- It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when fat started to become the enemy on our plate, but a good guess may be January 13, 1961.
- Instead of emphasizing one nutrient, we need to move to food-based recommendations. What we eat should be whole, minimally processed, nutritious food—food that is in many cases as close to its natural form as possible.
- Is Butter Healthy? The butter truth.
- Check out these butter facts:
- But doesn’t butter cause heart disease?
- But isn’t cholesterol bad?
- In fact, too low of cholesterol can harm you:
- Is all butter healthy?
- Butter Alternatives
- Butter vs. Margarine: The big match-up
- Okay, so margarine is not healthy…
- And don’t forget:
- So, there you have it. Butter is not evil. Butter is healthy.
- The Root of the Problem
- Pass It On!!!
- Is butter really bad for our health?
- Butter Isn’t Actually That Bad For You
- Is Butter Actually All That Bad for You?
- Food myths debunked: Whole milk may be healthier than skim
- 1. Red meat is healthier than chicken.
- 2. Low-fat or nonfat milk is not better for you than whole milk.
- Bob Harper and other experts rate top diets on Megyn Kelly TODAY
- 3. Egg whites are not better for you than egg yolks.
- 4. Low-fat or nonfat yogurt isn’t the best food option for you.
- 5. Fresh fruits and veggies are not always more nutritious than frozen foods.
- 6. As for butter, you don’t need to avoid it.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when fat started to become the enemy on our plate, but a good guess may be January 13, 1961.
In March 2014, an article appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine that sent the food-obsessed public into gastronomic raptures. Though saddled with a drab title—“Association of Dietary, Circulating and Supplement Fatty Acids with Coronary Risk”—the article reported a seemingly stunning result: eating less saturated fat, the dietary demon that makes buttery croissants so irresistible, doesn’t actually lower a person’s risk for heart disease.
The finding was reported widely in the media, hitting all the cultural hot buttons: food and fat, death and disease, bacon and Brie. As Mark Bittman’s column in The New York Times rhapsodized: “Butter is Back. Julia Child, goddess of fat, is beaming somewhere.”
The Annals article, and the subsequent news coverage, set off a national conversation about dietary fat. Indeed, there is debate within the scientific community itself over how important it is to focus on certain types of dietary fat—and that debate existed long before the Annals article appeared. The debate exists even among professional colleagues—and friends—within Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition.
But there are also broad areas of continuing agreement around what constitutes a “healthy diet.” The consensus: We all need to shift our collective nutritional thinking toward an emphasis on food-based, rather than nutrient-based, recommendations. The fact is, not all fats are bad, and concentrating too much on eliminating “fat” from our diets has, in many cases, led us to replace even healthy fats with sugars and other simple carbohydrate foods that may actually be worse for our health.
FAT WARS: A SHORT HISTORY
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when fat started to become the enemy on our plate, but a good guess may be January 13, 1961. On that day, a University of Minnesota physiologist named Ancel Keys appeared on the cover of Time magazine, glowering at the gluttonous American public through horn-rimmed glasses.
Keys had made a name for himself during World War II by developing the K ration, and after the war turned his attention to the relationship between diet and health, particularly heart disease. He actually spent several years after World War II at HSPH examining this thorny problem. Then, as now, heart disease was the leading cause of death in America, but nobody knew exactly why. Keys led the seminal Seven Countries Study, which for the first time documented that the incidence and mortality rates of coronary heart disease varied as much as tenfold among countries, with the lowest rates in Crete. The study, which began in the 1950s, continues even today.
Keys’ work provided some hints about the culprit behind this yawning gap. He found that saturated fat consumption was strongly associated with regional rates of heart disease, but that total fat intake was not. Indeed, total fat intake in Crete was just as high as in Finland, which had the highest rates of heart disease at that time. Keys suggested that it was the type of fat, as well as the Mediterranean diet in general, that spelled the difference in heart disease risk.
Keys delivered his opinions with the force of fact. (Obesity? “Disgusting,” he said. “Maybe if the idea got around again that obesity was immoral, the fat man would start to think.”) He found that nations where people ate lots of saturated fat—think of the Finns smearing butter on their cheese—suffered higher rates of heart disease. Keys’ work also suggested that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol increased total cholesterol levels.
Yet based on the well-recognized limitations of cross-country studies, Keys was smart enough to conclude that this early evidence did not prove cause and effect, but rather suggested a need for further research, especially in cohort studies examining individuals within populations. Indeed, many better-designed studies have since proven that total dietary fat has no effect on heart disease.
Numerous other investigations building on Keys’ work focused on specific types of fat. Scientists fed monkeys diets high in saturated fat and watched them develop atherosclerosis. Researchers in Finland fed butter to patients in one mental hospital, while those in another got soybean oil—and the patients eating the vegetable oil had a lower risk of heart attack. On the other hand, several other trials around that time replaced butter and other saturated fats with vegetable oils and saw no significant benefits. In a recent study conducted in Spain, scientists gave subjects a free supply of either olive oil or mixed nuts for five years and watched both groups’ risk of heart disease drop. Epidemiologists established large investigations like the Framingham Heart Study, monitoring people’s health for years. Decades passed; data accumulated.
Keys also conducted controlled feeding studies, in parallel with the HSPH Department of Nutrition’s Mark Hegsted, which showed that polyunsaturated fats (the kind found just in plants) reduced blood cholesterol levels. This led to recommendations to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat—a trend that some scientists believe has been responsible for significant declines in rates of cardiovascular mortality in the United States.
