Is butter healthy? If you would have asked me that while growing up I would have said, “Duh. No.”
But I have a confession: I love butter. Real butter. You know, that yellowy goodness that comes from cream. I love it. I’ve even made my own butter. A number of times. For a long time, I felt all alone in my love affair. Luckily, the internet is full of real foodies who also dream in butter. And thankfully, the world is starting to see the health benefits of butter.
Still, I know other people who like butter and want to enjoy it, but they can’t love it because of the guilt they feel when they eat it. They will eat butter, but only after making a comment about a “heart attack on a plate” or some other once publicly accepted cliché about the evils of butter. Because, when asked “is butter healthy” the socially acceptable thing is to say: No way.
So let’s change that. Read on to find out several reasons why these commonly held perceptions are not true at all. You will see that (in moderation, of course) butter can be a great addition to your diet.
What’s the deal? Why are people so anti-butter?
Maybe it’s the cholesterol. It will kill you, right?
Maybe it’s fat. Fat, fat, fat! Fat is bad. Fat makes us fat. Get rid of the fat! Butter be gone!!!!
Maybe it’s not just the fat, but the saturated fat. You know, the leaders of the bad guys.
Surely you’ve heard all these arguments before. You’ve heard about how butter is one of those high-fat dairy products that is nothingbut bad news. And to be fair, yes, there is a lot of fat in butter, and butter is high in calories. But these are also things that you need in a healthy diet. You will find that most of the negative effects of butter are moderation related.
Should You Avoid Butter?
That’s what the nutrition world would have you believe. Some time ago I noticed the following article making the rounds on Pinterest:
It’s a Better Homes and Garden “eat this, not that” piece. This particular one gives all sort of “great” (ugh!) substitutions in baking. You know, like swapping out a real ingredient (butter) for a highly processed, full of fake-garbage one. Yeah, like marshmallow cream.
I get so angry when I see things like this. Clearly this is a clever marketing ploy by the company of the gross marshmallow goo. But the problem is people believe it. Good people. REALLY good people. People trying to get healthy. People who are doing their best to feed their kids right. People who have been battling toward weight loss for years wondering just how much “lower” they can make their low-fat diet. People who believe everything that the disastrous food pyramid says they should do.
I’ve already talked about why you should not be afraid of real fats. But until then, can I just talk a little bit about why you (yes, YOU!) should absolutely, positively have NO FEAR of butter?
Is Butter Healthy? YES!
Check out these butter facts:
- Butter has been around for thousands of years—going back to when our ancestors first started domesticating animals. In fact, the first written reference to butter was found on a 4500- year old limestone tablet illustrating how butter was made. (1)
- People around the globe have valued butter for its life-sustaining properties.
When Dr. Weston Price studied native diets in the 1930’s he found that butter was a staple in the diets of many supremely healthy peoples. Isolated Swiss villagers placed a bowl of butter on their church altars, set a wick in it, and let it burn throughout the year as a sign of divinity in the butter. Arab groups also put a high value on butter, especially deep yellow-orange butter from livestock feeding on green grass in the spring and fall. American folk wisdom recognized that children raised on butter were robust and sturdy; but that children given skim milk during their growing years were pale and thin, with “pinched” faces (2).
- Butter is rich in trace minerals, especially selenium, a powerful antioxidant. Ounce for ounce, butter has more selenium per gram than either whole wheat or garlic (3).
- Butter also supplies iodine, needed by the thyroid gland (as well as vitamin A, also needed by the thyroid gland) (3).
- Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which gives excellent protection against cancer. Range-fed cows produce especially high levels of CLA as opposed to “stall fed” cattle (3).
- Butter is rich in short and medium chain fatty acid chains that have strong anti-tumor effects. Butter also contains conjugated linoleic acid which gives excellent protection against cancer (2).
- Butter contains butyrate, which is a fatty acid with a number of beneficial properties – including helping digestive issues and helping to regulate weight.
But doesn’t butter cause heart disease?
