Butter was never back!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every few months the headlines tell us ‘butter is back’ or some other such nonsense encouraging people to return to red meat and dairy. They dismiss the known links with heart disease and the media lap it up giving them top billing. This month a major new study puts the record straight leaving no room for doubt – butter kills! 

It is widely accepted that replacing saturated fat from meat and dairy foods with polyunsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds and other plant oils can cut the risk of heart disease. It has been unsettling to see this advice challenged over the last few years by a small number of nutritionists and writers and even more unsettling to see these outlandish theories receiving media coverage (see Sat Fat Spat 2).

The pro-fat lobby claim that saturated fat has no adverse effect on human health and that it is the overconsumption of carbohydrates fuelling the obesity epidemic. They even say calorie counting is wrong. Much of their ‘evidence’ has been challenged and corrections published for most if not all of the studies disputing the links between saturated fat and heart disease.   

Hopefully now that Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Walter Willett and his colleagues at Harvard University have published a major study, we can finally put this nonsense to bed. They combined two large cohorts (the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study) examining the effects of fat intake on death in more than 126,000 adults in the US. In this large study, carried out over several decades, they monitored people’s diet every few years so they could assess the effects of changing diet over time. There were over 33,000 deaths since the study started in the 1980s.

Results showed that replacing just five per cent of calorie intake from saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat lowered the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and other causes by 27 per cent!

Replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates had little effect but that was probably because carbohydrates in the average US diet are more likely to be simple carbs or sugar rather than healthy wholegrain complex carbohydrates like brown rice or wholemeal bread.

The authors say that These findings support current dietary recommendations to replace saturated fat and trans-fat with unsaturated fats. The results are consistent with advice from the World Health Organisation who says we should move away from saturated animal-based fats to unsaturated vegetable-oil based fats.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine and surprisingly was widely covered in the UK press. The Sun said: “Butter is bad for you again as new study proves link between dairy and early death”.  Sadly, this adds to the confusion suggesting that the idea that butter is OK was ever a credible notion rather than the outlandish opinions of a small number of nutritionist and writers (some with books to sell) who consistently argue against official advice. It’s misleading and confusing when the media present minority opinions in such an authoritative manner, maybe this major study will finally stop the fat lies.

Links to the press:

  • Eating more saturated fats raises risk of early death, says US study. The Guardian, July 6 2016
  • ANOTHER U-CHURN Butter is bad for you again as new study proves link between dairy and early death. The Sun, July 6 2016
  • Butter IS bad for you (today’s study claims) Eating a diet high in saturated fats ‘raises the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and dementia’ Daily Mail, July 6 2016
  • Fat may be less harmful than previously thought, but it's still not a 'health food'. The Daily Telegraph, July 6 2016

Links to the science:

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