Is Butter A Health Food? The Truth About This Controversial Fat
Don’t let the lies we’ve been told for decades about fat fool you. After birth we relied on fat in the form of breast milk for the first few months of our lives. This is a natural reaction in a mother’s body because it’s exactly what a newborn needs to thrive outside of the womb. As we grow, that basic need for fat hasn’t changed.
Healthy fats are the new trending health topic, and for good reason! As the author of Ketotarian it’s no surprise that I’m a big believer of the benefits of healthy fats and what they can do for the body. The key word here is healthy though. Filling your diet and body with fats that cause inflammation may put you into ketosis, but it’s not healing your body and bringing you to optimal health.
This is exactly why dairy is not on the allowed foods list in Ketotarian. Many keto eaters concentrate on high-fat dairy products even though it’s one of the most common allergens in our society. With a book that concentrates on reducing inflammation, it wouldn’t make sense to keep one of the main culprits that is a part of our modern diets.
Dairy, like many foods, doesn’t simply fall into a “good” or “bad” category. You probably grew up thinking that a glass of milk was the best way to start off your day, right? After all, it’s filled with protein and calcium. But not so fast. Every food can fall into a spectrum of healthiness where it can be beneficial for some and harmful to others. Don’t let this scare you though, it’s all based on your individual biochemistry and finding what’s best for you. For example, depending on if you have a certain gene mutation or not, coffee can either improve your health or it can increase your risk of health issues.
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Does Dairy Cause Inflammation
One issue with dairy occurs when the body is not able to break down the lactose – otherwise known as lactose intolerance. This occurs when the small intestine is not producing the enzyme lactase. While it is commonly thought that the minority of the general public has this issue, the reality is that over 65% of the worldwide population, (1) and up to 90% in some cultures, has an issue creating enough lactase. This is not the only issue with dairy though.
Is Butter Dairy? Can You Eat It If You Have Lactose Sensitivities?
Believe it or not this is a commonly asked question, and you are not alone in asking it. Butter is in fact a dairy product, usually cow milk based, with the same proteins and fats you find in milk and other dairy products. Those who choose to follow a lactose free diet due to either sensitivities or personal choice, may ask “can you eat butter if you are dairy free?” One point of comfort is that while butter is a dairy product, it contains extremely insignificant amounts of lactose, and isn’t likely to cause the same discomfort that other dairy products do.
Butter: Superfood or Super Unhealthy?
Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, who popularized putting butter in coffee, is well known for touting butter as a health food. What? Is this a joke? We’ve all heard that saturated fat is bad, so how can butter be good? “If you are living a life with no butter,” Asprey said, “you are not going to like how your body makes hormones. You need saturated fat.” This is, contrary to what we’ve been told over the years by nutrition experts, so what gives? Let’s cut through the propaganda and look at the facts, to settle the butter debate once and for all.
Welcome to the butter battle.
For decades, saturated fat and cholesterol have been demonized for clogging arteries, causing heart attacks, and being mostly responsible for weight gain. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the standard medical advice has been to avoid saturated fat, birthing the low-fat-everything industry – low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cookies, even margarine. But the latest research says something much different – butter may actually cause more good than harm.
The Benefits of Butter
Butter is a great source of crucial trace nutrients such as chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, and zinc.
Butter is one of the best sources of bioavailable fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, which are severely lacking in the modern Western diet. We need fat-soluble vitamins to support hundreds of different pathways that determine immune, brain, and hormone health. All of these nutrients are found in their most usable forms in animal fats such as butter.
For example, real vitamin A (also called retinol), is found only in animal products like fish, shellfish, liver, and our old friend butter. Retinol is much more absorbable than the vitamin-A precursor, beta-carotene, that comes from plant foods, because the body must convert beta-carotene before it can be used. One study found that just 3 percent (2) of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult.
As babies we were all born relying on fat in the form of breast milk for brain development and energy. (3) For our brain to work properly, it requires a lot of energy. And from a biological (4) and evolutionary perspective, the most sustainable form of energy for optimal brain health is good fats. Butter contains arachidonic (5) and docosahexaenoic acids, (6) which are only found in bioavailable amounts in animal fats. In addition, butter provides ample amounts (7) of short – and medium- chain fatty acids and other omega fats, which support a healthy immune system and metabolism. Another butter fat called glycosphingolipids protect against gut problems, and when butter comes from cows eating grass, it also contains high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that fights against cancer, diabetes, and weight gain.
The Cholesterol Conundrum
It is true that a diet high in saturated fat tends to raise cholesterol, but what scientists are now questioning is how bad high cholesterol actually is. One study found that there might be no association (8) between high total cholesterol and stroke risk. Other research has shown that low cholesterol may actually increase (9) the likelihood of death. A growing number of studies have found similar results: Lowering dietary saturated fat and cholesterol did not decrease (10) heart attacks.
It makes sense that cholesterol isn’t so bad. Your brain is the fattiest organ in your body, composed of 60 percent fat, and as much as 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol is located in the brain. Moreover, we need cholesterol to make healthy hormones and support nerve growth and a healthy immune system. It should be no surprise that some of the many side effects of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs include memory loss, nerve pain, hormonal problems, low sex drive, and erectile dysfunction – the very functions cholesterol supports.
All this suggests that consuming cholesterol and healthy fat could be critical to the health and function of the brain and hormones, not their destruction.
Not so fast – butter has a few problems, too.
