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From Time magazine to new books like The Big Fat Surprise to the web – we see and hear reports of how butter is back and it is the supposed missing link to good health.
But Is Butter Really Healthy?
Is butter truly good for you?
What Does the Research Say?
To find the answer to this question, researchers from Tufts University placed six groups of subjects on diets that were all equal except for one factor – the source of refined fat used. In each group, a minimum of two-thirds of the fat came either from soybean oil, “squeeze-bottle” margarine, soft margarine, shortening, stick margarine, or butter.
Which fat caused the highest blood cholesterol levels?
Cholesterol levels were highest among participants who used butter and lowest among those who used the soybean-oil and semiliquid-margarine diets.
Does this mean oil and semiliquid margarine are healthy choices? Not at all. Cholesterol levels most certainly could have been even lower if whole foods, such as nut butters or avocados, were one of the fat options. But the study does make us wonder if butter is not the “darling” the media makes it out to be.
Butter’s True Character Revealed
In the GISSI-Prevenzione Study, a large-scale clinical trial which involved five groups of heart attack survivors, those who consumed the most butter had a 2.6 times greater risk of dying within 42 months after their heart attack.
A recent article in the journal Cancer showed a strong positive correlation between breast cancer and ovarian cancer mortality rates and animal fat consumption.
An article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that countries with a higher intake of fat, especially fat from animal products (like butter), have a higher incidence of breast cancer.
Research also shows that animal fats increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and reduce brain functioning in the short term.
The Problem with Butter
One of the biggest issuse with butter is its high saturated fat content. But, lately, we’ve been hearing that saturated fat is good for us. Is this true?
Numerous studies, including one published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving 11,000 people with saturated fat intake ranging from 6% of calories to more than 13% of calories, found those with highest saturated fat intake had 3 times the risk of dying of heart disease, compared with diets that had very little saturated fat.
But saturated fat is not butter’s only downside.
It’s well known that estrogens encourage the growth of many breast tumors. Research shows that a diet high in animal fats increases the amount of estrogens and reduces the number of carrier molecules that keep estrogens in check, thus increasing the incidence of breast cancer by 3 times.
Many studies have linked the incidence of prostate cancer to the consumption of animal fat and dairy products.
A study of 47,896 men found that “choline intake was associated with an increased risk of lethal prostate cancer.” Choline is found in animal products.
The Physicians’ Health Study which followed over 20,000 men for 28 years found that men who drank more than 1 glass of milk per day had double the risk for fatal prostate cancer.
Is Organic Butter Better? Is Butter from Grass-Fed Cows Better?
What about organic animal products? What about using butter or milk from pasture-fed cows?
Even though organic milk and butter may contain fewer contaminants, and milk and butter from grass-fed cows may offer a slightly higher nutrient profile than products from conventionally-raised cows, they still contain the components that increase risk for disease, such as heart disease, obesity, hypertension, dementia, diabetes, and some cancers.
For example, let’s look at milk from a cow that’s been grass-fed organically. Even if it has fewer contaminants and slightly more nutrients, it is still a source of saturated fat and casein (a cancer-causing agent), and it’s also loaded with a plethora of naturally-occurring hormones, including thyroid hormones, pituitary hormones, steroid hormones, hypothalamic hormones, and growth factors (including IGF-1 – a powerful cancer promoter for the human system).
We can see real-life examples of the negative health effects of organic, pasture-raised animal products in the lives of the nomadic people in Central Asia during the early 1900’s. The diet of the nomads consisted primarily of milk and meat from organic, grass-fed animals living a far more natural life than any animal in the U.S. today ever dreamed of living. These people experienced high rates of atherosclerosis and obesity.
Why the Recent Butter Craze?
“Butter is Back”
“Ending the War on Butter”
“Butter: The New Health Food”
It’s all over the media. What’s up with butter?
In late 2008, the global dairy industry held a meeting in Mexico City and made plans to “neutralize the negative impact of milkfat by regulators and medical professionals”. Subsequently, they found scientists who would work with them and provided them with funding to perform “research” that would make the public disbelieve the connection between saturated fat and disease. Ever since the beginning of 2009 we’ve been seeing articles and hearing media reports based on shaky science promoting the benefits of saturated fats.
