A Chef and Doctor Talk About Butter
Dr. Frank Lipman, an integrative and functional medicine physician and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, met Seamus Mullen, an award-winning chef and the owner of Tertulia restaurant in New York, when Mullen was feeling rundown and tired all of the time. The two worked together on a diet that would give him more energy, one focused on delicious things many nutritionists and dietitians say to avoid, like butter. Here, the two talk about why Paula Deen’s go-to flavoring can make your body run better.
Q: How did fats like butter get so demonized?
Dr. Frank Lipman: For a long time, fat was considered the enemy and the low-fat diets were all the rage. It started in the late 80s when saturated fat was identified as unhealthy. The problem is that not all fats are bad for you, but the message got dumbed down and oversimplified for the general public. The next problem: food manufacturers replaced fats with sugars in processed foods. (Remember SnackWell’s cookies?) And now we know that this fat-free crusade was misguided. Sugar, and too many grains, is what really lead to weight gain.
Seamus Mullen: I think, for a very long time, fats have been much too oversimplified and misunderstood. Let's just say the powers that be have played a large role in how and what kinds of information are made available to the general public. Look at the food pyramid, which pushes us to eat a largely grain-based diet; it's totally upside down. One thing that is clear, thanks to a lot more recent research and awareness, is that there are many kinds of fats, some of which are clearly harmful, and some of which are actually essential to our health and well-being. All-natural butter, particularly butter made from milk from grass-fed cows, is a great source of “good cholesterol” and a very good source of caloric energy.
Q: But it's not bad for your heart, really? What about your cholesterol levels?
Dr. Frank Lipman: It depends on the type of fats. Trans fats are bad news and should be avoided at all costs. Trans fats can raise cholesterol and lead to clogged arteries. But the link between saturated fats, which [are] in meat and butter, and heart disease has been getting weaker. New studies are showing that refined carbohydrates are a much bigger problem.
Seamus Mullen: For healthy body function, cholesterol is essential. We've all heard of the so-called "good" vs. "bad" cholesterol. For people who have "high cholesterol," the greater threat is not necessarily or simply high bad cholesterol, but rather not enough good cholesterol. It's more about the ratio between the two, and I think many people still misunderstand that. High cholesterol happens when you consume too many bad fats — i.e. trans fats, margarine, etc. — in a diet high in carbohydrates and sugars, and too few good fats.
Q: I had no idea there was such a thing as grass-fed butter. Whoa. What else is grass-fed that I might be surprised by?
FL: Cows eat grass! That’s what they are supposed to eat, ideally while grazing outside in the sun and fresh air. Cows are ruminants, with multiple stomachs and a unique ability to break down grass. They are not supposed to eat corn or soy (especially not GMO corn and soy). Changing their natural diet has lead to more illness and the need to use bigger doses of antibiotics. You should always look for butter (and beef) from grass-fed cows. Butter from grass fed cows is packed with health-supporting vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K2, which supports bone and heart health, vitamin A, which supports thyroid and heart health, and CLA or conjugated linoleic acid, which helps reduce belly fat and encourages muscle growth.
SM: Cows are ruminants, which means nature intended for them to graze. They have four stomachs, and a very complex digestive system that allows them to glean nutrients from plants that we as humans would not be able to process. All cows should be grass-fed. For that matter, all animals intended for our food chain should live as closely to the environment in which nature intended. When we disrupt this natural cycle, by cramming steers into muddy feed lots and force-feeding them genetically modified corn and soy products, or packing pigs into an environment so toxic that they need to be put on an antibiotic regimen for the entirety of their lives as a precautionary measure, we are straying incredibly far from the natural cycle of food.
Q: So how do you feel about reduced-fat foods or skim milk?
FL: Eat real food, as close to nature as possible. It’s what we do to food that is a problem — processing, refining, reducing and altering in general. Forget about reduced fat and skim milk. The less processing the better. If you’re going to eat fat, choose good quality and go for full-fat. Eat avocados, use olive oil or coconut oil (yes coconut oil is healthy) in cooking, have nuts, wild salmon, grass-fed butter, and pastured grass-fed beef.
SM: I think that reduced-fat foods, particularly skim milk, nonfat yogurt, etc. are a slippery slope. When you remove the fat content from one cup of milk, you lose a significant volume, which means it's replaced with milk that has a higher concentration of sugar to fat ratio. It's not the fat in milk that makes us fat. It's the sugar.
Q: Is there anything else about fat that we've been told that is flat-out wrong?
FL: People have become so afraid of fat. They forget that fats are important for satiety, absorption of minerals, fertility, skin, hair, nails, memory — I could go on. It’s also important to remember that vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble — they need fat to be absorbed. If you take a vitamin D supplement, please make sure to take it with a meal that includes some fat so that you can absorb it.
SM: The notion of calories in, calories out, is a faulty and oversimplified analysis of how the body puts on weight. Eating "fat" is not what makes us fat. Trimming the fatty part off your steak isn't what's going to prevent you from gaining weight, but cutting out the dinner rolls and all the sodas you're drinking throughout the day will. We now understand that weight gain is very closely linked to insulin production — foods that cause spikes in our glycemic index (i.e. sugars) are largely responsible for fat production. Healthy fats, such as olive oil, grass-fed butter and avocados, don't raise the glycemic index; they actually allow the body to very efficiently convert these fats into usable calories.