Functional medicine is centered around customizing health care and food medicines to the individual. Even with healthy, real food, not everything works for everyone. Here are the three most common issues I find when someone doesn’t tolerate butter:
Casein, the protein found in dairy, can be an inflammation trigger for people with gut problems such as leaky gut syndrome, IBS, and autoimmune conditions. Butter has small amounts of casein, so people with mild casein sensitivity may be able to tolerate butter in moderation, but for others, even a little bit of butter can cause a flare-up. Beta-casein, the main type, has two subtypes: A1 and A2. In the regular milk you find in the grocery store, the A1 subtype is more common (11) because most cows in the United States have casein gene mutations that happened over the thousands of years of crossbreeding different kinds of cows. Beta A2 casein is the OG, ancient casein. Beta A1 casein is one reason people can be intolerant to dairy, with studies pointing to A1 as a trigger (12) for digestive problems and inflammation. A2, on the other hand, has been shown to be more digestible and richer in vitamins. I run comprehensive food immune reactivity and gut health labs to find out whether my patients can truly tolerate dairies like butter, and if so, which kind.
2. Grain-fed conventional butter
Cows on most major dairy farms today are given hormones and antibiotics, live in unhealthy conditions, and are fed corn instead of grass, even though grass is their natural food. Their milk is then pasteurized and homogenized and the fat is removed. To make up for nutrient loss, synthetic vitamins are then injected into the milk, trying to stimulate what nature had already included in the whole-food form. Another common issue I find in people who don’t tolerate butter is a reaction to either the corn the cow was fed or the higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats in regular grain-fed butter. Some people are fine with organic, grass-fed butter but flare-up with the regular conventionally-produced butter.
3. Combining butter with sugar
Sugar and grain mixed with fat increases inflammation, so if you eat a lot of bread, pasta, and especially sugary baked goods that include both grains and added sweeteners, this amplifies the inflammation of sugar. If you’re not going to eat vegetables and you plan to continue to eat carby junk foods, I suggest limiting your butter intake. But I’d much rather have you switch to whole foods and keep the butter.
Better Butter: The 3 Best Butters To Buy
Because of the state of dairy farming today, I don’t recommend just any old butter. Here are three better butters to try out:
Organic grass-fed butter
Cows grazing on sunny green pastures is how it once was and always should be. This butter has higher fat levels of soluble vitamins and better healthy fat balance. Look for butter from cows in New Zealand, which have lower levels of the inflammatory beta A1 casein. I love Kerry Gold Organic Grass-Fed Butter.
Grass-fed A2 butter
The original A2 genetics such as Guernsey, Normande, Heritage Jersey, African, and Indian cows.
First of all, the beta-casein is removed, leaving just the grass-fed clarified butter fat that contains fat-soluble vitamins. For the majority of those eating a Western diet, vitamins A, D, and K2 are all at insufficient levels and ghee just happens to be one of the best ways to incorporate them into your diet. We desperately need these fat-soluble vitamins to keep our brain and immune systems working optimally. For vitamin A in particular, getting it from animal-based sources allows it to be more bioavailable to the body. For vegetarians, I highly recommend incorporating ghee into your diet to assure that you receive adequate amounts of vitamin A and all the health benefits that come with it.
Because it’s a healthy fat source derived from animals, this also means that is has a high smoking point. Most conventionally used oils have low oxidation levels and can form things like free radicals when heated that lead to disease. Ghee has a smoke point of 485 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s a great option to use when cooking and baking.
Ghee is one of my favorite medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which can help improve memory, increase muscle strength, and reduce toxin buildup. It also enhances the affects of ketosis and in turn encourages weight loss. In addition, the MCTs found in ghee can improve liver function, cholesterol, blood sugar, kidney function, and your immune system.
Grass-fed ghee is a great way to increase your healthy fats while still getting that buttery taste. You can clarify your butter yourself, but if you are sensitive to casein, there are great brands that batch-test their ghee to make sure it is 100% casein-free. My personal favorites are Tin Star Brown Butter Ghee and Pure Indian Foods Digestive Ghee and Cultured Ghee.
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- Lactose Intolerance NIH May 26, 2020 https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/lactose-intolerance#statistics
- Hedrén E, Diaz V, Svanberg U. Estimation of carotenoid accessibility from carrots determined by an in vitro digestion method. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002;56(5):425‐430. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601329
- Medina & Tabernero J. Neuroscience.Res. (2005) 79:2-10
- Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009;18(4):231‐241.
- Kiso Y. Pharmacology in health foods: effects of arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid on the age-related decline in brain and cardiovascular system function. J Pharmacol Sci. 2011;115(4):471‐475. doi:10.1254/jphs.10r39fm
- Joshi KS. Docosahexaenoic acid content is significantly higher in ghrita prepared by traditional Ayurvedic method. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(2):85‐88. doi:10.4103/0975-9476.131730
- Bradbury J. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients. 2011;3(5):529‐554. doi:10.3390/nu3050529
- Schilling S, Tzourio C, Dufouil C, et al. Plasma lipids and cerebral small vessel disease. Neurology. 2014;83(20):1844‐1852. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000000980
- Prof Dr. Irwin J Schatz, MD, Katsuhiko Yano, MD, Randi Chen, MS, Prof Beatriz L Rodriguez, MD, Prof J David Curb, MD Cholesterol and all-cause mortality in elderly people from the Honolulu Heart Program: a cohort study The Lancet Volume 358, Issue 9279, P351-355, August 04, 2001. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(01)05553-2
- Did butter get a bad rap? University Of North Carolina Health Care 2016. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uonc-dbg041216.php
- Beja-Pereira, A., Luikart, G., England, P. et al. Gene-culture coevolution between cattle milk protein genes and human lactase genes. Nat Genet 35, 311–313 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/ng1263
- Pal S, Woodford K, Kukuljan S, Ho S. Milk Intolerance, Beta-Casein and Lactose. Nutrients. 2015;7(9):7285‐7297. Published 2015 Aug 31. doi:10.3390/nu7095339
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.