Butter for a Healthy Holiday

The holiday season is upon us and I’m being asked left and right how one can eat healthy over the holidays. The press is overrun right now with advice about exerting massive willpower to resist all holiday treats – because who doesn’t want to spend the holidays stressed and depressed by depriving yourself of the food you want to eat?

My approach is to relax over the holidays. Enjoy yourself – have a treat or two. But be smart about it. There are ways to indulge that are actually quite healthy, or at least can be healthy in moderation. People seem to have this ‘all or nothing’ approach to eating over the holidays – either they’re skipping the feast for a salad, or they’re scarfing down an entire box of candy canes. Believe it or not, there is a middle ground.

One way is to indulge in truly rich and satisfying foods that are also treats. I wrote about selecting good chocolate last week, which is a great little indulgence if you don’t overdo it on the sugar. Today I’m going to talk about another ‘indulgence’ that isn’t actually an indulgence at all, since it’s so good for you. It’s butter.

I have written about butter vs. margarine in the past and butter, of course, came out on top. A synthetic imitation spread simply cannot compete with a natural fat such as butter in either the flavor or health departments. Elizabeth Walling over at The Nourished Life has done a three-part series on the benefits of butter, so I thought I’d give you the Reader’s Digest version here.

One of the fats somewhat unique to butter is a short chain saturated fat, butyric acid. Yes, it’s a saturated fat and yes, it is super-good for you. This is not a contradiction. In mouse studies, butyric acid (also called butyrate) was found to improve insulin sensitivity and increase energy expenditure. Insulin resistance is when the cells stop accepting insulin, the hormone that shuttles glucose into the cells. This is the condition that can lead to type 2 diabetes. The mice in this study which were fed the butyrate were also leaner and did not overeat, as the controls did.

Just like the rest of the cells in the body, the gut uses butyric acid as a source of energy. One study has shown butyric acid to benefit sufferers of gut disorders including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The butyrate apparently reduces inflammation in the gut while also helping to restore gut lining integrity. In this study, they actually did enemas of the short chain fatty acid. I don’t know how one would go about getting a butter enema, but apparently it works.

And while many natural compounds have been found to destroy cancer cells or induce the cancer cells to kill themselves, butyric acid (as well as some other discovered compounds) actually induces certain types of cancer cells to return to functioning as normal cells.

Another benefit of butter is that it is a source of Vitamin A. And that’s not beta carotene, either, a compound which requires the body to convert it to Vitamin A at a ratio of 4 to 1. It’s straight up, preformed, Vitamin A. And, as Walling says, “infants, children, the elderly, diabetics and those with poor thyroid function may not be able to make the conversion [of beta carotene to Vitamin A] as needed. The Vitamin A in animal foods is in a far more bioavailable form.”

Vitamin A is a crucial antioxidant, protecting the body from free radical damage; it’s needed for vision, particularly the pigment in the eye known as rhodopsin or ‘visual purple’ which is needed for night vision; it helps with protein digestion; it’s good for the bones; it’s needed for health of the thyroid gland; and it is needed to heal the gut. It’s a powerful vitamin, essential for health and often low in the diets of North Americans.

And, last but not least, butter contains Vitamin K2. Vitamin K is relatively new to the vitamin scene, only having recently been discovered. But the more research done on this vitamin, the more important it is discovered to be. Vitamin K allows for normal blood clotting; it helps protect bones and prevent fractures; it helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss; and it helps to prevent artery calcification. K2 has been found to decrease cancer rates and decrease death in those with cancer. A recent study found K2 lowers the risk of prostate cancer by 35 per cent. Another study found men consuming the most K2 were 51 per cent less likely to have a fatal heart attack and 26 per cent less likely to die from all causes.

It seems there is a reason that in the system of Ayurveda, an ancient medical system from India, ghee is considered a medicine. Ghee, which is essentially butter boiled to the point that all dairy proteins are removed, is valued for its medicinal properties in Indian systems. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from this.

So slather on the butter this holiday season. Dump a whack load of butter onto those veggies. Baste your turkey with a lump of this golden goodness. Use it instead of trans-fat-filled vegetable shortening in your favorite holiday recipes. Heck, use half a pound in your mashed tateys. And know your ‘indulgence’ is actually nourishing you well!

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.