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How Eating Steak, Cake and Butter Can Make You Live Longer

For more than three decades, we've been told that fatty foods are deadly. But new research suggests that fat can be good for you.

Jenny Matthau stands in front of hundreds of students at the Natural Gourmet School and speaks heresy. The New York City culinary program specializes in "health-supportive, whole-foods cuisine" with a "plant-based curriculum." Beef and pork aren’t on the syllabus, to say nothing of veal -- and the school’s alumni run kitchens at health spas and work in restaurants with names like Organic Planet. So when Matthau, who’s president of the school and teaches the core nutrition class, delivers her lecture in praise of fat, students are often surprised.

"A lot of students expect to hear just what the government is saying: You have your good fats and your bad fats, and you should try to eat a very low-fat diet," Matthau says. "And we don’t agree."

Instead, Matthau’s lecture includes a long section on why we need fats of all kinds in our diets, much more than we’ve been led to believe. She points out societies like the Maasai, a Kenyan tribe that counts meat, blood and whole milk among its dietary staples, yet has low rates of heart disease and obesity. She praises fat’s capacity to add flavor to a dish and make people feel full. "Fat makes things taste great, period," Matthau says. "I’m a big fan." Even so, sometimes it feels like a losing battle. "Students still want alternatives to butter."

For more than three decades, we’ve been told that fatty foods are deadly, to blame for a full menu of health hazards, from heart disease to obesity to cancer. Regularly described as the nutritional equivalent of cigarettes, fat has been the target of public-service campaigns and municipal bans aimed at keeping us slender and healthy. But a growing body of international research suggests our obsessive fear of fat may be misplaced. A high-fat diet won’t necessarily make us sick or fat; a low-fat diet may not make us healthy or slim.

Even the American Heart Association (AHA), a leader in the campaign against dietary fat, recently revised its nutritional guidelines, increasing the daily recommendations for fat. "The science just wasn’t there," acknowledges Robert Eckel, president of the AHA and a professor of endocrinology, metabolism and diabetes at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

Not only that, but our myopic aversion to fat may be doing more damage than an order of steak frites ever could. In our effort to avoid the demon lipids at all costs, we’re forever tinkering with our diets -- substituting Snackwells for Oreos, dry toast and a glass of orange juice for a plate of bacon and eggs -- in hopes it will keep us skinny almost effortlessly. But these dietary contortions often have unintended consequences. They inspire us to eat more food, for starters. And the food we eat more of? It contains more chemicals, starches and sugar. These ingredients "are more harmful than the much-feared animal fats," says Irina Baumbach, secretary of the Association for Nutritional Medicine and Dietetics in Aachen, Germany

It’s a shame, really. Because as it happens, experts now recognize fat can be good for you. Aside from the beneficial effects some fats can have on cholesterol -- unsaturated fats, like olive oil, tend to raise levels of good cholesterol and lower levels of the bad stuff -- fats help deliver vitamins, build cells and regulate hormones. Unsaturated fat also has antioxidant properties, which may help fight cancer; so does meat from grass-fed animals. The oft-repeated hypothesis that links a high-fat diet to breast cancer has never been proved. And when it comes to appetite, hunger and obesity, fats -- along with protein, green vegetables and whole grains -- take more time to digest, making people feel full longer.