Like most in my generation, I grew up in a fat-phobic household. We used margarine, not butter, and I remember my parents and even my grandparents goading me to cut every last shred of fat from pieces of meat they served me. Sometimes I’d sneak a bite anyway – it tasted so good! – but most of the time, like a good little boy who didn’t know any better, I did as I was told. Funny how we change as we get older.
I can’t come up with a precise date for when I started to look at my family’s fat-phobia with that first hint of skepticism. Perhaps it was when I entered college and learned how important a role the availability of animal fat played in our human lineage’s development of larger brains. Perhaps it was while chatting with a biochemistry instructor who was just infatuated with the metabolism of fatty acids in the human body. Perhaps it was just that lingering curiosity about why something that tasted so good, something that was so satiating, could be so bad for me. At any rate, perhaps 15 years back I started looking into the phenomenon of fat-phobia, and even back then my findings were downright fascinating.
While it wasn’t the first book I read on fat, Mary Enig’s Know Your Fats has become my reference book of choice on the topic. Originally published in 2000 the book explored the incredibly important role that fats play in human health, both over an individual’s life as well as across generations. Know Your Fats is not a book of narrative, not a book filled with storytelling like those written by the likes of Michael Pollan or other notables in the emerging local food movement. It’s a dense, to-the-point, these-are-the-facts sort of reference book, the kind you read once to learn the book’s layout, then return to as needed to refresh your memory on specific topics. It’s a book that’s held a space on my personal bookshelf for years, although I’ll admit I’m on my third copy as I’ve twice made the mistake of lending it out to folks who found excuses not to return it.
The copies I’ve had over the years have proved their worth many times over, and do so even more frequently now that I’m offering more talks on ancestral health. I frequently turn to my current copy for pre-talk refreshers, and particularly find myself referring to chapter 4, which offers an in-depth look at the many sources of fat in our modern food supply and explains clearly the differences between so called ‘vegetable’ oils pressed from seeds like corn, soya and rape and more natural sources of animal fat. Admittedly the book’s age is starting to show, as a wealth of research has been done since Know Your Fats went to press over a decade ago, and some of that research fills important gaps or paves new ground such as studies researching advanced lipoxidation end products, but despite the book’s age it still holds its own.
While Mary Enig’s Know Your Fats is deserving of a review solely on its own merit, this review happens to be particularly timely. After a long, distinguished professional career and over a decade serving on the board of directors of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Mary Enig passed away earlier this September at the ripe age of 83. I never had a chance to meet her in person, but regardless she’s someone I’d come to deeply respect not only for her scientific acumen but also for her willingness to speak truth to power against those who continue to push fat phobia down people’s throats. In addition to Know Your Fats, Enig co-wrote Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook based loosely on the dietary ideals of dentist Weston A. Price, and the more recent book Eat Fat, Lose Fat, with Weston A. Price Foundation President Sally Fallon. Mary Enig’s passing will be grieved by many, even as her decades of thorough research are celebrated.