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Is Butter Healthy? The Final Answer

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There was a time not that long ago when butter was bad for you. But now, people are slathering the "health food" on their sprouted-grain toast and dropping slabs of it into their coffee. (Yep, some say butter isn't actually that bad for you.) Why? "It all comes down to scientific opinion on saturated fat," says St. Louis-based registered dietitian Alex Caspero. And the thing is, much of what we thought we knew about saturated fat is wrong.

Fat makes you fat—it was an easy assumption to make, and one that many researchers and nutritionists firmly believed for decades. They also believed that fat, or, more precisely, saturated fat (which butter has a lot of), increased the risk of heart disease. It was an opinion that stemmed from the Framingham Heart Study, which started in 1948. This study maligned fat, but many experts are now saying the study was flawed. Another major controlled clinical trial that defamed saturated fat, the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (which ran from 1968 to 1973) was also recently called out in the BMJ as flawed.

A 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine meta-analysis of more than half a million people found no link between increased saturated fat consumption and heart disease. And when scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health combed through previous studies detailing the dietary approaches and weight-loss outcomes of more than 68,000 people, they found that higher-fat diets were actually better than lower-fat approaches at helping people lose weight and keep it off. (This translates to LCHF diets like the Atkins diet, which has been hailed as a way to lose weight and rethink the low-fat trends of the past.)

However, new findings are showing that the original studies knocking saturated fat might not just have been flawed, they may have been purposefully flawed. Newly discovered documents, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, show that the sugar industry actually paid scientists in the 1960s to blame saturated fat as a cause of heart disease. As intended, everyone believed the "saturated fat is bad" hype, and the low-fat craze took off. The sugar biz has a stake in that game because low-fat foods are often laced with added sugars to boost the flavor that's lacking without the fat.

The health ramifications weren't good. "When the message on saturated fats came out, we replaced saturated fats with refined carbs," says Caspero. "That may have been more harmful when it comes to heart disease risk." And it has certainly been bad for Americans' waistlines. According to a report from Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the percentage of U.S. adults who have a BMI of 40 or higher (classifying them as "extremely obese") has soared in the past 30 years, covering nearly 8 percent of the population.

Plus, when it came to replacing butter, ridiculously processed margarine is no better. Among its many man-made ingredients is partially hydrogenated oil, which the Food and Drug Administration recommends consumers limit as much as possible and will prohibit being added to any foods after June 18, 2018. Partially hydrogenated oils are an unnatural form of trans fat that is linked to inflammation, obesity, and chronic diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer, explains Kylene Bogden, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.

So, Saturated Fat from Butter Is Good?

You do need fat in your diet to be healthy, and saturated fat—including butter—definitely has a place in a well-balanced diet, says Bogden.

Unfortunately, in case you haven't noticed, the U.S. tends to go to extremes with its nutrition. Case in buttery point: The average American currently eats about 5.6 pounds of butter a year, more than any other time in the past 40 years, according to data from the American Butter Institute.

"Sure, it might not be as harmful as we previously thought, but I still don't recommend slathering it on everything," says Caspero. "It is not a health food and is still a concentrated source of fat and calories. I also prefer for people to get their majority of fat from plant-based sources like olive oil, which are rich in unsaturated fatty acids as opposed to saturated ones." That's in line with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which advise limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories a day, largely by replacing saturated fat with unsaturated.

While 2016 research from Tufts University suggests that butter has only a weak relationship with total mortality risk, doesn't increase the chances of developing heart disease, and may provide a slightly protective effect again type 2 diabetes, research overwhelmingly shows that unsaturated fatty acids improve health and reduce the risk of death across the board. Plus, research published in the British Journal of Nutrition shows that when people swap out saturated fats for monounsaturated varieties, they lose weight without even cutting calories. "The argument on butter isn't case closed," says Caspero. "It's just a lot grayer than it used to be."

The Kind of Butter You Should Eat (In Moderation)

If you're going to keep a stick in your fridge, organic, grass-fed butter is the gold standard, agree both Bogden and Caspero. That's because cows that are fed grass, rather than corn or grains, and raised organically, have healthier fatty-acid profiles.

For instance, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that milk from pasture-grazing dairy cows contains substantially more linoleic acid (CLA), an unsaturated fatty acid—and that the more CLA people get from dairy, the lower their risk of heart attack. Bogden notes that milk from organically raised grass-fed cows is also richer in omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit not just the heart but overall inflammation levels and health.

"You are what you eat, and you are also what your food ate," she says. "At every step, it's best for those foods to be as natural as possible." As long as you do that, you shouldn't have to give too much thought to your butter habits. In fact, in the previously mentioned 2016 Tufts study, researchers concluded that there's no real benefit to adjusting intake one way or the other.

"A small amount of grass-fed butter is okay, a stick of it every day isn't," says Caspero. "As long as you practice the 'everything in moderation' rule, you're good."

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