In the early nineteen-sixties, when cholesterol was declared an enemy of health, my parents quickly enlisted in the war on fat. Onion rolls slathered with butter, herring in thick cream sauce, brisket of beef with a side of stuffed derma, and other staples of our family cuisine disappeared from our table. Margarine dethroned butter, vinegar replaced cream sauce, poached fish substituted for brisket. I recall experiencing something like withdrawal, daydreaming about past feasts as my stomach grumbled. My father's blood-cholesterol level—not to mention that of his siblings and friends—became a regular topic of conversation at the dinner table. Yet, despite the restrictive diet, his number scarcely budged, and a few years later, in his mid-fifties, he had a heart attack and died.
The dangers of fat haunted me after his death. When, in my forties, my cholesterol level rose to 242—200 is considered the upper limit of what's healthy—I embarked on a regimen that restricted fatty foods (and also cut down on carbohydrates). Six months later, having shed ten pounds, I rechecked my level. It was unchanged; genes have a way of signalling their power. But as soon as my doctor put me on just a tiny dose of a statin medication my cholesterol plummeted more than eighty points.