Is butter back on the table?
Earlier this year the headlines and TV news reports were hard to miss when a new study concluded saturated fat did not cause heart disease. It was a huge story and the media ate it up (no pun intended). Creamy sticks of butter and juicy steaks flashed across the screen as reporters gleefully shared this news.
This can’t be right … right?
Here’s what I’ve learned and what we’re doing as food for thought for your own plate.
First, you should know the study was not an actual study but instead a meta-analysis. A meta what? I didn’t understand until recently that a meta-analysis is a pooling of data from other previous studies–in this case, 72 clinical trials. The folks reviewing these trials evaluated people’s intake of specific fatty acids (saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans) and how that intake corresponded with coronary heart disease rates. And their conclusion was there was no significant difference in coronary heart disease in people who consumed the most saturated fat and those who consumed the least.* As soon as the results were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in March … The Media Went Crazy.
Okay, this was officially confusing, considering that around the world, diets heaviest in saturated fats are unquestionably associated with higher rates of heart disease. It’s important to note (and the media didn’t) that this study did NOT take into consideration what the people who ate less saturated fats consumed instead. Add to that not all saturated fats are created equal. Dr. David Katz points to other studies that show certain saturated fatty acids found in dairy and meat (palmitic and myristic acids) cause inflammation–and inflammation is known to cause plaque buildup in our arteries. But studies also show stearic acid, a fatty acid found mostly in dark chocolate, and lauric acid found in coconut oil may not be harmful (in fact, lauric acid is believed to increase good cholesterol). Did I say it’s confusing?
A number of scientists and nutritionists have criticized the meta-analysis saturated fat study. Walter Willet, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston says “They have done a huge amount of damage. I think a retraction with similar press promotion should be considered.” While the leading author of the study stands by its conclusions, there are others involved in the study that do not feel the evidence is so clear cut. One study author has said the study was “wrongly interpreted by the media,” adding “we are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want. We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials.” And another author has said he is not happy with the key conclusion, stating “Personally, I think the results suggest that fish and vegetable oils should be encouraged.”
Dr. David Katz, renowned preventive medicine specialist and author of the book “Disease Proof,” has been quite vocal about this study, saying he feels telling people to eat butter is a step in the wrong direction for our heart health, stating, “If you don’t mind living in a world where everyone you know over age 50 is on multiple medications to fix what lifestyle as medicine could fix far better, by all means add back the butter. If you think it’s normal that most adults of a certain age have had their chests opened up or their coronaries ballooned open, butter away.”
So what did we do with this “news”? Well really not much. Extensive and long-term research has shown a Mediterranean type diet high in vegetables, beans, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains is a proven heart healthy diet. So it makes sense most of our calories should come from these foods. Consuming a little saturated fat in your diet is way less important than making sure you’re eating an abundance of heart healthy foods. I believe the real villains for our hearts are sugar and highly-processed foods, and while I believe some saturated fat is probably not harmful, it makes sense to focus on fats that are actually beneficial. And consider this. Fat is high in calories, so if you’re consuming a high-fat diet, you are likely either not consuming enough healthy foods, or you’re consuming too many calories which of course leads to weight gain.
So what about dairy, eggs, meat and fish? It’s a personal choice. Bill and I don’t eat meat or chicken any longer, but his cardiologist Dr. Crandall does, saying it’s okay to eat meat on occasion, preferably grass-fed. And free-range, organic chicken on occasion is fine too. We eat some types of fish and organic eggs, as well as organic low-fat or fat free dairy.
Coming next! A no-bake energy bar you’ll love. Plus, a new Progress Report on how Bill is doing since Dr. Crandall gave him the green light to stop the last of his medications back in March. He sees the good doctor later this month for a checkup and review of his new labs.
*The researchers did find a link between trans fats and heart disease, but this comes as no surprise.