IN more good news for lovers of real food, a major new study has confirmed that regularly eating butter is not bad for your heart. The research from Boston in the US found that eating a tablespoon a day has ‘no significant association’ with cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease or stroke.
This follows another large scale American review, published in the prestigious BMJ in April, which concluded that the standard advice (to this day!) to replace butter with vegetable ‘spreads’ and cooking oil such as sunflower and corn oil is very much misguided. Doing so did indeed lower cholesterol levels, but actually raised the risk of mortality.
Another study found that replacing all saturated fats, including those in meat, dairy and eggs with vegetable oils increased the incidence of heart attacks. These oils contain inflammatory compounds, and have a low smoke point, meaning that when heated they quickly produce harmful chemicals. Anti-inflammatory olive oil is best for drizzling over foods, while saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, and even lard are the healthiest for frying.
Thankfully, we seem finally to be coming to the end of the dark years during which low fat diets were promoted on all health fronts, including the weight loss one, and in June we saw very welcome reports that the government is set to reconsider its advice on restricting saturated fats. Cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, an adviser to the UK’s National Obesity Forum, commented: ‘This high quality study clearly reveals that decades of demonising butter has been a huge mistake...providing you cut the consumption of sugar and other refined carbohydrates, the regular consumption of butter can be very much part of a healthy diet.’
It’s a very important caveat – we know now that it’s processed foods, in particular sugar and white or refined grains, that are the driving forces behind weight gain and diabetes (which is far better managed with a low carb diet than a low fat one), as well as cardiovascular issues. If you simply add more fats to a carb-rich diet, you will of course put on weight. In May the National Obesity Forum published its own report, stating that to prevent heart disease, obesity and diabetes we should be eating more natural fats (real food) and avoiding anything labelled ‘diet’ and sugars, and cutting back on carbs.
The US research comes on the back of several previous studies, such as a major meta-analysis (overview of multiple studies) published in the BMJ last August which also failed to find any association between even high levels of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease, or stroke or diabetes. But experts have pointed out that we need to be very clear here: this research did show that one type, trans fat, is potentially very harmful, raising the risk of death from heart disease by 28% and death from any cause by 34%.
The link between manmade trans fats, which serve no purpose other than to add texture and prolong the shelf life of a product, and multiple diseases is something that absolutely no one would attempt to deny, and many are calling for an outright ban in line with several other countries. A ban will be in place in the US by 2018, but in Europe trans fats have so far been removed on a voluntary basis. The Commission is now considering a limit, but we need to be armed with the facts here.
There is no legal requirement to include trans fats on nutritional panels, you need to look at the ingredients list for ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils or fats. They can be found in many foods, often cheaper varieties of margarines and cooking oils, breakfast cereals, crackers, crisps, popcorn, pizzas, sauces, dressings, icecream, cream substitutes, processed meats, chocolate, sweets, muffins, cakes, biscuits, pastries and doughnuts, as well as some fast foods. The body can’t process these fats and they accumulate in every cell, blocking the normal communication between cells, knocking out the action of healthy fats such as the omega-3s, creating inflammation and wreaking havoc in every area of health.
Regularly eating even small amounts of trans or hydrogenated fats, which are vegetable oils treated with harsh chemicals to make them solid, not only raises the risk of death from heart disease but also of (deep breath) strokes, obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes, poor immune function, asthma, psoriasis, liver problems, MS, Alzheimer’s, infertility (rates more than double for every 2% increase in consumption), miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, low birth weight, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases, and several cancers.
A French study of 2,500 women, for example, found that those with the highest blood levels of trans fat had double the incidence of breast cancer. Much of this is related to inflammation, but also to hormonal chaos, hormones being made in the body from the fats we eat.
In the absence of an outright ban, no doubt as a result of the power of the food and drink industry that I talked about last week, we can all make choices about what we eat. Read labels carefully, try to go for quality goods, and if you can afford it certified organic products have never been allowed to use trans fats. Better still, simply eat fresh and cook from scratch using those real, whole foods.