VERDICT: NOT ALL FATS ARE BAD
By the 1970s, Keys and Hegsted, among other scientists, concluded that different types of dietary fat had varying effects on blood cholesterol levels, and that different types of cholesterol had varying effects on heart disease. Unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fatty acids like those in walnuts, decrease the “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise the “good” HDL cholesterol. In the early 1990s, Walter Willett, now chair of the HSPH Department of Nutrition, and others determined that trans fats—liquid vegetable oils transformed into shelf-stable solids (think Crisco)—were associated with greater risk of heart disease and are a double metabolic whammy, raising “bad” LDL and decreasing “good” HDL. Scientists around the world simultaneously showed that saturated fat—the kind in butter and lard—increases both “bad” LDL cholesterol and “good” HDL cholesterol, making it similar to carbohydrates overall but not as beneficial to health as polyunsaturated fats from nuts and vegetables.
A COMPLICATED MESSAGE GETS OVERSIMPLIFIED
Unfortunately, amid all these nuanced research results, during the 1980s and 1990s conventional wisdom and national guidelines in the U.S. shifted the spotlight to reducing total fat—period—despite little or no evidence that this simplistic advice would prevent disease.
The complicated message—that some fats are good for you and others are bad—didn’t reach the general public. Instead, doctors and scientists running the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s National Cholesterol Education Program in the mid-1980s decided to simplify it, explains Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication in the HSPH Department of Nutrition. “They thought of a shortcut: Just cut down fat.”
In 1987, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation launched a social marketing campaign called Project LEAN (Low-Fat Eating for America Now), encouraging Americans to reduce total fat intake to 30 percent of their diet, and spreading the message through advertising and supermarket promotions. The public ate it up, so to speak. “There’s a simplistic, intuitive appeal to that message: ‘Fat has more calories per gram, so if I eat fat, I’ll get fat,’” says Willett. The food industry jumped on board, removing fat from food and replacing it with sugar and carbohydrates, filling supermarket shelves with fat-free salad dressing, fat-free ice cream, and low-fat SnackWell’s cookies.
“FAT-FREE” MESSAGE A PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER
It was one big, happy, fat-free feeding frenzy—and a public health disaster.
“We didn’t know as much then about the bad effects of refined carbohydrates,” says Cheung. “For example, low-fat yogurt is loaded with sugar. Our bodies digest these refined carbohydrates and starches very quickly, causing an insulin spike.” Insulin tells the body to store fat and causes our blood sugar to drop, which makes us feel hungry. These relentless sugar highs and lows lead to overeating and weight gain, raising the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Instead of emphasizing one nutrient, we need to move to food-based recommendations. What we eat should be whole, minimally processed, nutritious food—food that is in many cases as close to its natural form as possible.
Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University and adjunct associate professor of epidemiology
In 1997, HSPH’s Frank Hu—at the time a postdoctoral fellow at HSPH, now professor of nutrition and epidemiology— published a landmark epidemiological study in theNew England Journal of Medicine. Hu’s report told a more subtle story about dietary fat and heart disease. His data, collected from 80,082 women enrolled in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study—a collaboration by HSPH, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital— suggested that replacing a mere 5 percent of saturated fat calories with unsaturated fat would reduce one’s risk of heart disease by a whopping 42 percent. Replacing only 2 percent of trans-fat calories (the kind found in packaged pastries) with unsaturated fat would reduce one’s risk of heart disease by 53 percent. In other words, it wasn’t total fat that mattered, but type of fat.
The discovery was so surprising that The New York Times splashed it on Page 1.
“This was really a paradigm shift in terms of the fat message,” says Hu. “Not all fats are created equal.” Dariush Mozaffarian, newly named dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, notes that in 2005, an updated report from the Nurses’ Health Study by Hu and other HSPH researchers showed that neither overall fat, saturated fat, nor monounsaturated fat intake was linked to heart disease. Polyunsaturated fat intake, however, was found to be clearly protective.
Unfortunately, by the time Frank Hu’s first study made the front page of the Times in 1997, our anti-fat bias had become entrenched. Perversely, the low-fat message helped feed America’s obesity epidemic, as carbohydrates replaced fat in many foods to make them “low-fat” or “no-fat” but still tasty to American and global palates.
A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
It was against this backdrop that the 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine study created such a stir. The article discussed the results of a “meta-analysis,” a type of statistical analysis that gathers data from many different studies and crunches them together. Hu first learned of the Annals meta-analysis a few days before it was published, whenThe New York Times sent him a copy and asked for comment. At the same time, Willett got a call from an NPR reporter questioning the study’s results, especially the conclusion that eating more polyunsaturated fat failed to lower the risk for heart disease.
“I knew something was fishy,” says Willett. He requested a data supplement from the journal and noticed that the authors had pulled incorrect numbers from some of the original studies, including the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, which Willett helps direct. Willett also saw what seemed to him to be another problem: the authors had omitted important studies from their analysis. Adding to the complications: One of the study’s authors was a respected colleague in HSPH’s Department of Nutrition: Mozaffarian, who was then still an associate professor at the School.
As Willett and Hu saw it, the glaring problem in the article was one of the findings: that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat does not necessarily reduce your risk for heart disease. According to Willett, “People don’t just remove saturated fat from their diets. They replace it with something else.” And this replacement, also called a “comparator,” can make all the difference. Exchanging a hot buttered cheesesteak for a half-dozen doughnuts does not help your heart; swapping it for grilled salmon with greens and olive oil does. That’s the full message. But Willett quickly realized that the full message of replacement was complex and not likely to make it into news media reports.
