No other food has been as vilified as butter. I grew up in a world where the government told us that tasty and creamy butter was evil, a cause of heart disease that was right up there with cigarette smoking. Over the last few years, Americans who have had success with low-carb/high-fat diets have begun to cautiously embrace butter, and now a new study shows that our fear of butter has been irrational—there is NO link between butter and heart disease and there never was…
The Big Fat Myth
The government’s campaign against butter began with a well-connected scientist pulling off one of the most spectacular cases of academic fraud that has ever been perpetrated. The scientist was Ancel Keys, the inventor of the army’s K-rations during World War II. He eventually conducted what is now called the “Seven Countries Study,” which purported to show that there was a direct correlation between heart disease and saturated-fat (animal-fat) consumption. The problem was that he omitted the data that didn’t support his hypothesis to make his graphs prettier. Despite this case of academic fraud, Keys was well connected in the US Government, which was struggling to deal with an epidemic of heart disease, so a 1970’s government panel used his cherry-picked data to make dietary recommendations. Thus began an ugly period in American medicine, where by trying to help people eat healthier, we were actually making them far sicker. In essence, by getting rid of the fat, we amplified the carbs and sugar, leading to a bigger epidemic of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
The Dietitian Army Spreads the Butter Myth
Over the past decade or more, ever since the seminal New York Times piece “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie,” the tide for animal-fat consumption has turned. Study after study has shown that people lose more weight on high-fat, low-carb diets than on high-carb, low-fat diets. In addition, research hasn’t shown a link between eating animal fat and heart disease.
In the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, the main character wakes up to a future world where junk food is now considered healthy, which is likely what an entire generation of dietitians feel like today. The problem is that their outdated notions of what is healthy and what is not ain’t going down without a fight. Take the ludicrous statements from my town’s parks and recreation department, who has banned ice cream from being sold this summer at the public pools:
“As of this summer, ice cream has been discontinued as a vending option for all Boulder Parks and Recreation facilities.
That’s because the ice cream bars previously being sold have larger portion sizes and higher sugar and fat content than is allowed under the city’s latest guidelines.”
Huh? Forgetting about the Twilight Zone concept that a small town is legislating what we eat, this is a great example of dietitians not giving up what they were taught. So instead of easily adopting the new science that sugar is bad and throwing out the old hypothesis that fat is bad, it’s easier just to lump the two concepts together. In this case, the sugar is clearly not good, but the fact that ice cream is filled with saturated animal fat that won’t hurt your heart and will reduce the body’s negative reaction to the sugar is good. This is because fat acts like a control rod for the nuclear reaction that happens once you consume sugar (the excess insulin production that makes us fat and diabetic). In essence, the fat balances out the sugar.
Why are dietitians unlikely to change for a generation? Physicians are taught in medical school that medicine will morph based on new research and when it does, they need to throw out the old thinking and adopt the new. Mid-level providers, like dietitians, aren’t taught to be that flexible, which is a problem that will impact our nation’s health in this case. We need to begin re-educating dietitians that it’s time to throw out the big fat myth.
The New Study
The new research is a meta-analysis, which is a big review of all of the research. It includes nine different studies that have more than six hundred thousand participants. It found no credible link between eating butter and heart disease or stroke, and in fact, it found a protective effect of eating butter and diabetes. Why? Because as discussed above, eating animal or vegetable fat reduces the insulin effect of the sugar and carbs you do eat, making them more healthy. The French have known this for ions. They combine copious butter with their carbs—just look at a real French croissant (not the bastardized American version). By weight, it’s half butter and half flour!
I know it’s hard to believe that a croissant is a health food, and in many ways it’s not because it uses white flour loaded with carbs, which has a higher glycemic effect. However, if you had to eat white flour and it was between a piece of Italian bread and croissant, the croissant is the way to go to reduce the negative impact of the food on your body. If you had to have the piece of Italian bread, just soak it in olive oil or slap a healthy serving of butter on there as both will reduce the negative effects of the sugary carbs on your body.
The upshot? It’s time to stop demonizing butter and other animal fats. We’ve educated an entire generation or more that butter is evil. The dietitians who have been taught this aren’t going to give up the ghost, so they generally just lump the new “reduce sugar” message in with the old and now ill-conceived “reduce fat” message. This just makes it harder for people to eat anything.
Hopefully the butter debacle has taught us that legislating science into public policy is generally a dumb idea. Why? Science by its very nature is meant to be flexible and adapt to new data, whereas public policy is slower to change and will impact people’s lives, sometimes for the worse. As an example, its 1970’s dietary guidelines that demonized fat now makes the US Government responsible for creating millions of new diabetics and likely increasing the heart disease and stroke rate substantially. This, of course, has dramatically increased health-care costs, which the government is now struggling to pay! Only in America! The French are laughing at us as they’ve always embraced creamy butter, wine, and cheese and have always been rewarded with far fewer heart attacks! Vive la France!