Sunday, September 24, 2023

Butter: Good, bad, or ugly?

It is confusing whether butter is good or bad for health.

Executive Summary

Butter is a good source of vitamin A, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and butyrates.

Butter is very high in calories, with nearly two-thirds of which is unhealthy saturated fat. One tablespoon of it (14 gm) gives nearly 40% of the daily maximum advisable saturated fat.

Whether butter is good or bad is still unclear. Consumption of butter over a long period will increase LDL cholesterol. People who are vulnerable to heart disease may wish to avoid butter. Young, healthy adults can continue with one tablespoon a day.

There are no nutrients in butter that you need to eat. So it is a ‘pleasure’ food. Eat within limits.

The article offers many references, for or against, the subject.

These days, however, butter has been the poster boy of unhealthy food. But what does the scientific evidence say?

More about butter

Why butter is popular?

When milk is churned, solid fats separate from buttermilk, which is a liquid. The fats form what we consume as butter. It is creamy and rich in taste. That is why people like to use it in their food. It also has a very high burning point. So it can be used for high-temperature cooking, such as deep frying.

What is good about butter

Butter is a good source of vitamin A, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and butyrates.

Vitamin A is good for eye health. One tablespoon of butter (14 g) contains nearly 10% of the daily requirement of vitamin A.

CLA has been shown to reduce body fat and inflammation, and has anti-cancer properties.

Butyrates have anti-inflammatory properties. They help reduce intestinal inflammation, as well as are food for some intestinal cells.

What is bad about butter

Butter is very high in calories. While it is entirely made up of fats, nearly two-thirds of the fat content is saturated fat, which is considered bad. Many medical associations guide that saturated fats can clog your arteries, leading to heart disease. One tablespoon of fat, 14 g, contains nearly 40% of the recommended daily maximum quantity of saturated fat.

What is the verdict?

While there are a lot of research papers on butter, they use different quantities of butter in the studies. Some use 50 g a day, for studies. Let us restrict ourselves to 14 g a day, or one tablespoon. After all, anything in large quantity can cause problems.

After restricting ourselves to just one tablespoon a day, how is the scientific evidence? Still confusing.

A lot of past data shows that butter is not good. However, more recent studies are showing that it is not that bad, after all.

I would love to quote many papers on the subject. However, depending on your view, you will find research supporting as well as disputing it. So let me restrict myself to very baseline, common denominator, observations.

In conclusion

Consumption of butter over a long period, even at one tablespoon a day, will increase LDL cholesterol. People who are vulnerable to heart disease, such as those already on heart medication, above 40 years of age, and those with a family history of heart disease, may wish to avoid butter. Young, healthy adults can continue with one tablespoon a day.

My personal opinion is that high LDL cholesterol is not harmful unless accompanied by high levels of inflammation in the arterial walls. After all, LDL cholesterol, in itself, does not cause a problem. When the arterial walls (inner lining of the blood vessels) have inflammation, they become weak and susceptible to deposits. When LDL cholesterol is oxidised, it can get a toehold inside these walls and you get a plaque or blockage. So if your arterial inflammation is low, there is no harm in having higher LDL cholesterol. However, take your own call on this.

Butter does not have any nutrients that you ‘need’ to eat. So, it is not an essential food. Consider butter as a ‘pleasure’ food—it is ok to ‘sin’ within limits, which is one tablespoon a day. If you are an absolute health freak, stay away till science gives better guidelines.

People who don’t eat butter to avoid the fats in it, may eat refined carbohydrates, and sweets, to satisfy their food cravings. So, eating butter has been found to be associated with a slightly lesser incidence of diabetes.

If you want lots of references to fry your brains, read: Is butter bad for you, or good?

Here is another article with more data: Is butter good or bad for cholesterol?

Here are a couple of recent articles involving meta-analysis (analysis of multiple analyses) of papers involving a total of more than 6,00,000 participants. They show that butter is not as bad as you think it is, but it is not great either.
Read: Is butter back? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Butter Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes, and Total Mortality.
Read: Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

First published on: 12th August 2016
Image credit: rodeopix from Pixabay


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