In early 2014, researchers combined data from several studies, and a paper was published reporting no significant link between saturated fat and heart disease was found. The media grabbed this news and ran with it. However, several scientists – and even some of the report authors themselves – have expressed concern about the numerous errors in the report and have shown where incorrect numbers were pulled from many of the original studies. Many scientists are calling for a retraction.
Furthermore, there were several studies that were not involved in this analysis, including many that have shown that diets low in saturated fats reduce incidence of heart attacks and strokes. (* See note at bottom of post for more info.)
Big Fat Confusion
Another factor adding to the confusion is diets rich in butter are often compared with unhealthy “low-fat” diets composed of processed foods. That’s like comparing smashing your thumb with a brick versus smashing your entire hand with a brick. Sure, smashing only my thumb would be a little better, but if I had a choice I’d rather avoid both scenarios.
The paper I mentioned above also neglected to address what people who reduced their intake of saturated fats consumed instead. If saturated fat is replaced with junk food, then it’s very easy to see how reducing saturated fat intake would have no health benefits.
Butter vs an Unhealthy, Low-Fat Diet
In the Time article I referred to at the beginning of this post, the author equated skim milk, margarine, dinner rolls, and non-fat ranch dressing with a low fat diet. Compared to this very pathetic example of a low-fat diet, it’s easy to make butter look good.
Are these the only two options? Thankfully, no.
Butter vs a Healthy Diet
For years, thousands of studies and reams of research have shown a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, a moderate amount of nuts and seeds, and a minimal amount of processed foods to be preventative against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and cognitive decline.
Whole, plant-based foods. Simple. But I suppose that would be a rather boring story for Time.
Butter is a healthful choice? Where is the research to back this up? They don’t really have much to stand on.
On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that animal fats contribute to disease. Here are just a few examples:
Cholesterol May Cloud Your Thinking
According to a report from the Archives of Neurology excess cholesterol impairs memory, language, orientation, and other brain functions.
Breast Cancer Again Linked to Animal Fat
Harvard researchers conducted a prospective analysis of 90,655 premenopausal women aged 26 to 46 and determined the intake of animal fat during premenopausal years is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. An increased risk was not associated with eating vegetable fats.
The Fewer Animal Products, the Less Weight Gained
International Journal of Obesity reported on a cross-sectional study that showed the fewer animal products in the diet the less weight gained over a 5-year period.
A Diet without Animal Fats Reduces the Risk of Diabetes
In 2009, the Adventist Health Study, a study involving more than 60,000 men and women, found that the prevalence of diabetes in individuals on a vegan (plant-based) diet was 2.9%, compared with 7.6% in the nonvegetarians.
Plant-Based Diet Caused Regression of Coronary Atherosclerosis
In the Lifestyle Heart Trial, Ornish found that 82% of patients with diagnosed heart disease who followed a plant-based regimen (allowing 10% of calories from fat, 15% to 20% from protein, and 70% to 75% from carbohydrate, and less than 5 mg cholesterol per day) had some level of regression of atherosclerosis after one year. Fifty-three percent of the control group had progression of atherosclerosis.
After 5 years, stenosis in the plant-based group decreased. The control group experienced a progression of stenosis.
Plant-Based Diet Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Total Mortality in Adults
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found that plant-based diets were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with non-plant-based diets.
The Cold, Creamy Facts
No matter what you see on TV, the internet, in books, or in magazines, study after study have shown that animal fats – including butter – are damaging to health. Some research shows that replacing animal fats with plant oils rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats lowers the risk of many diseases, but the best option is to eliminate as much oil as possible from the diet. ALL oils are a refined/processed product.
What Should I Eat!?!
We would do well to lean toward a diet based on whole, plant foods.
Use avocado or hummus on bread (instead of margarine), nuts or nut butters in cookies (to replace at least some of the butter or margarine), and seeds or nuts as a base for salad dressing (instead of oil).
If you’d like more help eating a healthy diet, check out the delicious meal plans and recipes in my Weight Loss Program.