Yeah, that’s a myth.A big one, too.Butter is not a major factor in causing cardiovascular disease (at least not in appropriate moderation).Consider this:
Heart disease was rare in America at the turn of the century. Between 1920 and 1960, the incidence of heart disease rose precipitously to become America’s number one killer. During the same period butter consumption plummeted from eighteen pounds per person per year to four. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in statistics to conclude that butter is not a cause (2).
- Butter is America’s best and most easily absorbed source of vitamin A. Consider that vitamin A is needed for the health of the thyroid and adrenal glands, both of which play a role in maintaining the proper functioning of the heart and cardiovascular system.
- Butter contains lecithin, a substance that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol and other fat constituents.
- Butter also contains a number of anti-oxidants that protect against the kind of free radical damage that weakens the arteries.
- Butter has been shown to help with growth and development, gastrointestinal health, arthritis, and helps protect the immune system.
- Butter is also a good dietary source cholesterol.
But isn’t cholesterol bad?
In a nutshell, no. Our bodies need cholesterol. A lot. In fact, high cholesterol levels are associated with longevity. Perhaps this is the real reason the French outlive us, not red wine (4).
Cholesterol is not the problem – it is the body’s way of solving a problem. Lowering cholesterol is just addressing a symptom and putting the body further out of balance. Too low of cholesterol is bad. The total cholesterol number is not a good indicator of heart disease risk factor despite what you may have heard from your doctor, but a sign of ongoing inflammation in the body. Real Fat is not the culprit – grains, sugars, and vegetable oils are much worse (5).
In fact, too low of cholesterol can harm you:
- The sex hormones are made from cholesterol. Lowered cholesterol often results in decreased libido and increased infertility and miscarriage.
- Sixty percent of the brain is made of cholesterol! Levels under 180 are associated with increases in depression, dementia and mental illness.
- Cholesterol is not a fat, but is a type of steroid alcohol. It moves at lightening speed. In fact, there is more cholesterol in muscle meat than in fat!
- Cholesterol is used to repair tissue throughout the body.
Blaming cholesterol for clogging arteries is like blaming a policeman for a bank robbery just because he showed up after the crime has taken place. Cholesterol happens to be the last substance the body sends out to rescue the damaged artery (4).
Is all butter healthy?
Not necessarily. Where your butter comes from (and how the animals were treated) do affect the quality of the product (including vitamin content). When looking for good quality butter, raw and cultured is best. This might be hard to find, however. Organic butter is your next best thing, with store-bought CAFO butter being at the bottom.
Another important consideration with butter is whether it is grass fed or grain fed. If you have the choice, grass-fed is the way to go. Unfortunately, most dairy cows are fed with mass-produced grain products. Lucky cows are allowed to graze and eat fresh grass. These grass-fed cows are healthier overall, and this results in them producing more nutrient-rich dairy products. The resulting butter tends to have more healthy fats, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to find these healthy dairy alternatives in a market where everything is mass-produced to be as cheap as possible. Additionally, these options tend to be quite a bit more expensive as well.
But even if you can’t afford (or find) quality butter, commercial butter still outshines the butter “alternatives” any day.
What do I mean by butter “alternatives”? The most common of these is Margarine. Let me be as simple as possible about this:
Margarine is not healthy. Real butter is healthy.
Whoa. Everything I knew about nutrition during my first two decades of life have just been shattered by those simple statements.
Let’s dive deeper and see the reason why margarine can’t even come close to offering the health benefits that butter can.
Butter vs. Margarine: The big match-up
Butter: A traditional food that’s been around for thousands of years and held sacred by many people (1).
Margarine: Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory substitute for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes. French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name “margarine”. The concept was patented in 1869 (2).
See a trend here? It’s a pretty safe bet that anything made to be a cheap alternative for mass feeding a massive group of people probably isn’t going to have health as the top priority. And that is certainly the case with margarine.
Butter: Full of vitamins, minerals, and real fats to promote health in a number of ways.
- All margarines are made from assorted vegetable oils that have been heated to extremely high temperatures, making them rancid.
- After that, a nickel catalyst is added, along with hydrogen atoms to solidify it. Nickel is a toxic heavy metal and amounts always remain in the finished product. Finally, deodorants and colorings are added to remove margarine’s horrible smell (from the rancid oils) and unappetizing grey color.
