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It's OK to Eat Butter - Again

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Jeffrey Heyden-Kaye via Getty Images
Jeffrey Heyden-Kaye via Getty Images

Once again, expert opinion and the official stance on fats have changed. Haven't we been down this road before? That's right, earlier this year we had to apologize to cholesterol. We've certainly heard the flip flop even prior to that as we've journeyed from the fat-free craze to the acknowledgement of good fats. The problem is that saturated fats were still considered categorically "bad," a position that some of us never quite bought and has now been debunked.

Saturated Fat May not Hurt Your Heart

The recent study, led by associate professor Russell J. de Souza in conjunction with his Ontario-based McMaster University team, was a systematic review of what the literature has to say about saturated and trans fats -- a study of studies, if you will. While there were limited studies to choose from (a telling fact, when it has been vilified for so long!), the conclusion was clear: "Saturated fats are not associated with all cause mortality, [cardiovascular diseases], [coronary heart disease], ischemic stroke, or type 2 diabetes," while trans fats remain of concern, positively linked with all cause mortality, total coronary heart disease, and coronary heart disease mortality.

Of course, this isn't license to go out and eat whatever we'd like.

Like any study, there are some reasons for pause and further research -- the conclusion goes on to note that "the evidence is heterogeneous with methodological limitations." But it does give us pause, and reason to consider that our standard requirements handed down by government and leading organizations may not be so reliable after all.

Why Saturated Fat Matters

Nutritionally, vindicating saturated fat and taking back its name, so to speak, certainly has it implications but it may not mean what you think.

A saturated fat, of course, simply means that among the molecular chain that comprises the fat, there are no gaps, no spaces missing. You can spot a saturated fat because it will become solid in the cold and melt at room temperature. Bring any to mind? I think of two right away -- butter, which has gotten a bad reputation for years, and coconut oil, which has become something of a health food icon of late.

Few will decry coconut oil as a risk to health, but butter is a real target these days. The McMaster University researchers were certainly not the first to question the validity of a hard line against saturated fats. Last year, an Italian study asked similar questions, finding the solution was "not to eliminate from the saturated fatty acids diet...but to reach a correct balance of all the different nutrients" and include exercise.

Ah, but there's the rub -- there is no quick fix. No clear lines, no magic food to add or eliminate that will promise a great body, good health, and long life.

Dangerous Misdirection

When the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee brought cholesterol requirements into question earlier this year, we had a similar discussion. Cholesterol had been painted as something of a standalone substance that would enter your body through your meals, travel through the blood stream, and lodge itself in the recesses of your heart. In reality, cholesterol levels are influenced both by the foods a person eats, and how much is produced by the body itself. We're learning that the food side of things is not as directly related to a person's total cholesterol levels as previously thought.

From the release, there is "no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum (blood) cholesterol... Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

Does this sound familiar? After years of being told it's to be avoided, we find there's no relationship -- no association -- no inherent risk in the food itself, much like this week's information on saturated fats.

What we're missing with these sweeping declarations and hopeful magic fixes is the real way to prevent heart disease. If we really want to heave healthy hearts, we have to put some effort into it. We knew this as of 2004 when the INTERHEART study declared a wide range of risk factors for heart disease, the strongest and most notable being stress, including smoking, diabetes, alcohol, exercise, and psycho-social events, including stress.

That's not so easy to eliminate, is it?

Perhaps, instead of stressing over individual nutrients, our focus belongs on gradual, sustainable lifestyle changes. But that doesn't fit so neatly in a government guideline.


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