Butter Up the Holidays?

December 19, 2017 in Health by Joyce Bunderson

The holidays are approaching at full tilt. I hope to be ready. Even with all my planning and working ahead, it’s always up to the stars being properly aligned. It’s easy to get enormously busy during the holidays, but my suggestion is for us to include a moment to be sure our thinking is ready before arriving at the table or buffet. Clear thinking can possibly protect us and serve us well too.

It seems to me that the deceiving headlines from a year or so ago about butter being back, have not been corrected in many people’s minds. You might even hear “butter it up, it’s good for you.” I like butter as much as the next guy; but let’s not allow our taste buds to lead us to early heart disease. It seems that during the holidays, there’s plenty of opportunity to butter it up; and there may even be pressure from well-meaning relatives and friends to do so.

Let me share some evidence for you to push back against Uncle John’s “butter is back and safe” announcement. It’s not exactly a news flash, but the evidence is strong. The numbers are large – health professionals were studied (over 115,000 participants); and they were followed for up to 28 years. The study was published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ) in November 2016.

The study plainly showed that replacing saturated fat (found in meat, poultry skin, butter, baked goods, processed foods, palm and coconut oil), with polyunsaturated fat (found in liquid vegetable oils, nuts and seafood) is associated with lower heart disease risk. But in addition to looking at the overall fat content, the BMJ study broke the fatty acids out independently (lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic) – that’s a super bonus that helps us answer some additional research questions that affect our decisions about butter and other sources of saturated fats.

If you read this blog frequently, you may notice that I strive not to get too scientific (That is, I strive to focus on food and not on nutrients or the scientific components of food.) But please bear with me while I discuss only two of those four fatty acids, the ones found in butter, palmitic acid and stearic acid. Some research prior to the BMJ study suggested that stearic acid might have no damaging effect on heart health. It’s very hard to separate out palmitic from stearic acid anyway, because both types tend to come from the same sources. Butter, for example, is 45% palmitic acid and 52% stearic acid. But the argument that stearic acid is not risky is not looking good, even if it were possible to separate one or the other out of the butter. The BMJ study found that both palmitic and stearic acids increase heart disease risk by 18%.

One of the confounding factors in previous studies is the fact that many of the earlier studies used processed carbohydrates (sugar and flour) to replace saturated fat. April 28, 2010, over seven years ago, I wrote a blog titled Revisiting the Snackwell Syndrome; I tried to explain this issue, clear back then. Unfortunately, a higher intake of refined carbohydrate increases heart disease risk. So if you do research and replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrate you are merely replacing one unhealthy ingredient with a different one.

Qi Sun, the senior author of the BMJ study and an assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health was quoted in Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter in May 2017 as saying that replacing just 1% of daily calories from the predominant saturated fatty acids with the same amount of calories from polyunsaturated fat, whole grains or plant proteins (such as legumes) was associated with a 6 to 8% reduced risk of heart disease.

Consequently the BMJ study actually should encourage us to ignore the “butter is back” PR and reduce our saturated fat intake. And when we replace those calories, replace them with unsaturated fat, whole grains, or plant proteins. It’s the holiday season, but you may want to have your thoughts set on eating butter (and other saturated fat sources) sparingly.