- Hydrogenated fats and an excess of long chain fatty acids found in polyunsaturated oils and many butter substitutes both have a deleterious effect on the immune system.
- In many butter substitutes, during the solidification process, harmful trans-fatty acids are created which are carcinogenic and mutagenic (3).
In the 1940’s, research indicated that increased fat intake caused cancer. The abandonment of butter accelerated; margarine–formerly a poor man’s food– was accepted by the well-to-do. But there was a small problem with the way this research was presented to the public. The popular press neglected to stress that fact that the “saturated” fats used in these experiments were not naturally saturated fats but partially hydrogenated or hardened fats–the kind found mostly in margarine but not in butter. Researchers stated–they may have even believed it–that there was no difference between naturally saturated fats in butter and artificially hardened fats in margarine and shortening. So butter was tarred with the black brush of the fabricated fats, and in such a way that the villains got passed off as heroes (1).
What would you rather have: A real food full of healthful qualities
or a stick of carcinogenic, bleached, and deodorized “stuff”?
Okay, so margarine is not healthy…
But what about those “buttery” spreads that say they are full of “good” polyunsaturated oils?
It’s true that some intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids are important to our health (take Omega-3 fatty acids for example), but excessive intake is actually linked to chronic disease. It’s really about balance. I’ve read that the ideal ratio is 3:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but some research indicates that the ideal ratio might actually be closer to 1:1. Regardless, we are not even close, as most people eat far higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3s.
In fact, excessive consumption of these oils is actually linked to cancer, heart disease, damage to bodily organs, impaired growth and obesity (3).;
And don’t forget:
Polyunsaturated fats degrade and go rancid very easily leaving them susceptible to oxidation and high levels of free radicals. When heated, as in the creation of margarine or cooking and baking, the oils become more of a health hazard than a healthy food. So even if your spread says “no trans fat” (which isn’t necessarily true), they are still composed of highly processed rancid vegetable oils.
So, there you have it. Butter is not evil. Butter is healthy.
…And margarine is not healthy. When I find myself making cookies I definitely do not worry about the butter or eggs that go in. In fact, they are the redeeming qualities of the cookies. Don’t get rid of them for some man-made cancer-in-a-jar marshmallow cream. Pah-LEASE.
The Root of the Problem
I’ve just spent a pretty long time explaining why butter is a healthy choice, and its range of alternatives are not. However, Ishould mention the one caveat, and perhaps the reason that butter has developed such a bad-rep in the first place, and that is that everything should be consumed in moderation.
Moderation is the key to diet, and you can overdo anything, especially something that is high fat, high calories, and really tasty.
Is butter high in fat and calories? Of course it is. It is one of the most calorie dense foods I can think of. But your body needs calories, and it needs the fats that are found in butter. So as long as you don’t overdo it, you will end up with a pretty excellent source of these two foundations of nutrition.
So if you hear people say that butter can lead to poor heart health, or that butter caused them to gain weight, they might be right. But the real issue, and this runs through all diet, is moderation. How much you eat of something is often just as important of a consideration as what you eat.
Pass It On!!!
So help me spread the word. Help me put to ease the minds of those good-intentioned mothers—those healthy minded folks—who have been ditching the good stuff for a fake counterfeit. And just in case you didn’t get the point:
Substituting your butter for something fake will not make you healthy!
If you really don’t like butter (or choose not to eat it for other reasons) consider substituting it with other real fats like coconut oil and lard (clean, non-hydrogenated, of course) if you will be heating it or high quality olive oil if you won’t be heating it.
That’s right, lard isn’t bad either. (Read more about that here.)
So that’s the end of my passionate plea. Hopefully by now you can see how butter has gained a rather unfair rep over the years.
So perhaps the most important point is this – a good diet starts with a good understanding of nutrition. You need to know what is good and what isn’t good to put in your body. So take the time to read ingredients lists, educate yourself on what these ingredients actually are, and put the effort into learning about the science behind it all. It might turn out that – such as with butter – the things you are eating aren’t quite what you think they are.
You will definitely be happy you put in the research, it is one of the best long-term choices you can make for your body!