For years, butter—along with other types of full-fat dairy and meat—has been taboo for health-conscious eaters. With diligence, we’ve spooned our fat-free yogurt, sipped our skinny flavored lattes and booted steak from our plates, believing that saturated fat would make us fat and put us on track for heart disease.
But the spread has been making a comeback: in civilized little crocks of “house-made butter,” flecked with gray sea salt, at farm-to-table restaurants; supercharging the morning coffee of CrossFit devotees; and melting on heirloom wheat rolls at dinner parties where conscious eaters debate the meaning of “local.”
This reversal coincides with two headline-grabbing studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine—and a June Time cover trumpeting “Eat Butter”—suggesting that maybe our fear of fat was seriously unfounded. The first study, out in March, combed the results of 76 research papers and found that total saturated-fat intake seemed to have no major association with heart disease risk. This fall, a second study concluded that a lower-carb and higher-fat diet helped people lose weight and reduced their risk for heart disease—even when they ate more saturated fat.
Although both studies met with criticism, the firestorm they set off pointed toward a growing opinion that, as Cara Ebbeling, Ph.D., an obesity researcher and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, puts it, “the case against saturated fat is not closed.” And that perhaps demonizing an entire food group has created its own unhealthy fallout.
How did fat become public enemy number one? The nutrient—which helps in cell-membrane formation, among other functions, and is necessary for survival—contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. Since weight gain is generally thought to result from eating more calories than you burn, it follows that eating a higher proportion of fat could lead to extra pounds.
But fat really came under fire by the 1960s, when researchers concluded that saturated fats raise cholesterol (a substance made by the body that circulates in the blood and can build up in the coronary arteries). Finally, in 1980, the USDA issued its first dietary guidelines, directing Americans to avoid eating too much cholesterol and to decrease fat consumption—effectively institutionalizing fat phobia in the United States.
Ever since, with the exception of a few vocal adherents to the meat-glorifying Atkins and Paleo diets, we have taken this as dietary gospel, reducing fat from about 45 percent of total calories to roughly 33 percent (the USDA recommends just 20 to 35 percent). But cutting back on fat didn’t make Americans leaner or healthier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, obesity rates have more than doubled, affecting over a third of the population, while 69 percent are overweight. The kicker? Heart disease is still the leading cause of death.
So, was the case against fat flawed from the get-go? Some in the medical community believe that the original advice to cut back on fat was based not on causal evidence but selective observations of some populations with lower-fat diets and low rates of heart disease. What’s more, we have since learned that while saturated fat raises “bad” LDL cholesterol, it can also boost “good” HDL, which is heart-protective, and could make up for some of the harm.
Meanwhile, fats have proven to be a complex group of chemicals that add crucial nutrition to our diet. By the mid-’90s, scientists realized that mono- and polyunsaturated fats in olives, nuts and avocados all lower “bad” cholesterol. One type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseed and grass-fed meat and dairy, may protect the heart. (Incidentally, grass-fed butter is a key ingredient in that trendy hot buttered coffee, reputed to curb cravings.) Also in fat’s favor: It’s more satiating than carbs, so you’re less likely to overeat.
This was a lesson learned during the 1980s lowfat craze. National weight gain patterns mirrored a rise in carb consumption, largely because commercial food manufacturers, to replace the flavor boost of fat, jacked up their products with simple carbs like sugar. But now there’s evidence that a diet high in sugar wreaks a similar type of damage as that caused by some saturated fat. A study published in February in the JAMA Internal Medicine linked high intake of added sugar with elevated risk for heart disease death. “What seems to matter most is what you replace saturated fat with,” concludes Jessica Fanzo, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.
There’s little consensus, though most experts say further research is needed “to understand if eating a higher percentage of fat makes a huge difference in weight and health,” according to Fanzo. But the theory is difficult to test. “People don’t just eat saturated fat,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “All food fats contain mixtures of different types of fat”—bacon, for instance, is about 32 percent saturated, 42 percent monounsaturated and 11 percent polyunsaturated. “So what do you do with that?” she asks.
Or with the fact that we tend to eat fatty foods in combination with other foods? Take the hamburger, says registered dietitian Andy Bellatti: “One big source of saturated fat is usually eaten along with refined-white-flour buns, oil- and salt-soaked French fries, and sugar-laden drinks, so it’s hard to know what is the real problem.” Bellatti notes that while we use saturated fat as an umbrella term, there are a variety of fatty acids. “We need to reexamine the idea that all saturated fats are equally harmful.”
So what’s a healthy foodie to do? “It’s very likely that we’ve exaggerated the impact of saturated fat, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to start eating it with abandon,” says Ricardo Salvador, Ph.D., director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. Cooking like Escoffier or going full-on Southern comfort with buttery biscuits and chicken-fried steak isn’t sustainable, either.
Rather, butter is something to be savored, like a nice red wine or piece of dark chocolate, both of which are healthy in moderation. “How bad is saturated fat? It’s the wrong question,” Nestle says. “Rather, what does your whole diet look like? Eat real food, don’t eat junk, stay active and eat your veggies.” In that context, butter is a permissible luxury. So treat it that way. Spread it on your multigrain toast. Toss it in your sautéed spinach. Savor the salt and the sweet of it and notice how—in grass-fed versions—the flavor can change subtly throughout the year. Yes, butter is back—just don’t abuse a good thing.
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