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Is Butter Better? Separating the Good Fats From the Bad

BUTTER! My new favorite food. It all started with a recipe for chard. My family reputation was that of an irritatingly healthy eater— olive oil, avocados, walnuts were my oils— until I picked a handful of chard from my garden.

My chard recipe used a teaspoon of butter, a bit of olive oil, chopped garlic, hot red pepper flakes, chard and a fresh lemon squeeze. I melted the teaspoon of butter, plus oil in the pan, give a quick sauté to the garlic/pepper flakes, added chard, squeezed lemon over chard and wilted it over medium heat. I ate the best chard of my long life. That teaspoon of butter influenced the flavor far beyond its quantity.

Now I rub a cube of refrigerated butter on the bottom of my nonstick pan every time I saute, enriching every dish. So, what? Has my new butter habit already lodged in my arteries?

No. I’ll tell you why later, but I’d better keep you reading because as much as you’d like the “healthy” butter question to be “yes,” or a “no,” the facts are more nuanced.

Americans are in health trouble, approaching 40% obesity, 9.4% diabetic, and 46% hypertension. I’ll explain why a bit of butter won’t add to the above statistics, but I’d be irresponsible if I left you with the idea that butter’s just fine.

Butter is a fat, among other edible fats. Since the ‘80s, we’ve listened to “nutrition” messages touting no-fat or low-fat diets. Hungry Americans tossed out fats, replacing them with industry-labeled “healthy low-fat or fat-free foods.”

“Yum, yum,” we said, as we ate through boxes of low-fat cookies and large servings of fat-free but high-carbohydrate, high-sugar, highly processed foods. Making one ingredient such as butterfat the villain misses the point, but it gave the food industry an opportunity to feed us a line of baloney.

Take a look at these quick facts about fats. In a healthy diet, 20% to 35% of your total daily calories come from fat. Most fats are not bad, in moderate amounts, but sugar and refined carbohydrates, are. Harvard’s Lilian Cheung puts it this way: “Low-fat yogurt is loaded with sugar. We digest these refined carbohydrates and starches very quickly, causing an insulin spike.” Insulin stores fat and causes blood sugar to drop. Then we’re hungry again. Sugar highs and lows lead to overeating, weight gain. The risk of heart disease and diabetes follows.

A Look at Fats

Trans fats: The manufactured form of trans fat, known as partially hydrogenated oil, is found in packaged products, including cakes, cookies, pie crusts and crackers. Trans fat provides a longer shelf life, an advantage for retail sales, but adds to heart disease, a disadvantage to us.

Saturated fats: Saturated fats, solid at room temperature, are found in red meat, skin-on chicken, whole milk products, butter and eggs, as well as palm and coconut oils. Saturated fat, which should account for less than 10% of your daily calories, according to some experts, raises your total cholesterol, can increase your LDL cholesterol, causing blockages of arteries and increasing heart disease risk.

Unsaturated fats: Liquid at room temperature, unsaturated fats are considered the “healthy” fats because they help reduce the risk of high blood cholesterol levels. Unsaturated come in two primary forms, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. A caveat: Buy the best, least processed brands of these fats as possible. Most are highly processed, which reduces their “healthfulness,” become rancid quickly, and may contain large amounts of pesticides or preservatives.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, soybean, sunflower and flaxseed oils as well as walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish like tuna and salmon. Your body cannot make polyunsaturated fats, so you must get them through eating. They are needed for building cell membranes and covering nerves, blood clotting, muscle movement, and can help reduce cholesterol levels and stroke risk. They contribute vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin lacking from most American diets.

Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, olive, canola and peanut oils as well as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and other nuts. They can help with weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and decrease inflammation.

According to Harvard’ s/Brigham & Woman’s Nurses’ Health Study of 80,082 women, “replacing a mere 5% of saturated fat calories with unsaturated fat would reduce the risk of heart disease by a whopping 42%.”

Finally, about butter. Don’t eat the cube. Go ahead enjoy small amounts. Saturated fat found in butter and lard does increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it also increases “good” HDL cholesterol, so moderate butter intake is neutral. Of course, butter is high in calories. Polyunsaturated fats extracted from nuts and vegetables are too, but they can be beneficial.

Do you want to be healthy? Eat real food. Skip the middle grocery aisles filled with trans fats created to extend the shelf life of pre-packaged junk. Stick mostly to products sold on the perimeter of the store: fruit, vegetables, meats in moderation and dairy products, including butter. And stock up on polyunsaturated fats, which are protective to the heart, like nuts, seeds, fish and vegetable oils.

Remember, Julia Child named the one ingredient she could not do without— “Butter!” she exclaimed in her high voice.

“YOU GO, JULIA!” I’d say, but add two words: “In moderation.”

Carrie Luger Slayback is an award-
winning teacher and champion
marathoner. She writes on health and
fitness from a personal perspective.

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