Willett contacted the journal editor. “I knew this was going to cause huge confusion,” he recalls. With HSPH colleagues, Willett scrambled to write a response to Annals and sent it to the journal before the paper was published. The journal posted their letter online several days after publication and, subsequently, a version of the article in which some of the specific errors were corrected.
Mozaffarian, a co-author on the paper, agrees with Willett and Hu that eating polyunsaturated fat reduces the risk of heart disease. He believes that the evidence indicates that, compared to the average diet consumed by Americans, polyunsaturated fat is more beneficial to heart health than any other major macronutrient. Saturated fat, on the other hand, turns out to be neutral from a heart health perspective when compared to the average diet—so that campaigns which prioritize reducing saturated fat consumption, rather than focusing on foods and overall diet quality, are a misplaced and misleading public health strategy.
He adds: “Frank Hu had published nearly identical findings in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demonstrating that people who eat the highest levels of saturated fat have the same risk of heart disease as those who eat the lowest.”
THE MEDIA MESSAGE
Willett felt that his efforts to provide clarification and context came too late to enable the media to uniformly provide the nuanced reporting this new study required. Some reporters covered the issue with context and balance. Others merely reprised the lead from the original tip sheet for news reporters from the Annals, headlined: “Evidence does not support guidelines on fatty acid consumption to reduce coronary risk.”
Emanuele Di Angelantonio, a university lecturer in the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who was the senior author on the Annals study, was surprised at how the message got distorted. “It was reported as ‘butter and burgers,’ and that’s not what our paper said,” he notes. “What the paper said was that the story on saturated fat is slightly more complicated than we thought.”
In July 2014, Di Angelantonio published a detailed response to scientists’ criticisms. In the letter, he did not change any conclusion, but added additional context. “Our paper summarizes the evidence so scientists can plan future research,” he says.
“I sympathize with the press’s predicament, because they’re not experts in this,” says Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention in the HSPH Department of Nutrition. “They see a well-known medical journal publishing a meta-analysis and pronouncing a very important result that goes against our current guidelines. So I don’t feel the press really should be expected to understand the science at the level that it would take to critique the study. On the other hand, things like this are very attractive to the press, because everybody is interested in it. It’s a story.”
FOCUSING ON FOODS, NOT NUTRIENTS
But there’s a deeper issue beyond the recent media ruckus, explains Mozaffarian. “The findings demonstrate that, in practice, when people lower their saturated fat intake, they don’t necessarily eat healthier diets. Saturated fat is found in a range of foods—including not only butter and meats but also milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts, and vegetable oils. Each of these foods has different effects on heart disease. Instead of emphasizing one nutrient, we need to move to food-based recommendations. We’re not going to artificially create healthy diets by manufacturing low-fat, low-saturated-fat packaged foods. What we eat should be whole, minimally processed, nutritious food—food that is in many cases as close to its natural form as possible.”
In other words, the problem isn’t just what we eat, but also how we think about food. We fixate on the nutrient of the day, even those that confer benefits (Lycopene to prevent cancer! Phytoflavonoids to fight inflammation!); we eat mindlessly in the car and in front of the TV; we value volume of food over the quality of the ingredients, the beauty of presentation, and even taste.
Researchers say we should focus on healthy dietary patterns, rather than glorify or demonize specific nutrients. A healthy pattern includes heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, poultry, and fish. An unhealthy but all-too-frequent pattern: piles of processed meat, mounds of french fries, lots of white bread and potatoes and processed breakfast cereals, giant sugary drinks, and packaged cupcakes for dessert.
“Food is about enjoyment and nourishment to the body as well as the soul,” says Cheung. In her view, the goal isn’t to be grimly disciplined or morally virtuous, but rather to be mindful when negotiating today’s dazzling cornucopia. “Choose what you eat mindfully and enjoy,” she says. “Be aware and sensible about your choices, because it’s your health and well-being.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Complicated questions about diet and health require evidence from many different types of studies over many years before the weight of evidence shifts toward consensus.
In the case of dietary fat, most scientists do agree on a number of points. First, eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease and prevent insulin resistance. Second, replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates will not reduce heart disease risk. Third, olive oil, canola oil, and soybean oil are good for you—as are nuts (especially walnuts), which, while they include some saturated fat, are also high in unsaturated fat, tipping the balance in their favor. Finally, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for many biological processes—from building healthy cells to maintaining brain and nerve function—and we should eat a variety of healthy foods, such as fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, to obtain adequate amounts of both fatty acids.
Other, finer points are still unclear. For instance, monounsaturated fat is believed to lower risk for heart disease. But it’s difficult to study in Western populations, because most people get their monounsaturated fat from meat and dairy, which are also full of saturated fat. Still, people can choose from a variety of monounsaturated-fat-rich foods, such as peanuts and most tree nuts, avocados, and, of course, olive oil. And though scientists agree that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they debate how much of each we actually need.
While the public may find such uncertainty disconcerting, there are always unknowns at the forward edge of science. And scientists will sometimes disagree—even when they work at the same institution, as Willett and Mozaffarian demonstrate. Much as we’d prefer clear-cut answers, pure and simple truths, they are not always easy to come by.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in data. And it’s the job of those of us who work in science to try and simplify answers as much as possible,” says Nan Laird, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of Public Health and professor of biostatistics at HSPH. “But you don’t want to lose the accurate representation. And an accurate representation may be that we don’t really know the answer. That’s not something that people necessarily want to hear.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that dietary advice, even from august bodies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), can lag the scientific evidence. The NIH takes years to adopt new guidelines, and astoundingly is still stuck on a low-fat, high-carb message, say HSPH researchers. The NIH’s Healthy Cooking and Snacking website suggests snacks to children and families like fat-free cheese on crackers and fat-free chocolate milk. The agency’s “GO, SLOW, and WHOA” food chart labels avocado and olive oil as “sometimes” foods, while ketchup and fat-free creamy salad dressing as “almost anytime” foods.
