It looks like butter may, in fact, be back. The creamy condiment is a “middle-of-the-road” food, nutritionally speaking—better than sugar, worse than olive oil—according to a new report, which adds to a growing body of research showing that the low-fat-diet trend was misguided. The new study analyzed nine papers that included more than 600,000 people and concluded that consuming butter is not linked to a higher risk for heart disease and might be slightly protective against type 2 diabetes. This goes against the longstanding advice to avoid butter because it contains saturated fat.
To be clear, the new study doesn’t say butter is a health food, rather that “it doesn’t seem to be hugely harmful or beneficial,” says study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts in Boston. This is in line with the new thinking from a growing number of nutrition scientists who say that cutting back on fat, even the saturated kind, is doing more harm than good.
“In my mind, saturated fat is kind of neutral overall,” Mozaffarian says. “Vegetable oils and fruits and nuts are healthier than butter, but on the other hand, low-fat turkey meat or a bagel or cornflakes or soda is worse for you than butter.”
In the study, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers looked at people’s butter consumption and their risk for chronic disease and found no link to heart disease. In four of the nine studies, people who ate butter daily had a 4% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. More research is needed to understand why, but it may be due in part to the fact that dairy fat also contains monounsaturated fats that can improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity.
As TIME reported in a 2014 cover story, fat had become “the most vilified nutrient in the American diet” despite the scientific evidence showing it didn’t harm health or cause weight gain in moderation. “Saturated fat was considered dietary public health enemy number one,” says Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Always Hungry?. “For the last few years there’s been research and commentary suggesting that this focus is misguided.” (Ludwig was not involved in the most recent study.)
Indeed, research is mounting that saturated fat is better for you than processed carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, which have been linked to diabetes, obesity and heart disease many times over. In April, Mozaffarian published a separate study in the journal Circulation that analyzed the blood of 3,333 adults and found that people who had higher levels of three byproducts from full-fat dairy had a 46% lower risk of getting diabetes than people with lower levels. Other studies have also shown that full-fat products like dairy can be useful in weight maintenance and other health factors.
Mozaffarian and his co-authors on the new paper hope that this research moves nutrition conversations away from the health effects of specific nutrients, instead focusing on the actual foods people eat. “We eat cheese, we eat butter, we eat yogurt, we eat milk, and meat,” says Mozaffarian, as opposed to calcium, fat and protein. Plus, he adds, just because a pad of butter and a pastrami sandwich both contain saturated fat, it’s the food that matters most. “Processed meats may have different effects on stroke and heart disease, not because of the saturated fat, but because of sodium and the preservatives,” says Mozaffarian. “In the end, just making decisions about a food based on one thing like saturated fat is not useful.”
Getting people to follow that advice may be a challenge. A July 2014 Gallup poll found about twice as many Americans say they are actively avoiding fat compared to people avoiding carbohydrates. But a movement toward understanding the benefits or risks of foods rather than their singular nutrients may be worthwhile.
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