Butter, that beloved fatty staple, has been slowly welcomed back into Americans’ diets — and a new study finds it isn’t as bad for our arteries as once believed.
Why it matters:
Americans are eating more butter than they have in a generation. And the latest diet evidence indicates that saturated fats aren’t as bad for heart health as previously believed. Guidelines shunning saturated fats (found in animal products like red meat and dairy) arose largely out of the 1970 Seven Countries Study, which found that populations consuming high levels of saturated fats had high levels of heart disease. But studies since then have painted a more nuanced picture, with many questioning the demonization of saturated fats.
Nowadays scientists are increasingly looking not at broad categories like “saturated fat” but rather at the healthfulness of specific foods, such as butter. But there hasn’t yet been a review of the science focusing specifically on butter.
The nitty gritty:
Researchers combined the data from nine studies looking at the relationship of butter consumption with various health outcomes. They found that eating butter didn’t significantly change people’s incidence of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, or stroke. The study did find a small link between butter and overall mortality — each daily tablespoon of butter was linked to a 1 percent increase in mortality risk. On the other hand, the same amount of butter was associated with a 4 percent lower risk of diabetes.
“This is neither a health food that should be sought out, and on the other hand it’s not a food that should be avoided at all costs,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an epidemiologist at Tufts University and one of the study’s senior authors. The findings were published Wednesday in PLOS ONE.
You should know:
Recent studies have found that other dairy foods, including cheese and yogurts, are also associated with decreased risk of diabetes. And specifically, there’s some evidence that some fats in dairy foods are protective.
“This study adds to a growing understanding that saturated fats are not public health enemy number one,” said Dr. David Ludwig, an endocrinologist and a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
But keep in mind:
Butter consumption tends to correlate with less healthy general lifestyles, and Mozaffarian speculated that this may explain the link between butter consumption and overall mortality.
Since most people in the studies only ate a few daily servings of butter, Mozaffarian also emphasized that the findings shouldn’t be extrapolated to very high levels of consumption.
The bottom line:
Butter has a relatively neutral impact on health, in line with the wider rehabilitation of saturated fats in our diets.