“It’s absurd. It’s still completely focused on lowering total fat,” says Mozaffarian. “We need to bridge the gap between scientific consensus and current policy.”
Barbara Moran is a science writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Photo/illustration credits: Fancy Photography / Veer.com; Anne Hubbard; ©iStock; ©ableimage / Alamy; Kent Dayton / HSPH
Download a PDF of Is butter really back?
Is Butter Healthy? The butter truth.
The actual image from the horrible Better Homes and Gardens article;
It’s a Better Homes and Garden “eat this, not that” piece. This particular one gives all sort of “great” (ugh!) substitutions in baking. You know, like swapping out a real ingredient (butter) for a highly processed, full of fake-garbage one. Yeah, like marshmallow cream.
I get so angry when I see things like this. Clearly this is a clever marketing ploy by the company of the gross marshmallow goo. But the problem is people believe it. Good people. REALLY good people. People trying to get healthy. People who are doing their best to feed their kids right. People who have been battling toward weight loss for years wondering just how much “lower” they can make their low-fat diet. People who believe everything that the disastrous food pyramid says they should do.
I’ve already talked about why you should not be afraid of real fats. But until then, can I just talk a little bit about why you (yes, YOU!) should absolutely, positively have NO FEAR of butter?
Check out these butter facts:
- Butter has been around for thousands of years—going back to when our ancestors first started domesticating animals. In fact, the first written reference to butter was found on a 4500- year old limestone tablet illustrating how butter was made. (1)
- People around the globe have valued butter for its life-sustaining properties.
When Dr. Weston Price studied native diets in the 1930’s he found that butter was a staple in the diets of many supremely healthy peoples. Isolated Swiss villagers placed a bowl of butter on their church altars, set a wick in it, and let it burn throughout the year as a sign of divinity in the butter. Arab groups also put a high value on butter, especially deep yellow-orange butter from livestock feeding on green grass in the spring and fall. American folk wisdom recognized that children raised on butter were robust and sturdy; but that children given skim milk during their growing years were pale and thin, with “pinched” faces (2).
- Butter is rich in trace minerals, especially selenium, a powerful antioxidant. Ounce for ounce, butter has more selenium per gram than either whole wheat or garlic (3).
- Butter also supplies iodine, needed by the thyroid gland (as well as vitamin A, also needed by the thyroid gland) (3).
- Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which gives excellent protection against cancer. Range-fed cows produce especially high levels of CLA as opposed to “stall fed” cattle (3).
- Butter is rich in short and medium chain fatty acid chains that have strong anti-tumor effects. Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid which gives excellent protection against cancer (2).
- Butter contains butyrate, which is a fatty acid with a number of beneficial properties – including helping digestive issues and helping to regulate weight.
But doesn’t butter cause heart disease?
Yeah, that’s a myth.A big one, too.Butter is not a major factor in causing cardiovascular disease (at least not in appropriate moderation).Consider this:
Heart disease was rare in America at the turn of the century. Between 1920 and 1960, the incidence of heart disease rose precipitously to become America’s number one killer. During the same period butter consumption plummeted from eighteen pounds per person per year to four. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in statistics to conclude that butter is not a cause (2).
- Butter is America’s best and most easily absorbed source of vitamin A. Consider that vitamin A is needed for the health of the thyroid and adrenal glands, both of which play a role in maintaining the proper functioning of the heart and cardiovascular system.
- Butter contains lecithin, a substance that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol and other fat constituents.
- Butter also contains a number of anti-oxidants that protect against the kind of free radical damage that weakens the arteries.
- Butter has been shown to help with growth and development, gastrointestinal health, arthritis, and helps protect the immune system.
- Butter is also a good dietary source cholesterol.
But isn’t cholesterol bad?
In a nutshell, no. Our bodies need cholesterol. A lot. In fact, high cholesterol levels are associated with longevity. Perhaps this is the real reason the French outlive us, not red wine (4).
Cholesterol is not the problem – it is the body’s way of solving a problem. Lowering cholesterol is just addressing a symptom and putting the body further out of balance. Too low of cholesterol is bad. The total cholesterol number is not a good indicator of heart disease risk factor despite what you may have heard from your doctor, but a sign of ongoing inflammation in the body. Real Fat is not the culprit – grains, sugars, and vegetable oils are much worse (5).
In fact, too low of cholesterol can harm you:
- The sex hormones are made from cholesterol. Lowered cholesterol often results in decreased libido and increased infertility and miscarriage.
- Sixty percent of the brain is made of cholesterol! Levels under 180 are associated with increases in depression, dementia and mental illness.
- Cholesterol is not a fat, but is a type of steroid alcohol. It moves at lightening speed. In fact, there is more cholesterol in muscle meat than in fat!
- Cholesterol is used to repair tissue throughout the body.
Blaming cholesterol for clogging arteries is like blaming a policeman for a bank robbery just because he showed up after the crime has taken place. Cholesterol happens to be the last substance the body sends out to rescue the damaged artery (4).
Want to learn more about why you need cholesterol: Check out this article or this book.
Is all butter healthy?
Not necessarily. Where your butter comes from (and how the animals were treated) do affect the quality of the product (including vitamin content). When looking for good quality butter, raw and cultured is best. This might be hard to find, however. Organic butter is your next best thing, with store-bought CAFO butter being at the bottom.
