If you want to talk about much-maligned foods, butter is right up there at the top of the list. Health authorities have been telling us for years that foods like butter, rich in saturated fat, are clogging our arteries and causing heart disease. So they told us to replace them with trans-fat laden margarine, and how did that turn out? Then came polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and new research is linking these omega-6 rich fats to all sorts of health problems, including potentially increased risk of cancer.
The real question is, was there ever a problem with butter in the first place? The answer just might surprise you.
There is actually a good amount of research, in several populations, that shows that full-fat dairy consumption is associated with lower BMI, lower waist circumference, and lower risk of cardiovascular disease (especially stroke). Low-fat or fat-free dairy is actually often associated with increased BMI and waist circumference.
In fact Dr. Ronald Krauss, one the world’s leading lipid researchers, directly showed that while saturated fat from dairy does raise LDL, it is an increase in large, fluffy and benign LDL – not the small, dense and atherogenic LDL. This actually decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease!
Now there is a clear difference between butter and dairy from grain and corn fed cows on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations that are milked nearly year-round, given growth hormones and antiobiotics and live in their own waste compared to cows on small farms that eat grass, get exercise, fresh air and sunshine and are only milked based on their seasonal reproductive cycle. The quality of life, and therefore quality of milk and dairy products is vastly different.
Butter from grass-fed cows contains a boatload of powerful vitamins and healthful fatty acids. These vitamins are fat-soluble, and they are bonded to the fatty acids in the dairy, and are therefore nearly non-existent in fat-free dairy. The fat is where vitamins A, D, E and K2 are, as well as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), butyric acid, omega-3 fatty acids, and medium chain triglycerides.
CLA is present in human body fat in proportion to dietary intake, and has been shown to be a powerful ally in the fight against cancer. Meat and dairy from grass-fed animals provide the richest source of CLA on the planet, containing three to five times more CLA than feedlot-raised animals. CLA has been found to greatly reduce tumor growth in animals, and possibly in humans as well.
In a Finnish study, women who had the highest levels of CLA in their diet had a 60% lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels. Simply switching from conventionally-raised grain-fed meat and dairy to pasture-raised grass-fed versions would have placed all the women in the lowest risk category. A good grass-fed butter will contain about 110mg of CLA per tbsp.
Vitamin D is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread and any time you can get some from food is always a good thing. Low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with lowered immunity, increased risk of 17 cancers and counting, increased risk of heart disease, psychological and neurological disorders including ADD and depression, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, bone loss, loss of muscle mass and strength as we age and more.
Omega-3s are absolutely amazing, as they may improve nerve, brain, eye, heart and cardiovascular function as well as decreasing inflammation, joint pain, arthritis, psychological disorders, and risk of breast cancer and heart disease, all while improving mood and body composition! Unfortunately grain-fed butter contains only about 40mg, but a good grass-fed butter will contain about 120mg per tbsp!
Medium chain triglycerides are unique fatty acids that are more readily utilized as fuel rather than stored as energy. Particular ones like lauric acid contain anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. Vitamins A and E are powerful antioxidants. Butryric acid may help with bodyweight regulation, and is a primary fuel source for our intestinal flora.
Notice that I didn’t mention vitamin K2 yet? That is because I was saving what might be the best for last. Several studies have found that a higher vitamin K2 (mostly from vitamin K2-MK4) intake is associated with a lower risk of heart attack, ischemic stroke, cancer incidence, cancer mortality and overall mortality. Men with the highest vitamin K2 consumption had a 51% lower risk of heart attack mortality and a 26% lower risk of all cause mortality compared to men consuming the lowest amount!
One of the ways vitamin K2 improves cardiovascular health is its ability to decrease arterial calcification by 30-40%. And, this only speaks to vitamin K2’s effects of cardiovascular health; it is also crucially important for proper fetal development and bone health, to name a few additional benefits.
Vitamin K2-MK4 is only found in animal products and the best known sources are grass-fed butter and foie gras (fatty goose liver).
Butter Might Prevent Diabetes?
Yes, it is true. Recently Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and colleagues at Harvard found that blood content of trans-palmitoleate was associated with a smaller waist circumference, higher HDL cholesterol, lower serum triglycerides, lower C-reactive protein, lower fasting insulin and lower calculated insulin resistance.
In fact people with the highest trans-palmitoleate levels had 1/3 the risk of developing diabetes over the three years of the study!
Want to know what the dietary sources of trans-palmitoleate are? Dairy fat and red meat are virtually the only source of this fatty acid. In this study most of the trans-palmitoleate came specifically from dairy fat.
Well, it seems that consuming butter from grass-fed cows will make your LDL larger, fluffier and less likely to cause heart disease. It will also provide you with cancer-fighting CLA, as well as artery clearing vitamin K2-MK4. To top it all off it might also decrease your risk of diabetes. Sounds like a pretty good food to me!
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By Brian St. Pierre, CSCS, CISSN