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Got Grease?

For Wall Street weasels, a low-fat diet has been the hair shirt under the fur coat--the daily deprivation that offsets the endless greed

August 11, 2002|BARBARA EHRENREICH | Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."

KEY WEST, Fla. — It's not only the stock market that has the upper classes biting their fingernails. In the last several weeks, the low-fat, high-carb way of life that was central to the self-esteem of the affluent has been all but discredited. If avarice was the principal vice of the bourgeoisie, a commitment to low fat was its counterbalancing virtue. You can bet, for example, that those CEOs who cooked the books and ransacked their companies' assets did not start the day with two eggs over easy, a rasher of bacon and a side of hash browns. No, unbuttered low-fat muffins and delicate slices of melon fueled the crimes of Wall Street: Grease was for proles.

But that dogma is now in doubt. A growing number of nutritionists--and the media, led by a July 7 New York Times magazine story--now question whether the low-fat approach will really make you slim and resistant to heart disease. In fact, the American epidemic of obesity coincides precisely with the arrival of the anti-fat campaign in the 1980s, accompanied by a cornucopia of low-fat cookies, cakes, potato chips and frozen pot roast dinners. Millions of Americans began to pig out on "guilt-free" feasts of ungarnished carbs--with perverse and often debilitating results, especially among those unable to afford health club memberships and long hours on the elliptical trainer.

I have confirmed these findings with my own scientific study, which draws on a sample of exactly two: Jane Brody, the New York Times health columnist and tireless opponent of all foodstuffs other than veggies and starch, and me. It was Brody, more than anyone, who promoted the low-fat way of life to the masses, from the '80s on, with headlines like "Our Excessive Protein Intake Can Hurt Liver, Kidneys, Bone," "Fill Up on Bread to Lose Weight" and "Chemicals in Food Less Harmful Than Fat."

As she revealed in a 1999 column, Brody was herself raised on a high-carb, low-fat diet of "shredded wheat, oatmeal, challah, Jewish rye and bagels," the last, presumably, unblemished by the customary "shmear" of cream cheese. I, meanwhile, was raised on a diet that might strain even an Inuit's gall bladder. We ate eggs every morning, meat for lunch and meat again for dinner, invariably accompanied by gravy or at least pan drippings. We buttered everything from broccoli to brownies and would have buttered butter itself if it were not for the problems of traction presented by the butter-butter interface.

And how did Brody and I exit from our dietarily opposite childhoods? She, by her own admission, was a veritable butterball by her mid-20s--a size 14 at just under 5 feet tall. I, at 5 feet 7, weighed in at a gaunt and geeky 110 pounds.

Fast-forwarding to the present: We assume Brody is now admirably trim, if only because of her exercise regimen, since otherwise she wouldn't have dared to promote the low-fat dogma in person. For my part, I no longer butter my brownies, perhaps in part because of Brody's tireless preaching. But the amount of fat she recommends for an entire day--one tablespoon--wouldn't dress a small salad for me or lubricate a single Triscuit. I still regard bread as a vehicle for butter and chicken as an excuse for gravy or, when served cold, mayonnaise. The result? I'm a size 6 and have a cholesterol level that an envious doctor once denounced as "too low." Case closed.

But if that doesn't convince you, Dr. Barry Sears, inventor of "The Zone" high protein diet, has been arguing for years that there's a solid medical explanation for why the low-fat, high-carb approach is actually fattening. A meal of carbs--especially those derived from sugar and refined flour--is followed by a surge of blood sugar, then, as insulin is released in response, a sudden collapse, leaving you often lightheaded, cranky, headachy and certainly hungrier than before you ate. Fats and protein can make you fat too, of course, if ingested in sufficient quantity, but at least they fulfill the conventional role of anything designated as a foodstuff, which is to say that they leave you feeling like you've actually eaten something.

As long as people want to lose weight, we'll probably have dueling diet doctors. But now that it's apparent that the prevailing low-fat wisdom may be bunk, why would anyone opt for Jane Brody over Barry Sears?

Perhaps because facts don't matter when a dogma so flattering to the affluent is at stake. In the last couple of decades, the low-fat way of life has become an important indicator of social rank, along with whole-grain--as opposed to white--bread and natural fibers versus polyester. If you doubt this, consider the multiple meanings of "grease," as in "greaser" and "greasy spoon." Among the nutritionally "correct" upper-middle-class people of my acquaintance, a dinner of French bread and pasta has long been considered a suitable offering for guests--followed by a plate of bone-dry biscotti. And don't bother asking for the butter.

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