Another important consideration with butter is whether it is grass fed or grain fed. If you have the choice, grass-fed is the way to go. Unfortunately, most dairy cows are fed with mass-produced grain products. Lucky cows are allowed to graze and eat fresh grass. These grass-fed cows are healthier overall, and this results in them producing more nutrient-rich dairy products. The resulting butter tends to have more healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to find these healthy dairy alternatives in a market where everything is mass-produced to be as cheap as possible. Additionally, these options tend to be quite a bit more expensive as well.
But even if you can’t afford (or find) quality butter, commercial butter still outshines the butter “alternatives” any day.
What do I mean by butter “alternatives”? The most common of these is Margarine. Let me be as simple as possible about this:
Margarine is not healthy. Real butter is healthy.
Whoa. Everything I knew about nutrition during my first two decades of life have just been shattered by those simple statements.
Let’s dive deeper and see the reason why margarine can’t even come close to offering the health benefits that butter can.
Butter vs. Margarine: The big match-up
Butter: A traditional food that’s been around for thousands of years and held sacred by many people (1).
Margarine: Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name “margarine”. The concept was patented in 1869 (2).
See a trend here? It’s a pretty safe bet that anything made to be a cheap alternative for mass feeding a massive group of people probably isn’t going to have health as the top priority. And that is certainly the case with margarine.
Butter: Full of vitamins, minerals, and real fats to promote health in a number of ways.
- All margarines are made from assorted vegetable oils that have been heated to extremely high temperatures, making them rancid.
- After that, a nickel catalyst is added, along with hydrogen atoms to solidify it. Nickel is a toxic heavy metal and amounts always remain in the finished product. Finally, deodorants and colorings are added to remove margarine’s horrible smell (from the rancid oils) and unappetizing grey color.
- Hydrogenated fats and an excess of long chain fatty acids found in polyunsaturated oils and many butter substitutes both have a deleterious effect on the immune system.
- In many butter substitutes, during the solidification process, harmful trans-fatty acids are created which are carcinogenic and mutagenic (3).
In the 1940’s, research indicated that increased fat intake caused cancer. The abandonment of butter accelerated; margarine–formerly a poor man’s food– was accepted by the well-to-do. But there was a small problem with the way this research was presented to the public. The popular press neglected to stress that fact that the “saturated” fats used in these experiments were not naturally saturated fats but partially hydrogenated or hardened fats–the kind found mostly in margarine but not in butter. Researchers stated–they may have even believed it–that there was no difference between naturally saturated fats in butter and artificially hardened fats in margarine and shortening. So butter was tarred with the black brush of the fabricated fats, and in such a way that the villains got passed off as heroes (1).
What would you rather have: A real food full of healthful qualities
or a stick of carcinogenic, bleached, and deodorized “stuff”?
Okay, so margarine is not healthy…
But what about those “buttery” spreads that say they are full of “good” polyunsaturated oils?
It’s true that some intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids are important to our health (take Omega-3 fatty acids for example), but excessive intake is actually linked to chronic disease. It’s really about balance. I’ve read that the ideal ratio is 3:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but some research indicates that the ideal ratio might actually be closer to 1:1. Regardless, we are not even close, as most people eat far higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3s.
In fact, excessive consumption of these oils is actually linked to cancer, heart disease, damage to bodily organs, impaired growth and obesity (3).;
And don’t forget:
Polyunsaturated fats degrade and go rancid very easily leaving them susceptible to oxidation and high levels of free radicals. When heated, as in the creation of margarine or cooking and baking, the oils become more of a health hazard than a healthy food. So even if your spread says “no trans fat” (which isn’t necessarily true), they are still composed of highly processed rancid vegetable oils.
So, there you have it. Butter is not evil. Butter is healthy.
…And margarine is not healthy. When I find myself making cookies I definitely do not worry about the butter or eggs that go in. In fact, they are the redeeming qualities of the cookies. Don’t get rid of them for some man-made cancer-in-a-jar marshmallow cream. Pah-LEASE.
The Root of the Problem
I’ve just spent a pretty long time explaining why butter is a healthy choice, and its range of alternatives are not. However, Ishould mention the one caveat, and perhaps the reason that butter has developed such a bad-rep in the first place, and that is that everything should be consumed in moderation.
Moderation is the key to diet, and you can overdo anything, especially something that is high fat, high calories, and really tasty.
Is butter high in fat and calories? Of course it is. It is one of the most calorie dense foods I can think of. But your body needs calories, and it needs the fats that are found in butter. So as long as you don’t overdo it, you will end up with a pretty excellent source of these two foundations of nutrition.
So if you hear people say that butter can lead to poor heart health, or that butter caused them to gain weight, they might be right. But the real issue, and this runs through all diet, is moderation. How much you eat of something is often just as important of a consideration as what you eat.
Pass It On!!!
So help me spread the word. Help me put to ease the minds of those good-intentioned mothers—those healthy minded folks—who have been ditching the good stuff for a fake counterfeit. And just in case you didn’t get the point:
Substituting your butter for something fake will not make you healthy!
If you really don’t like butter (or choose not to eat it for other reasons) consider substituting it with other real fats like coconut oil and lard (clean, non-hydrogenated, of course) if you will be heating it or high quality olive oil if you won’t be heating it.
That’s right, lard isn’t bad either. (Read more about that here.)
So that’s the end of my passionate plea. Hopefully by now you can see how butter has gained a rather unfair rep over the years.
