Vitality

Study Claims Low-Fat Dietary Guidelines Might Be Irrelevant: Why Butter And Cheese May Not Be So Bad For You

butter
While butter has been vilified due to dietary guidelines urging people to restrict their fat intake, it can also provide you with plenty of important vitamins and minerals. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In 1977, dietary guidelines were released in the U.S. and the UK with the aim of reducing coronary heart disease — they urged people to limit their fat consumption and avoid things like butter and cheese. But a new study claims that those guidelines were built on little to no evidence, and that we should live in a world in which butter and cheese are not shunned.

“Dietary recommendations were introduced for 220 million U.S. and 56 million UK citizens by 1983, in the absence of supporting evidence from randomized control trials,” the study states. These old guidelines aimed to reduce fat consumption to 30 percent of total energy intake, and also lower saturated fat consumption to 10 percent of total energy intake. But the authors of the study, who were from Scotland and the U.S., examined old research and found no differences in outcomes between patients who maintained the reduced-fat diet, and those who didn’t, they state.

“The outcome is that there is no difference in overall deaths whatsoever,” Zoë Harcombe, the lead author of the study, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program. “They were identical in the intervention and control groups with 370 deaths a piece and there was no statistical difference in heart deaths.” Harcombe argued that when people reduce their fat consumption, they actually increase the number of carbohydrates they eat instead.

Health experts have long been trying to figure out what’s been causing the obesity epidemic. For years, many have believed that eating high-fat foods, drenched in butter, bacon, or melted cheese, were to blame. But Harcombe argues that saturated fat isn’t the culprit.

Butter is filled with important nutrients, like vitamins A, E, and K2, as well as calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Though the majority of butter’s calories are fat calories, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad for you; the saturated fat found in butter often contributes to “good cholesterol,” or HDL. Cheese, meanwhile, has similar healthy aspects to it, containing minerals and vitamins like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin A, in addition to its fat content.

But as with anything, there’s a fine line between healthy consumption of fats and dangerous consumption of fats. Extreme amounts of fat can lead to high cholesterol and heart problems, which are known to contribute to obesity.

And of course, the new study has its downfalls — and since its publication in the journal Open Heart, it has fueled a debate among health experts and nutritionists. While the study claims fat isn’t responsible for the obesity epidemic, others disagree. Some nutritionists state that it’s already well-known that butter and cheese can be good for you — but that doesn’t take away from the message that eating high amounts of saturated fat can still cause harm.

“This paper is not critical of current advice on saturated fats but suggests that the advice was introduced prematurely in the 1980s before there was the extensive evidence base that exists today,” Dr. Alison Tedstone, Public Health England’s chief nutritionist, said. “The advice issued by Coma (Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy) in 1991 confirmed that eating too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease.”

Judith Wylie-Rosett, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA), told TIME that more rigorous research could be carried through to improve guidelines, even if current ones weren’t necessarily completely lacking in evidence. “We are not doing our best by the consumer at the moment,” she told Time. “We don’t need to restrict fat to below 30 percent of daily calories, but do we want to allow up to 70 percent? We don’t know.”

This may leave us with more questions than answers. Though in the time being, remember that while not all butter and cheese is bad — it’s often how much you eat that really matters. Steering away from processed foods will naturally provide you with a well-balanced diet, giving you room to use butter in making vegetables or morning eggs.

Source: Harcombe Z, Baker J, Cooper S, Davies B, Sculthorpe N, DiNicolantonio J. Evidence from randomized controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Open Heart. 2015.

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