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Health Benefits of Butter and Saturated Fat – Butter 101

Butter has been a key ingredient in cooking for many years, however over the last couple of decades it has been unjustly cursed by many “health” and “nutrition” experts. With the common recommendation now being to swap butter for its “healthier” replacement, margarine. Sadly this advice isn’t 100% correct and looking only at the total fat or calorie content can be misguided and narrow minded. As we know, food is more than calories and by swapping the butter for margarine you may actually be losing out on some healthy nutrients!

The media & government were wrong – butter and saturated fat can be a healthy part of a balanced diet

Butter has a very high fat content, most of which are the controversial saturated fat kind, the type of fat that “apparently” will lead to heart disease and an array of health problems. Sadly this is also incorrect and narrow minded, with research now demonstrating that saturated fat is not the sole cause of heart disease.

In contrast to the proposed health benefits, butter contains a good amount of short and Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFA). These fats are metabolized differently from other longer chain fats. In fact, the health benefits of MCFA are extremely impressive, being used to treat brain / neurological diseases and even cancer and tumor growth! Further, they lead to improved satiety and increased energy, not obesity.

Around 30% of butter’s fat content is made up of monounsaturated oleic acid, this is the fat that olive oil is made up of and most people accept that olive oil is one of the healthiest fats around. We must also consider that the saturated fats in butter are from animal fats. This makes butter very different to a processed or refined fat found in processed products, such as margarine.

Butter in Cardiovascular Disease / Heart Disease:

In the Framingham heart study, they examined the effects of butter and margarine on Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). Looking at the chart below it shows the amount of CHD incidents on the left compared to how much butter or margarine they consumed. The lower the bar the better as this represents the lowest CHD incidents per 1000 people. As you can see the two lowest bars are:

heart-disease

In other research, people who consumed 5 teaspoons of margarine per day had the HIGHEST incidents of CVD!

Another study revealed that high-fat dairy consumption reduced the risk of heart disease by a whopping 69%.

 

Butter and Cholesterol:

The link with fat, food cholesterol and blood cholesterol are not as closely associated as most people believe. For example dietary cholesterol only makes up around 20% of total cholesterol in the body. From this 20% you must also consider the fact that you have two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL (HDL is Healthy, LDL is not).

Our main goal with our cholesterol is to increase the amount of healthy HDL and decrease the amount of unhealthy LDL, therefore improving the ratio of HDL to LDL. Natural saturated fats and other healthy fats such as olive oil will increase HDL and decrease LDL so they have a positive effect on our total cholesterol.

Butter has also been shown to decrease unhealthy LDL, which for most people is way too high and is infact a strong risk for heart disease and ill health. As you can see, by eating healthy fats you can actually improve your healthy cholesterol. Combined with fat loss and exercise you can reduce your LDL cholesterol which would make a massive difference to your disease risk and overall health.

Butter on Obesity & Fat Loss:

As mentioned, part of butter is made up of short and medium chain fat that could help with satiety, energy and maybe even fat loss. Grass-fed butter also contains CLA which is a well known fat burning supplement that may reduce your RER and help you burn more fat. With CLA, you should note that it require more research and is NOT as great as people believe.

While the government still recommend margarine as a lower fat and lower calorie alternative a new review paper came out in 2012 that examined the effects of high-fat dairy consumption on obesity, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic disorders. They discovered that high-fat dairy did NOT increase risk of metabolic disease and was associated with a significantly reduced  risk of obesity. Further studies on MCT have shown it can aid in weight loss when tested in obese or diabetic populations. You can read my research review on MCT here.

Other Health Benefits:

Natural saturated fat actually provides health benefits, including possible anti-cancer & anti-bacterial properties. One of the main fats that makes up butter is a type known as stearic acid, this fat is the preferred fuel source of the heart, that means the heart actually functions better when this fat is present.

Lauric acid is another fat present in butter; lauric acid has anti-bacterial properties and has also been shown to prevent certain viruses.

As mentioned, butter contains CLA which may provide anti-oxidant, anti-carcinogen, and anti-catabolite, as well as a powerful immune system boosting properties. To get more CLA from your butter purchase a grass fed source such as Kerrygold”. Further, Butyric acid is another fatty acid found in butter. This specific type of saturated fats can prevent colon and colorectal cancer which improving gut health.

Butter also contains many important vitamins and minerals. For example, butter contains vitamin A and other fat soluble vitamins such as D, E and K2.

Butter is also great for cooking: Butter has one of the highest smoking points of any fat making it an ideal fat to cook and fry with. The smoking points of cooking fats and oils is an important health consideration, cooking with a unsuitable fat can release harmful chemicals.

Butter vs Margarine?

This article has established that butter isn’t all bad, aside from being calorie dense it actually provides numerous health benefits. But, does this mean you should always use butter and avoid margarine? As always, it depends. 

Margarine does contains unhealthy ingredients, including refined oils that are high in omega 6 fats. The over consumption of these fats is linked to obesity and inflammation. If you’re not aware, Inflammation plays an underlying role in many chronic disease we suffer from, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis etc.

Butter also tastes great and is often cheaper to buy.

Although it has health benefits, we do not recommend blocks of butter in coffee – which is an easy way to gain weight. Use it sensibly, it is still very energy dense and may not be a good choice when dieting.

For the most part, I would recommend small amounts of butter and healthy fats over artificial fats such as margarine. One exception is during a diet, where the occasional use of low-calorie spreads may make it easier for people to lose weight and eat a higher volume of food. In the long-term always base your daily fat intake on healthy and natural fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, butter, nuts, avocado, seeds etc.

When purchasing butter ensure it is 100% butter, not a butter / margarine mix. We recommend Kerrygold Irish Butter as their company policy is for cows to be left to graze on grass for a minimum of 312 days per year. This can be purchased in your local supermarket.

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About the author

Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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