So perhaps the most important point is this – a good diet starts with a good understanding of nutrition. You need to know what is good and what isn’t good to put in your body. So take the time to read ingredients lists, educate yourself on what these ingredients actually are, and put the effort into learning about the science behind it all. It might turn out that – such as with butter – the things you are eating aren’t quite what you think they are.
You will definitely be happy you put in the research, it is one of the best long-term choices you can make for your body!
Is butter really bad for our health?
It isn’t really bad. But it is considered bad because it is a saturated fat. And having too much puts you at risk for heart disease.
Think of it like this. There isnt anything wrong with netflix. But if you’re staying up all night instead of sleeping, netflix becomes bad. Not because netflix is bad per say, but because you need to be sleeping.
We actually need fats in our diet. Butter is a fat, so we need fat. plain and simple.
People like to simplify things, say something is good, or something is bad. But the truth is that the answer is more nuanced.
I wouldnt worry about eating too much fats or butter if you are healthy and not spreading it on everything you can possibly think of.
But for someone who’s at risk of a heart attack? Someone obese, or someone who has diabetes, people who never exercise or have weak hearts?
Those are people who REALLY cannot afford to not carefully watch their fat intake.
As for your skin manifestations, it’s either a coincidence, or you are probably lacking fat or cholesterol in your diet. Butter doesnt have anything special or good for you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying butter is particulary bad. But it definitely lacks anything special (except for its taste. mmm yummy butter)
We love butter, but does it love us back? Every study about its effects on our health (there are a lot of them) seems to say something different, and we’re left feeling torn and confused as we lovingly fold butter into our kouign amann dough.
We were overjoyed when a study earlier this year proved butter may actually be good for us (or, at least, not that bad)—and we weren’t the only ones. Mark Bittman of The New York Times even wrote an editorial praising our move toward more natural, real fats. But recent news indicates that there may have been some flaws in the study that said so, and we’re back to wondering: What’s up, butter?
It’s time we got to the bottom of things. It’s time to finally, once and for all (sorta), answer the question: What does science say about butter? We combed through a century and a half of scientific studies to find every claim, counter-claim, and counter-counter-claim made about this delicious fat—and its slightly less delicious cousin, margarine.
1855 Americans should useoil instead of butter—becausebutter may be obsolete. In fact, butter is purely “respiratory,” a food that, like “sugar, starch, and alcohol, goes merely to form fat.” But wait: Maybe butter’s okay if it’s, um, fermented? Storing your butter in a “strong brine” could help it to keep for up to a year.
1884 Margarine can cause yourteeth to loosen, your skin to crack, and your hair to fall out. Also, the adulteration of butter (by adding other fat solids) is a damn shame, and because it’s being tampered with, nobody wants to eat it anymore.
1886 Margarine is manufactured under no restrictions; it’s bad for dairymen, and bad for your health.
1901 There’s a lot of bacteria in butter; salted varieties keep better, so you should eat those instead of unsalted varieties.
1913 Butter’s so bad for you that it getsbanned from Vassar College(along with cotton mattresses).Also, butter could carry disease. You should eat margarine.
1928 Americans eating margarine instead of butter (and also eating “five times more” potatoes) will reduce the U.S. mortality rate.
1948 Butter and margarine are equally healthy (or equally unhealthy).
1979 Butter is probably better for you than margarine, because butter hasn’t been “chemically tampered with.”
1984 Cholesterol is BAD and butter is the cause.
1990 Butter is worse for men’s cholesterol levels than vegetable oils. Also, margarine is a better choice than butter, so long as its fat levels are under 30 percent trans. Butter is the MOST DANGEROUS fat.
1993 Whether it’s butter or margarine, solid and semi-solid fats are worse for you than are natural oils.
1998 Low-trans-fat margarineis totally better for you than butter.Actually, no. Butter is better, because it’s a fresh, real food. Gah—what to believe!? Margarine apparently improves your “blood lipid profiles” better than butter. Well, that’s something, we guess.
2000 Butter can actually protect you against pretty much every ill, including heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis; butter—or actually the vitamins it contains—is essential for your health.
2002 If you’re overweight (and a rat), eating butter will make you fatter. If you’re thin (and a rat), it’ll make you skinnier.
2004 Eating butter most likelywon’t increase your chances for getting breast cancer—but it may increase your ovarian cancer risk.
2006 Butter’s a little bit unhealthy (saturated fats), but so is margarine (trans fats). You should probablyjust use olive oil instead.
2007 To raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol, replace carbohydrates with fat. But this only works with unsaturated fat—so limit that butter.
2008 Artificial butter is harmful to your lungs—if inhaled.
2009 Eating butter may reduce your risk of heart attack.
2010 Margarine is a smarter choice than butter, but butter is a better choice than olive and canola oils, which raise the fats in your blood stream significantly more after eating.
2011 Butter (and cod liver oil) can help halt and reverse tooth decay.
2012 The saturated fat in butter can slow down your cognitive ability.
2013 The removal of saturated fat—that’d be butter—from our diet hasmade cardiovascular diseasemore prevalent. Although!People who eat more vegetable fats than animal fats have higher death rates.
2014 Butter—and other full-fat foods—may help us lose weight. In other good news, a new study says there is between the saturated fat in butter and heart disease. But wait: Some big flaws with that study prove that there may be a thread of connection between butter and disease after all. No. Wait again. Butter really is okay. Just in moderation, and as a part of a balanced diet.
So what’s the deal: Is butter good for us or bad? It looks like the jury’s still out. One thing’s for sure, though: Butter is delicious—and that’s a fact.
