Review: Eat Butter

“Eat Butter” was the front page story headline for the June 23 edition of Time magazine.  I rarely buy magazines but couldn’t resist this one in the grocery line a couple of weeks ago, I started reading it right there and thought I should write about it as it’s a pretty hot topic full of controversy!

Is fat as bad as we have been led to believe?  If we reduce our fat intake, eat a diet rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean meat, low fat dairy and low fat processed foods we will decrease our risk of cardiovascular disease.  That is the message we have been hearing for several decades.

Well according to this article, Americans have decreased their consumption of whole milk, eggs, butter, refined white sugar, beef and vegetables (veggies are down 3% – I am a diehard fan always cheering for the underdog and am still convinced that one day vegetables will come out strong!).  Americans increased their consumption of high fructose corn syrup, corn products, skim milk, chicken, turkey and added fats (corn oil).  High fructose corn syrup consumption has increased by a ridiculous 8,853% and that is not a typo!!  How outrageous is that?!!?

What is most compelling to note is that while deaths attributed to heart disease have dropped, cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer in the United States and Canada (it is ranked second after cancer). Diabetes in the United States has increased by 166% from 1980-2012.  In Canada there was a 70% increase in the prevalence of diabetes from only 1998-2008!  So, if we decreased our fat consumption, ate more grains and low fat foods why didn’t we see a bigger decrease in heart disease?

That is the debate, and researchers are speculating many reasons. One major reason is the excess consumption of refined carbohydrates like bread (AKA wheat), sugar, low fat crackers, pasta, etc. Just look at how much our consumption of high fructose corn syrup has increased a whopping 8,000%.  It’s added to everything as a cheaper alternative to sugar, and it is used in the production of fat replacers. Researchers have discovered that excess carbohydrates cause an increase in small particle LDL (bad cholesterol) which is stickier than large particle LDL (caused from eating excess fat).  Small particle LDL is what tends to stick to the lining of our blood vessels increasing the risk for blocked arteries and thereby increasing the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

The Mediterranean diet is one of the most robustly studied patterns of eating compared to any other diet or single nutrient assessing the association to heart disease.  This pattern of eating is not considered low fat (averaging 40% of total calories coming from primarily monounsaturated fat) and yet produces a lower risk of heart disease.  An excellent meta-analysis published in 2009 stated there is no single nutrient that can be blamed for causing or preventing heart disease.  The conclusion was that the best way to prevent heart disease is to eat a balanced diet which is rich in many nutrients that create a synergistic effect ultimately leading to a lower risk of heart disease.

While the evidence about fat not being evil has been mounting, the general perception is that fat is bad and why wouldn’t this be the case? We have only spent the past 3 decades or more building this case and presenting research to support it.  No wonder everyone is so confused!!  Who and what exactly are we supposed to believe?

I will attempt to keep it simple.  Fat is not bad.  In fact some essential roles fat plays include it’s role for healthy skin, tissue, transporting fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), a source of fuel, provides essential fatty acids our body can’t produce, is essential in proper brain development of infants and is involved in regulating body temperature.  Not to mention that fat makes our food taste good.  Fat however is dense in calories so just like any other nutrient, we need to make sure we eat it in moderation.

As for the types of fat, well the only one I recommend staying away from is trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats.  This was one of those well intentioned creations of researchers taking a healthy oil that is liquid at room temperature and adding some hydrogen bonds to turn the oil into a solid at room temperature.  This was done so vegetable based oils could be used in processed foods and extend the shelf life.  Turns out that wasn’t such a good idea.

Butter fits into a balanced diet along with avocados, olive oil, omega 3 fats from fish, lean meats, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, etc. As long as we aim for 30-40% of our overall calories coming from fat we can enjoy it!  If you wish to make butter neutral you can make better butter by taking 1lb of butter and blending in 1 cup of olive oil.

While I agree with the consensus that the consumption of carbohydrates has increased and plays a role in the risk of heart disease, I think it may be wise for us to not be so quick to banish another essential nutrient like carbohydrates.  Instead I recommend balance.  Carbohydrate is just a fancy word for sugar.  Foods containing carbohydrates include grains, cereals, breads, crackers, pasta, fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, legumes (beans and lentils) and sugar.  Instead of over consuming on grains, pasta, breads, desserts, etc; eat more vegetables (approximately 1-2 cups at lunch and supper meals) and fruit (2 servings per day).  Eat whole foods and make your body do what it was intended to do-digest food.  This will leave you feeling more satisfied for longer compared to eating a highly processed food you pulled out of a box from the supermarket.  At the same time you will decrease your consumption of all of the non-food based additives used in processed foods to keep it fresh, make it taste good, etc.   Because based on all of my clinical experience all the non-food based additives in fat free, sugar free products surely have an impact on our health.  The sad reality is that I have yet to see any research study look at the impact of non-food based additives used in our food supply together, with all of the medications and supplements prescribed to reduce heart disease.

One thing science has taught me is there is never just one smoking gun when it comes to any disease. It’s always an accumulative effect of several factors that increase our risk of disease. So enjoy your butter in balance with all the other fine things life has to offer!