Just eat the butter (or don’t)
“I need to know your thoughts on butter.”
This was part of a text from my mother the other morning. She’d been talking with my uncle (a brilliant surgeon, who has performed more than a few bariatric surgeries), and he had decidedly told her not to eat butter. She was confused – hadn’t TIME magazine declared butter back on the Healthy list a few months ago? Don’t French women eat a ton of butter all the time and suffer none of the same consequences as us Americans? Even Harvard (Harvard!) weighed in on the issue.
When Harvard takes a stance, my mother takes notice.
So, do we eat butter, or not? First, let’s get a little background into the issue of why we’re even talking about this at all…
Some background information
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. Fat has seemed to be the biggest food and health issue in the news since 1961, when Ancel Keys graced the cover of TIME (this is a theme). Keys is most well-known for his Seven Countries Study, documenting correlations between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease in seven different countries around the world. This became known as the Lipid Hypothesis, and has dominated our views on health and nutrition ever since. In actuality, these seven countries were cherry-picked from a total of 22 for their similar findings, but really – we don’t need to go into details of later criticisms of this work to get to the heart (eh?) of this issue.
These broad-based studies are interesting, certainly, but may not actually be of much nutritional help at all. For starters, epidemiological studies often rely on the testimony of participants to obtain information. I’m not saying that people lie on purpose, but I’ll put it out there: people lie about what they eat. Even excluding that, it’s hard to study the effects of diet, without also taking into account lifestyle, environment, and other cultural factors that may interfere with the data.
Next – and this is important, so remember it – correlation does not equal causation. My favorite example used to explain this is ice cream sales and drowning: ice cream sales increase during the same time of year as drowning deaths. Do we then assume that eating ice cream increases your chance of drowning? Maybe…but probably not.
So, seriously, what about the butter?
Oh, right. Focus. So, what does this all mean for us? What do we do? Should we avoid saturated fats? Animal fats? All fats? Only eat fats? Probably none of those!
Instead of focusing on what nutrients to eat, or not to eat, we need to shift our attention to foods as a whole, and look at the big picture. Think about it- are you going to switch from butter to margarine? If so, just eat the butter. Overly processed, artificially flavored and colored, and just not as good tasting as butter, margarine begs the question – what’s the point? Not to mention the whole trans fats thing – even the FDA is now recognizing that trans fats are unsafe. They may be late to the party, but at least they got there.
Are you replacing butter with coconut oil? Olive oil? Well, this might not be a bad switch. Many people have issues with dairy products, and oftentimes eliminating butter can be helpful. Additionally, both of these oils actually pretty high in vitamins and minerals, when of high quality. Then again, so is butter.
Again, we’re getting caught up in the micro-issues of diet, and not looking at the big picture. So, here we go – how much butter are you actually eating? Probably not that much in comparison to veggies, fruits, nuts, grains, meat, eggs, fish, other dairy and (hopefully not too much) junk food. So, here’s the deal: whether or not you eat butter is of less importance overall than what you’re eating for the bulk of your diet. If you focus on eating high quality whole foods as the basis, it doesn’t really matter as much whether you put olive oil or butter on that roasted asparagus.
It all goes back to eating along that whole foods spectrum. Try to eat as many whole foods as you can. Try to eat mostly plants . Try to avoid eating overly processed or completely artificial food-like-stuffs, and try to source your food as responsibly as possible. If you’re following those guidelines, you can stop worrying about the butter.
So, just eat the butter (or don’t), but please don’t eat margarine.