Butter Isn’t Actually That Bad For You
For years, you’ve heard nothing but butter = bad. But more recently you’ve probably heard whispers that the high-fat food might actually be good for you (who’s been prompted to add butter to their whole wheat toast to help you stay fuller, longer?). So what’s the real deal?
Finally, thanks to a new review of existing research published in the journal PLOS One, we finally have a clearer answer to our butter bewilderment. Researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston reviewed nine existing studies that had previously explored the potential drawbacks and benefits of butter. The combined studies represented 15 countries and over 600,000 people.
People consumed anywhere between one third of a serving to 3.2 servings per day, but the researchers couldn’t find any association between their butter consumption and any increased (or decreased) risk of death, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. In other words, butter isn’t inherently good or bad-it has a pretty neutral effect on your diet. (See Why Eating Like a Man Might Be Best for Women’s Health.)
“Butter may be a ‘middle-of-the-road’ food,” Laura Pimpin, Ph.D., lead author on the study, said in a press release. “It’s a more healthful choice than sugar or starch-such as the white bread or potato on which butter is commonly spread and which have been linked to higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease-but a worse choice than many margarines and cooking oils.”
As Pimpin points out, while butter might not be flat out bad for you, that doesn’t mean you should start using it in favor of other fats like olive oil. The healthy fats you get from common butter swaps, like flaxseed or extra virgin olive oils, are more likely to actually lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
So don’t sweat it if you enjoy a bit of butter on your toast, but try to stick to the proven healthy fats when you can.
- By Macaela Mackenzie @MacaelaMackenzi
Just because butter is less processed, is it really better for you?
Butter makes everything taste better – that’s the kind of thinking that iconic chef Julia Child famously promoted with her cooking. However, fear surrounding butter’s saturated fat content saw it eliminated from most diets over the years as a food spread and cooking fat – though butter is still preferred for baking – until recently. “Today, butter is making a comeback because people appreciate it as a natural, ‘clean’ food compared to margarine,” says Lindy Kennedy, a registered dietitian at Fit Nut Consulting in Calgary, Alta. She explains that margarine is a processed food – vegetable oil is converted into a fat solid, by adding hydrogen in a process known as “hydrogenation.” But the real question is: What are the health benefits of butter?
What are the health benefits of butter?
Butter is made from the cream of whole milk through a churning process that separates out the fat content of the cream. Basic salted butter is made up of about 80 per cent fat, 15 to 17 per cent water and the rest salt, protein, calcium and phosphorous and fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E.
Butter contains the antioxidants vitamin A and vitamin E, as well as selenium. Butter also naturally contains conjugate linoleic acids (CLAs), compounds which have been shown to prevent cancer in animal studies, as well as prevent the hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. Vancouver registered dietitian Nicole Fetterly also points out that butter contain butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid with anti-fungal and anti-tumour properties. “In India, clarified butter or ghee is considered a health food for these reasons,” says Fetterly. (If you’re more of a natural butter person, ghee will definitely be right up your alley.)
What about the saturated fat?
Because butter comes from an animal, it contains higher amounts of saturated fat – the bad kind of fat that has been linked to an increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. According to Health Canada, one pat of butter (5 mL) contains 34 calories and four grams of fat, more than half of which (2.5 g) is saturated. (The same amount of non-hydrogenated margarine contains the exact same calories and fat, but just a fraction of the saturated fat at 0.5 g.) Fetterly says that research is underway to determine what the long-term health impact of processed margarine is compared to the health benefits of more natural butter.
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How much butter should you eat?
Regardless of whether you opt for margarine or butter, both are pure fat, and the rule of thumb is to eat no more than 20-30 per cent of calories from fat – this works out to around 50-75 grams of fat per day. However, of those fats allowed, less than seven per cent of total calories should be saturated fats. Butter usually has seven grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, so keeping intake to less than three teaspoons (or one tablespoon) is ideal. However, you should also be aware of hidden saturated fats in other areas of your diet that may increase your total saturated fat number, and adjust accordingly. This includes foods such as beef and the occasional chocolate chip cookie, says Kennedy.
For greater health benefits of butter, fat should be mono and polyunsaturated, such as the kind you’ll find in vegetable oils, nuts and fish. (Try this butternut squash mac and cheese with butter – it is to die for!) Bottom line? If you enjoy the flavour of butter, use it judiciously – but don’t go overboard.
Is Butter Actually All That Bad for You?
In the late 1980s, fat was considered the enemy. Today, healthy eaters are blending butter into their morning coffee and adding coconut oil to their smoothies. So what gives? Long story short: science once pointed to high-fat foods as the culprits for everything from high cholesterol and heart disease risk to weight gain. Since then though, researchers have learned some major lessons, such as the very important fact that not all fats are created equal. But what about butter—is butter bad for you?
Is the classic American fridge staple actually healthy? And how does it compare to its supposedly healthier peers?
Below, a nutritionist explains if butter is bad for you, once and for all.
First things first: is butter bad for you?
“The ‘butter is bad’ era is over, and butter can fit in a nutritious and healthy diet of anyone who enjoys it,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, dietitian, and author of the Eat Clean, Stay Lean series.
In fact, one 2016 review that assessed findings from research conducted on over 600,000 individuals concluded that butter consumption was “weakly associated with all-cause mortality” and not significantly associated with adverse cardiovascular events, such as coronary heart disease or stroke. Just beware: “That doesn’t mean eat as much as you want,” warns Bazilian. “Butter derives virtually all of its calories from fat and packs a mighty punch in terms of caloric density.”
