Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #242: God Favors Animal Fat

About one-third through The Big Fat Surprise, possibly the best book yet on nutrition and healthy eating for the whole human race, I came across a reference I had never seen before. Nina Teicholz, the author, describes herself as a tireless researcher with a nine-year obsession reading thousands of scientific papers, etc. She does not explain, however, how she came upon this citation from the Old Testament, Genesis, Chapter 4, Verses 1-5 (New International Version):

[1] “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’ [2] Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. [3] In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. [4] But Abel brought fat portions from some of the first born of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering. [5] but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast.”

Well, we all know what happened next: Cain killed Abel. How prophetic! Cain, who favored “the fruits of the soil,” killed his brother who favored animal fat. And this in spite of the fact that God favored animal fat. When I read this passage from her copy of the NIV Study Bible to my wife, she said it sounded “paraphrased.” So, I went back to the pile of reference books next to my right shoulder as I read The Big Fat Surprise and found “The Revised Standard Version” of The Holy Bible. Verse 4 there reads thus: “And Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offerings.” When I read this to my wife, she had to agree it was essentially the same message: God favored animal fat.

But just to be sure, I searched online for the old King James Version of the Bible (the one I grew up with). Verses 4-5 read as follows: “[4] And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: [5] But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.” So, the Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew language version of the Torah), Septuagint, Vulgate, Syriac, and even the Masoretic Text all have the same ancient message: God looks upon fat, animal fat in particular, with special favor.

When my wife was satisfied that Nina Teicholz had accurately cited the passage from Genesis in The Big Fat Surprise, she got the message and then contributed the New Testament’s Parable of the Prodigal Son (NIV Luke 15: 11-31). For those unfamiliar with it, when the “lost” son, who had squandered his inheritance (while his father still lived), and returns home to humbly ask for his father’s forgiveness, the father instead celebrates the return of his “lost” son, with these words: [23] “Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate…” (emphasis added). Jesus also looked with favor on fat.

Could it be that animal fat has always been the preferred source of nutrients for optimal human health? That we evolved to select the “fat portions” of our “fattened” domesticated animals to eat first? We know, for example, that tribal peoples all over the world, who were neither Judeo nor Christian, also preferred the fat and viscera rather than the muscle meat. Teicholz writes (pg. 17) “…the Inuit were careful to save fatty meat and organs for human consumption while giving leaner meat to the dogs. In this way, humans ate as other large, meat-eating mammals do. Lions and tigers, for instance, first ravage the blood, hearts, kidneys, livers, and brains of the animals they kill, often leaving the muscle meat for vultures.”

Conversely, “(m)eat consumed without fat was commonly understood to lead to weakness. The Inuit avoided eating too much rabbit, because…these animals are too lean.” Vilhjallmur Stefansson, the Harvard-trained anthropologist, learned this during the year he spent living with the Inuit in the arctic.  He ate the same meat (marine and terrestrial) and fat, including organ meat, as the Inuit. And when he returned home and was ridiculed for reporting his observations, he submitted to a year-long experiment eating just “the Eskimo diet.” And “during the ensuing year,” Teicholz wrote, “Stefansson fell ill only once – when experimenters encouraged him to eat only lean meat without the fat.” “Diarrhea and a feeling of general baffling discomfort,” Stefansson said, “were quickly cured by a meal of fat sirloin steaks and brains fried in bacon fat.”

But lions and tigers and even “Eskimos” are not part of our experience. We (most of my readers) are products of what has come to be called Western Civilization. And we have become victims of our own prodigal past. We have abandoned our traditional ways of eating and have been led astray by “Cain” and a diet of processed vegetable oils and “mostly plants.”  

By some accounts, you can’t get much earlier in the history of the human race than Adam and Eve, who begat Cain and Abel. And, “(i)n the beginning” God looked with favor on Abel and on animal fat. So why did we go wrong?

Is The Big Fat Surprise on your reading list?


  1. Dan, I bought and read Nina's book. However the animals and fat we eat nowadays have been altered. Even eggs. Can't get a natural egg to save my life and I can't afford to buy a farm where I can raise my own. I've done the all meat/egg diet and I've never felt better. But everyone continues to push those fruits and veggies. What can you do?

    1. It's a great book, isn't it? She makes the case so well, and it's such a good read. Everyone should read it!

      We are so lucky to have an egg producer (who also raises beef and pork) at our farmers' market who raises her hens the way that Joel Salatin does at Polyface Farm. She rotates them from pasture to pasture (with a hen house on wheels) a few weeks after the livestock, so the hens get a good balanced diet of natural foods. They are, after all, omnivores, like us.

      Unfortunately, I am not so lucky with meat. My wife insists on buying it herself and she goes to Sam's Club and Walmart. I buy the fish, though, and I always buy 'wild' caught. I just wish she would let me cook it more often.

      I dont expect that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines (not due out for more than a year from now) will be any better than the last ones. In fact, I think they will be worse. Alice Lichtenstein is in charge of the main sub-committees on food and nutrition and she is going to advocate lowering the saturated fat in the diet even lower (to 5% to 6% of total calories). It couldn't get much worse than that. All we can hope for is that the Dietary Guidelines become irrelevant as they continue to get farther and farther out-of-touch with the best science, as evidenced by the most recent RCTs.