Butter has been wrongfully implicated as a dangerous food capable of causing heart disease. As a result of decades of misguided public policy, millions of people have avoided this healthy food. The result? As butter consumption dropped, heart disease has risen. But in a recent major paradigm shift in the medical world, doctors are reluctantly beginning to acknowledge that they had misattributed saturated fats as a cause of heart disease, and underestimated the role of sugar.
Meanwhile in Sweden…
The Swedish medical community has been about a decade ahead of the US in its rejection of the saturated-fat paradigm. Abandoning low-fat diets, Swedes have been eating more and more butter each year. As they consume more butter (but less sugar), their incidences of heart disease falls.
How could doctors have gone so wrong?
Our medical community generally does the best it can with the tools and evidence it has on hand, and our understanding of things like cholesterol evolve with the research findings. Saturated fat originally had a bad reputation because it increases low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or LDL, which has been shown to raise the risk of heart attacks. But we’re learning that the relationship between saturated fat and cholesterol is complicated. LDL increases, but so does high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol. And the LDL it raises is actually a harmless form called LDL pattern A. LDL pattern A is big and fluffy and doesn’t cause blockages that lead to heart attacks.
The more dangerous LDL, called LDL pattern B, is actually caused by sugary foods and excess carbohydrates in the diet.
Consider some of the recent research on the topic:
“Insufficient evidence of association is present for intake of … saturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids; total fat … meat, eggs and milk.”
- Mente A, et al. A systematic review of the evidence supporting a causal link between dietary factors and coronary heart disease. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Apr 13;169(7):659-69.
“The observational evidence does not support the hypothesis that dairy fat or high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or cardiometabolic risk…”
- Kratz M, et al. The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European Journal of Nutrition, Online First™, 18 July 2012
“…no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”
- Siri-Tarino PW, et al. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46.
The benefits of butter
Butter can be a rich and natural source of many nutrients. Among them:
- Vitamin A – 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.
- Vitamin E and selenium – both containing vital anti-oxidants.
- Lecithin – assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol and other fat constituents
- Fatty acids – short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are not stored in the adipose tissue, but are used for quick energy.
- Glycospingolipids – a special category of fatty acids that protect against gastro-intestinal infection, especially in the very young and the elderly.
The debate rages on
Not everyone in the medical community agrees. Dr. Alice H Lichtenstein at Tufts University says “The majority of the evidence suggests that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces heart disease risk, whereas replacing saturated fat with carbohydrate does not.” Her concerns are echoed by many other doctors who point to the efficacy of statins, the most popular type of prescribed medicine in the world, which have been proven to reduce heart attacks by controlling cholesterol.
A word of caution
While we at Power 20 feel that butter on its own is not a threat to our health, butter’s health benefits are dramatically undermined when it is coupled with sugar and wheat products. Donuts, ice cream, and most pastries are a powerful combination of butter and sugar that will help you put on fat fast. A smarter use of butter is as a cooking medium (at low heat) and as flavoring for food.