I have a simmering obsession with word origins. I also write about fat a lot, so it would be rude of me not to look into the word and where it came from. After that, we’ll look into its rise and fall in popularity.
Fat: Word Origin and Use
In Old English fætt meant “fat, fatted, plump, obese,” and this word was originally a contracted past participle of fættian, which meant “to cram, or to stuff.”
The term fat part of anything, was used in the figurative sense as describing the best or most rewarding part of anything from 1560s.
The expression the fat is in the fire originally meant that whatever your plan was has failed (1560s), due to the way that when the fat dripped into the fire it would splutter and cause havoc.
Slang took the word fat to meaning “attractive, up to date”—such as in phat—but this didn’t start until the early 1950s.
The term fat cat as you might call your boss to refer to a privileged and rich person began circulation in 1928 after Frank Kent used it in his article “Fat Cats and Free Rides.”
The term fat chance really means “no chance at all” and is recorded as early as 1905.
If a person is fat-witted he is stupid. The term is from 1590s, and is found in Shakesphere’s Henry IV to describe Falstaff, however in some standard editions this is changed to “thick-witted.” I guess that is more politically correct these days?
In the 16th century the fat meant the richest, choicest part of something. William Lambarde, in A perambulation of Kent; conteining the description, hystorie, and customes of that shyre, 1576 wrote:
” This Realme… wanted neither the favour of the Sunne, nor the fat of the Soile.”
By that standard, to live off the fat of the land would mean to live very well indeed. The first documented use of this term is in the Bible, Genesis 45:17-18 (King James Version), 1611:
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Say unto thy brethren, This do ye: lade your beasts, and go, get you unto the land of Canaan;
And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land.
Admittedly, I was first made aware of the term fat of the land by the Prodigy album (yar, the one with Smack My Bitch Up and Firestarter).
Anyway, English electronic dance music aside, it looks like fat was considered a good thing not so long ago; it’s not anymore. Or is it?
The Defamation of Fat
Poor fat. How did it go from being considered the best part of anything, to something to be avoided. Low-fat remains to be one of the most coveted labels in food marketing (it’s authority is now being strongly challenged by the new kid on the block: gluten-free).
In the 1960’s, the Seven Countries Study conducted by Ansel Keys was published. Keys claimed to find that fat was responsible for heart disease. Everybody loves a bandwagon to jump on—especially when it comes to diet and eating—so we peeps went with that.
Stunning really, that the world was so very fast to jump into the low-fat high-carb sink hole. I guess that people were seeing the incidence of heart disease increase, and they were scared about that, so being told that they could avoid cardiac arrest by doing this one thing was a bit of a relief. Plus, it meant that the whole “do more exercise” theory might not apply. Seemed like a win-win to some: eat less fat, don’t worry about the exercise part, and avoid heart disease. Simple.
Sometimes it’s easier to avoid a type of food completely than it is to eat it in moderation—food is a bit like reality TV in that sense. So for a lot of people, being told “don’t eat this thing because it is bad for you,” is more manageable than, “eat this thing in moderation. “
I am not a Kardashians fan, but the producers of that show have got it down. It is almost impossible to start watching that drivel and not get sucked into the ridiculousness of who is doing what to whom. Foods can be a bit like that, and when people are unable to moderate their consumption, they often find abstinence easier.
Governments and health officials began to make low fat recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, after all, it made sense that fat was to blame for fat. I know I believed that for a very long time.
It is only in the last few years that science has recognized that the Seven Countries Study was fundamentally flawed. Due to the recommendations that Keys made in his study, in the last 30 years Americans have lowered their fat consumption by 10 percent. Conversely though, obesity has doubled!
The emerging opinion is that we were utterly wrong when we labelled fat the bad guy.
Nutritional Studies Showing Low-fat is Bad News
In 2010, a meta- analysis of 21 studies and 350,000 subjects concluded that saturated fat is not to blame for the risk of coronary heart disease. The study was led by a Dr. Krauss, who has been looking into the potential damage of a high carbohydrate diet for some time now. There are of course limitations to this study, and it is important to consider those.
Dr Krauss was later surprised in one of his more recent studies to find that in some cases, saturated fat does increase LDL cholesterol. One can only conclude that nutrition is complicated, and that all people have bodies that are individual in their reactions to food and nutrients. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to food.
Meanwhile some of us have noticed that the low-fat diet yields a higher rate of binge eating and other not so desirable effects. You might have experienced this yourself on some level—those days when you eat salad all day, then in the evening binge on a tub of ice cream or eat a family-sized pizza on your own. Generally, I find that when I restrict fat too much, my body overrides me and I scoff as a result.
It seems that without fat my body fails to feel satisfied and continues to search for food and this results in me raiding the fridge like a rabid dog at midnight.
Different Types of Fat
Are not all bad!
Research in the last couple of years has suggested that saturated fat is in fact good for the body as it positively affects free testosterone levels, strengthens the immune system and the health of the plasma membrane in ones cells. This is not to say that a diet high in saturated fat is the way forward, but rather that a balanced diet (No God no, anything but that!) with a small amount of good quality saturated fat will benefit ones system overall.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are labelled “good fats” because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation and stabilize heart rhythms. Harvard School of Public Health has recognised that cutting back on saturated fats is of little benefit unless one increases one’s intake of unsaturated fats. The problem is that when people were advised to cut saturated fat, they substituted in carbohydrates and sugars rather than healthy fats. We’ve come full circle back to a balanced diet again.
Trans fats such as margarine have achieved the remarkable in that all areas of research agree that trans fatty acids do a body no good. Partially hydrogenated oils used in frying foods, baked goods and processed snack foods show negative health effects across the board. At least there is something that we all agree on.
In fact, the FDA is considering banning trans fats. Policies to get rid of trans fats in South Korea, Denmark, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and the United States have proved effective over the past two decades, according to the World Health Organization. WHO has called for eliminating trans fat from the global food supply.
Fat and Your Body
Although the different types of fat have a varied—and slightly confusing—affects on your health, the basic message is simple: Your body needs fat.
That is not to say that one cannot eat too much fat. Of course you can: You can over-eat anything! Even fruit when eaten in too high a quantity is not good for you (See the cleanse series).
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Fat delivers nutrients, and very importantly fat soluble vitamins so one should look to eat fats that are high in these. I think that we are getting the message that replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates will not protect against heart disease. But that is not to say that carbohydrates—when eaten in moderation—are not good: they are!
Carbohydrates have been shown to boost serotonin levels, elevate positive moods and have a beneficial impact on heart health when eaten as part of a balanced diet (there I go, harping on about that again) of course.
The best part about writing ones my own blog, is that this is all about my opinion. I’m interested to hear yours all the same through. What do you think about low-fat? Do you think you eat enough fat? What does a balanced diet mean for your body? Let me know in the comments.
For more fat and nutrition related musings (with the odd post about chickens) hit the follow button at the bottom of your screen!
Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010 Mar; 91(3):535-46.⤴
Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. Hoenselaar, R. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, High School of Arnhem and Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Nutrition. 2012 Feb;28(2):118-23.⤴