread among +14 weeks out of 52 weeks of any given year. For the remaining 38 weeks of the year, consumption of red meat is restricted to once a week, or 38 times a year – and the same goes for white meat and fish. This means that the people following the Greek Orthodox lent/fast rules do make a point in purging and regenerating “intestinal flora” and alternating animal-based and plant-based proteins in regular intervals, year-in and year-out. When did all this start? We don’t really know but we can safely assume “centuries” before the ideas of “intestinal flora” or “protein” were even conceived.

If we think about it, it all starts and ends at your, my, our plate; and ends in how much of what to put in it, when, how often and for how long. Our answers to these questions dictate the amount of resources required to produce food and also our quality of life by eating it.

So, on one hand, my choice as to what to put in my plate is totally connected to natural resources. E.g. the amount of water required to produce one pound (1/2 Kg) of beef is 7,708 litres of water; that of a pound of lentils is 2,816 litres of water, a pound of tofu (talking about protein) costs 1,208 litres of water or 1/7th of the water-cost of a pound of beef; that of potatoes comes down to a mere 136 litres of water per pound of produce and eggplants cost 172 litres of water per pound of produce. (When was the last time you cooked an eggplant stew, by the way? Here’s a recipe; and here’s another. Searching for “eggplant” in this blog will give you more. 🙂

On the other hand, there’s the size of my stomach and the welfare of my body. How much can I eat, really? Well, a lot, apparently. That’s the kind of thing that “investors”, “markets” and certain ad-based media thrive on.

Sometimes I dare amuse myself with the thought that if it was left entirely to “the market” they would probably very much like to force-feed us with copyrighted edibles (that is: GMO foods) on a 24/7 basis because the ever expanding size of our stomachs fosters “economic growth” and the kind of spreadsheet “investors” really like to talk about when they are very busy not eating the kind of food they are selling.

Jokes aside, though, I wonder:

Can I really afford the luxury of shunning good, decent, proven foods? Does choosing meat and rejecting pasta, or choosing lentils and rejecting cheese sound reasonable?

After all, sheep, goats and cows do exist, and for as long as they exist they produce milk on a daily basis and that milk is turned into butter, cheese, yogourt and other dairy products people have been eating for millennia – alongside with lentils, potatoes and other humble crops demanding less environmental cost to grow. So, honestly, I can’t in good conscience imbibe the luxury of rejecting one kind of food and favour another by committing myself to oh-so-popular or modern dietary extremities.

I am for ever grateful for the (real, un-copyrighted) food that lands on my table and I dare not reject some of it because it is – at times – “popular” to do so.

After all, dietary fat was popular until it wasn’t. Dietary low-fat is popular until it won’t be. Eggs were unpopular for decades now – until they weren’t. (Is there an end to this nonsense, by the way?)

Summing it up, I see a lot of human, social and eco-nomic benefit and sense in the ways certain old cultures went about food and well being. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, all in moderation and nothing in excess – there’s some traditional wisdom here that we, the modern, ought to humbly re-explore, I think.

Be well,

Chris

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