For some time now there has been a coup d'état in the nutrition world. Butter has made a comeback and in a big way. So much so that people are now putting butter in their coffee. Yes, that is actually a thing. But, the question is, is this coup truly warranted?
To come to a sound conclusion, let's first take a quick trip back in time...
It's the 90's – car phones and dial-up internet are luxuriously high tech, the Backstreet Boys are singing their way into every teenage girl's heart, and Bill Clinton is being impeached for having an affair with an intern. Oh yeah, and low fat diets are all the rage. People are being told that saturated fat is the devil and causes heart disease, so grocery stores are lining their shelves with low-fat versions of everything.
Now fast forward about 20 years – smartphones and 4G internet access are a given, Beyonce's Super Bowl performance was so insane it put the lights out, and General Petraeus has just been outed for his affair with his biographer (sensing some sort of pattern in that department...). Oh yes, and “low-fat” is so yesterday. Fat is where it's at.
How did this happen, you ask?
Well, a major scientific paper concluded that people who cut out saturated fat from their diets didn’t necessarily reduce their risk for heart disease. Pretty mind-blowing information, right? What happened to saturated fat being the devil?
But let's take a look at the fine print before we start diving head first into our pints of butter, or quarts if you’re a real zealot.
The question is not: what did these people cut out of their diets (ie. saturated fat), but rather, what did they replace it with? The answer: refined carbohydrates and sugar. (For those who don't know, refined carbohydrates are your white breads, white pastas, white rice, and most pastries and baked goods that you'd find in your bakery.)
So, as the fat content in foods was decreasing, the sugar content in them was increasing. Why? Because there are three things that food companies consider with regard to food taste and desirability: fat, sugar, and salt. It's the food addiction trifecta. When they have to reduce one of those factors, they compensate with the others.
The thing is, when we eat refined carbs and sugar, our blood sugar spikes. This causes a rush of insulin, which signals our bodies to use that food as energy right away. But once the body has enough energy to function, what happens when we eat and insulin is released? Those refined carbs and sugar get stored as fat, raise our bad cholesterol (LDL), and increase our risk for heart disease.
Does this mean that saturated fat is good for us? Does this mean that butter is really back? Not exactly.
I’m not one for hyperboles when it comes to nutrition statements. To say “butter is back” can be misleading. It can send people running to spread butter on everything without any regard for what they’re actually doing, which, in this case, is taking a statement completely out of context.
Yes, low fat diets aren’t great, but neither is a diet full of saturated fat. So, if you are someone who was following a generally healthful diet, don’t use this as an excuse to load on the butter. On the other hand, if you are someone who was fat phobic and instead filled up on low-fat foods filled with crap (pardon my French), you might want to rearrange your diet a little and leave some room for fat. Trust me, it will be okay!
In fact, every macronutrient (fat, protein, carbohydrate) has its purpose. Fat actually gets digested more slowly than carbs, especially refined carbs. So while gram for gram it might be more caloric, in the end, including some fat in your diet might keep you more satiated, which should ultimately help you eat less overall.
One final note before I go:
While particular food groups do play a role, at the end of the day it is general overconsumption of food that makes us gain weight and increases our risk for disease. Certain foods help keep our consumption in check, so the trick is to find the right combination to keep you satisfied, healthy, and happy. That way, you only end up eating as much as your body needs – no more, no less.