Butter Really Is A Health Food: A Functional Medicine Doctor Explains
Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, who popularized putting butter in our coffee, recently told mindbodygreen that butter was one of his favorite health foods. "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 in there." This is, of course, exactly contrary to many of the facts we've been fed over the years. Tell many people that butter is a health food, and they'll laugh in your face.
But what exactly are the facts on butter? Here's a functional medicine perspective to settle the debate once and for all.
Welcome to the butter battle.
For decades, saturated fat and cholesterol have been demonized in our diets. Since the latter part of the 20th century, we’ve been told these nutrients would clog our arteries, give us heart attacks, and cause us to gain weight, so we did our best to avoid them.
This thought, called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis, birthed the low-fat-everything industry—low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, cookies, and margarine.
But what does today's research suggest?
One study found that there might be no association between high total cholesterol and stroke risk. In fact, other research has shown that low cholesterol may actually increase the likelihood of death.
The truth is that as the fattiest organ in your body, your brain is composed of 60 percent fat, and as much as 25 percent of your body’s cholesterol is found in the brain. Moreover, we need cholesterol to make healthy hormones and have a healthy immune system and nerves. It should be no surprise that some of the many side effects of cholesterol-lowering statins include memory loss, nerve pain, hormonal problems, low sex drive, and erectile dysfunction.
In truth, consuming cholesterol and healthy fat is critical to the health and function of the brain and hormones, but for years we’ve been starving them from their favorite food.
The same goes for fats—specifically two fats found in butter. Arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids are two forms of fat that are only found in bioavailable amounts in animal fats such as butter. These two saturated fats play an über-important role in brain and hormone health.
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. Fat-soluble vitamins are needed for hundreds of different pathways that determine your immune, brain, and hormone health. All of these nutrients are found in their most usable forms in animal fats such as butter.
For example, true vitamin A, retinol, is found only in animal products like fish, shellfish, liver, and our buddy, butter. One study found that just 3 percent 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. For our brain to work properly, it requires a lot of energy. And from a biological and evolutionary perspective, the most sustainable form of energy for optimal brain health is good fats. In addition to arachidonic and the omega docosahexaenoic fat, butter provides ample amounts 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.
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, just because something works for one person doesn't mean it's right for you. Butter doesn't work 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 a trigger of inflammation 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 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 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, what they have grazed on for millennia. Their milk is then pasteurized and homogenized and the fat is removed. To make up for it having little nutrition, synthetic vitamins are then injected into the milk, trying to simulate what nature had already included in the whole-food form. The problem with most dairy today isn't the dairy itself; it's what we have done to the cow. 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. These people are fine with organic, grass-fed butter but flare-up with the regular run-of-the-mill butter.
3. Combining butter with sugar:
Eating saturated fat sources like butter with refined grains (which turn into sugar) such as breads and pasta or sugary foods amplifies the inflammation of sugar. So if you're not going to eat vegetables and avoid carby junk foods, I suggest limiting your butter intake.
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 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.
This choice is my favorite. Ghee or clarified butter has had the casein protein removed, leaving the butter fat with all its fat-soluble vitamins. Because the dairy protein is removed, ghee has a high smoking point, making it a good option to cook with, unlike healthy fats like extra-virgin olive oil, which will oxidize and become inflammatory when heated.
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 casein-free. My personal favorites are Tin Star Brown Butter Ghee, and Pure Indian Foods Digestive Ghee and Cultured Ghee.