Cultures around the world are in love with fat. It is ubiquitous in gourmet food, comfort food and desserts. It has been an important part of the human diet on an evolutionary time scale.
It is also the major battlegrounds in a war between low-carb, high-fat advocates who favor a diet heavy in animal products and health oriented vegans who favor the elimination or minimization of even plant based fats like oil and avocado. The former may be right about fat, but wrong about animal products, while the latter is right about animal products, but wrong about fat.
There is a legitimate public health role of veganism, but many miss the larger psychic role that fat plays for human beings. First, permit a digression for the purposes of analogy.
New Atheism and the Baby in the Bathwater
When New Atheism was all the rage in the 2000s and I was a moody black-clad teenager, some atheists and religious people alike fretted about what the loss of religion would do to community, connection and rituals. To frame religion as a malaptive mind virus, as Richard Dawkins has, is to miss part of the story. Religion binds people together, produces joy, allows them to be in touch with the sacred, and serves as a repository of wisdom and poetry. I gave short shrift to this idea at the time, but these things have value.
When I was a teenager, I was swept up in my identity as an atheist. Sam Harris was writing scathing books like “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” and Michel Houellebecq’s novels fell right in line with my teenage embrace of cynical atheism.
Fast forward to the next decade and Harris runs a meditation app (which I use) and Hoellebecq spends more time criticizing the emptiness of western materialism then religion. The protagonist in Submission (2015) is longing for the Catholic convictions of his 19th century idol, the writer J.K. Huysmans.
Satanism is a quasi-religious alternative to atheism has grown enormously. Contrary to the popular perception that they engage in literal devil worship and animal sacrifice, this is simply about secular church and an outlet for philosophy. LaVeyan satanism is a vehicle for Ayn Randian objectivism, while The Satanic Temple is more generally liberal, egalitarian and anti-authoritarian. While I’m not a card carrying member of any satanic organization, I support the sentiment because society needs something like religion to provide meaning, identity and connection.
The point is that destruction is easier than creation. We ignore the good parts of what we destroy at our peril. In destruction, we must embrace creation.
Veganism represents a destruction of worldwide food culture. And fat is something like the spirituality and community that some atheists find themselves looking for.
Think about how many beloved foods share the commonality of high fat percentage.
Revered by gourmands:
Filet mignon (75%), sushi/sashimi (13-61%), Jamon Iberico (54%), caviar (58%), foie gras (86%), and practically all of French food.
For the common man:
McDonald’s Cheeseburger (39%), Ballpark Frank’s Hot dogs (78%), KFC fried chicken wing (58%), bacon (76%) Wiener Schnitzel (44%), salmon (48%), french toast with butter (47%) and scrambled eggs (69%).
Haagen Daaz Ice cream (53%), creme brulee (62% calories from fat), donuts (45% calories from fat), canolli (40%), churro (53%), gulab jamon (45%) and cheese cake (56%).
What do vegans have to compete? Gourmands may enjoy truffles (55% of calories from fat). Avocado toast and mock meats? Coconut based desserts? Vegans hardly go hungry, but much of our food culture has to be invented. Jains and Seventh Day Adventists may have a rich vegan food culture for all I know, but it hasn’t caught on. (Incidentally this is why I support The Good Food Institute which promotes the development of plant based foods)
It’s true that the popularity of the vegan diet has exploded in the past decade, but so has a constellation of meat-heavy diets with escalating levels of extremity (Atkins/low-carb, paleo, keto and carnivore).
All of this points in one direction.
The Spiritual Power of Fat
In a New York Times article with the above title, Alexandra Kleeman explained her impulse to make butter while in lockdown due to Covid-19.
Fat’s symbolic value is immediately legible: humans have always depended on it as a high-yield source of calories, a way to keep food fresh and edible, a tool for preservation and self-preservation. Its flavor is psychologically synonymous with nourishment, satisfaction and security, a shortcut to the sensation of cornucopic plenty. Fat is spiritual, practical and emotional: a comfort food in the truest sense. So is it any surprise that when survival became a theme of daily life, I immediately thought of making cultured butter?
There are many practical reasons for this. Fat has nine calories for every gram, as opposed to four for one gram of carbohydrate or protein. Fatty foods tended to store better throughout history. Meat and fish can be smoked, cured or pickled. In hard times, body fat insulates the body from cold and allows for survival during famine.
Readers of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009) may recall his grandmother, a holocaust survivor with a harrowing story of starvation, vagrancy and travail. She survived that horror, but her attitude towards food is reflective of that hardship.
She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which are not animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies, and sodas. No foods are bad for you. Fats are healthy—all fats, always, in any quantity. Sugars are very healthy. The fatter a child is, the healthier it is—especially if it’s a boy. Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11:00, 12:30 and 3:00. You are always starving.
Older generations, particularly ones that have been through hardship are in touch with a truth deeply rooted in human psychology. Fat is a survival mechanism. The realities of famine and the difficulty of getting food are hard wired into all of us.
Of course, many of us know the harms of this attitude in modern society. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are bigger problems than freezing or starving to death.
The answer is not that we should return to some paleolithic diet because our ancestors were so healthy and natural. But we must recognize that our modern predicament is new; the emotional connection to fatty foods is old—even evolutionary.
Although plant-based fats are different from animal-based ones, my hunch is that the former scratches the same itch as the latter. Plant based fats, whether we get them from oils and mock meats or from natural sources (coconut, avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, chocolate, etc) should potentially be embraced or at least generally not avoided. And since plant based fats are generally considered much healthier, this strengthens my thesis that plant-based fats are vital for all people. Fatty foods tend to be simply better at fostering comfort, satiety, convenience and enjoyment and for sensible reasons.