Let’s break it down. Just one tablespoon of butter contains about 100 calories and 11.5 grams of fat, 7 of which come from saturated fat. “Those 7 grams represent 35% of the total recommended daily amount of saturated fat based on a 2,000 calorie diet,” says Bazilian. By comparison, you could eat a hearty 1.25 cups of blueberries for the same amount of calories (plus fiber and antioxidants). Of course, fat is more satiating, which brings us to our next topic.
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Does butter have any redeeming nutritional qualities?
Butter is a better choice compared to margarine (which may contain trace amounts of trans fats known to raise bad LDL cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease) and other highly processed fat substitutes, says Bazilian. Still, plenty of alternatives like olive or avocado oil are lower in saturated fat and serve up added health benefits.
Calorically, butter is basically the same as olive or avocado oil (it may even contain about 30 fewer calories per serving). But the distribution of types of fat in each ingredient differ. As noted earlier, butter has the highest proportion of saturated fat, a high intake of which is associated with increased blood cholesterol levels, whereas olive and avocado oils contain more monounsaturated fats that promote heart health.
The pros and cons don’t stop there.
“Ghee, or clarified butter, has less lactose and casein and a higher smoke point than butter,” adds Bazilian. “Avocado oil has a very high smoke point and a neutral flavor that is perfect for cooking at high temperatures or baking.” Coconut oil contains MCTs, or medium-chain triglycerides, which are saturated but may behave differently (read: better) in the body compared to animal-derived saturated fats. It also has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.
When buying traditional butter, opt for organic and grass-fed varieties, if possible. Grass-fed butter is higher in conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, a fatty acid which may be associated with fat loss in humans.
“If one’s diet doesn’t include much butter, there’s really no good prescriptive reason to add it unless one needs more calories or fat, which can happen but is not common,” says Bazilian.
Healthy individuals who love butter should spread the stuff in moderation. “Stick to about a tablespoon a day,” suggests Bazilian. Because there’s a good chance you also have other sources of saturated fat (think: meat, poultry, dairy, eggs) in your diet, it’s smart to keep your butter intake in check.
Then, stress less.
“If you eat an overall nutritious menu daily including fruits and vegetables at every meal, fewer ultra-processed foods, smart proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats at meals and snacks within portions that help maintain health and weight, then the amount of butter should sort itself out,” Bazilian assures us. “You don’t have to worry too much about it.”
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If wading through grocery store aisles and perusing long food labels leaves you flummoxed, don’t fret. You’re not alone. Not even close.
“We are really all confused. We have nutrition whiplash — because of bad science, confusing headlines, dietary guidelines and polices that don’t reflect the research and are highly influenced by the research,” said Dr. Mark Hyman, the medical director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, and the author of “Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?”
Instead of overthinking things, Hyman has a simple tip: Ask yourself if something exists in nature. So if you’re faced with a choice between chips or avocados, the answer is clear.
His ideal diet is low in starches and sugars and high in rainbow-colored plant foods. “Food should and can energize, heal, repair and uplift us, rather than make us fat, sick, tired and foggy,” he said.
And he’s here to debunk some very common food myths.
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1. Red meat is healthier than chicken.
“The fat composition of grass-fed beef is actually more nutritious, and contains more antioxidants and nutrients. Chickens are fed grains and have higher levels of omega-6 fats, which are generally too abundant in our diets to begin with,” he said.
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Takeaway: Eat grass-fed meat. “I highly recommend beef, bison, goat, lamb, and sheep — look for certification by the American Grassfed Association. This ensures the animals are grass fed, treated well, have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and no imported meat,” said Hyman.
2. Low-fat or nonfat milk is not better for you than whole milk.
“Fat is among the healthiest things in milk,” he said. And a recent study backs this up.
Takeaway: Drink small amounts of whole milk from grass-fed cows, and “stick to sheep and goat’s milk products. They are less inflammatory,” he said. And to get your recommended daily calcium intake, try sesame seeds, sardines, tofu, cheese, yogurt or salmon instead.
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3. Egg whites are not better for you than egg yolks.
“The yolk is the most nutritious part of the egg. It contains all the nutrients needed to create a new life. Plus, whole eggs taste better and are more filling. And cholesterol has been exonerated. It doesn’t cause heart attacks,” he said.
Takeaway: Eat the entire egg or eat a mix of whole eggs and egg whites.
4. Low-fat or nonfat yogurt isn’t the best food option for you.
That’s because many low-fat yogurts have heaps of added sugars. “And most sweetened yogurts have more sugar than a can of soda,” said Hyman.
Takeaway: Eat full-fat yogurt because it will fill you up.
5. Fresh fruits and veggies are not always more nutritious than frozen foods.
“Sometimes, frozen varieties offer not only more convenient, but more nutrition as well. To keep fruit/veggies from rotting on its long, often overseas journey from the farms to your supermarket, it is often picked unripened,” said Hyman, meaning nutrients don’t have the time to develop fully. “Fruits and veggies are flash-frozen, right as their nutrient content peaks. And since it remains frozen until you thaw it out, you don’t have to worry about nutrition content degradation.”
Takeaway: Eat frozen organic fruits and vegetables, because they’re cheaper and always in season.
6. As for butter, you don’t need to avoid it.
“We were always advised to avoid butter, and use margarine. Bad advice, it turns out, because they’re far more toxic than the saturated fats they were meant to replace,” said Hyman.
Takeaway: Eating lots of natural, whole-food-based, healthy fats, including saturated fats, is absolutely critical for good health. Try to get butter from pastured, grass-fed cows or goats, or choose organic avocado oil, grass-fed ghee and virgin coconut oil