Our town’s Christmas Shortbread Showdown made for a buttery and delicious Sunday afternoon. Although I avoid sugary foods generally, shortbread is my weakness. There is something that feels so nourishing about shortbread made with real butter.
Is butter nourishing? Yes. This week’s post is an Ode to Butter.
Is shortbread nourishing? Unfortunately, the sugar and white flour in shortbread are not nourishing. However, I would argue that if you DO eat something sweet on a special occasion – say Christmas – then shortbread made with real organic butter, rice flour and a small amount of raw sugar is a good choice. More on that later, but first: Butter.
For centuries, people of many cultures have cherished butter and ghee as valuable and nourishing foods. Dairy fat provides vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, lecithin, iodine, selenium and beneficial short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids. Good butter is yellow because it contains the phytonutrients concentrated from the summer grass that the cow ate. Traditionally, butter was a way to carry summer goodness into a winter meal.
How does butter benefit hormones? The iodine, selenium and vitamin A all support thyroid function. Vitamin E and vitamin D promote healthy ovulation, and support female hormones. Consumption of dairy fat improves fertility. Beyond the obvious benefits of the essential nutrients, there are the benefits of the fat itself. Butter provides short and medium chain fatty acids, which have important anti-inflammatory and metabolic effects in the body.
What are short-chain fatty acids? Short-chain fatty acids are a type of saturated fat. Sure, we’ve been told that saturated fat is bad, but by now, you are starting to realize that a lot of what we’ve been told about nutrition is just plain wrong. Not all saturated fat is bad. Some saturated fat is bad, such as the hydrogenated long-chain vegetable oil in junk food. Some saturated fat is good, such as the short-chain fat in butter. Short-chain fatty acids are not stored by the body as fat. Instead, they are used for energy and they also act on our immune function to reduce inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory. Short chain fatty acids reduce inflammation in the intestine, and this benefits hormones. Less inflammation makes for easier clearance of estrogen through the bowel. Less inflammation means less stress hormone, better detoxification, and better absorption of nutrients. Finally, less inflammation means a happier immune system, and this is important for hormonal conditions such as autoimmune thyroid disease.
As an example of the anti-inflammatory effect of short-chain fatty acids, consider dietary fiber. When good intestinal bacteria act on dietary fiber, they convert it the fibre into short-chain fatty acids. It is those fatty acids that reduce inflammation in the colon and protect against cancer.
Metabolic stimulation. Both short and medium chain fatty acids stimulate thermogenesis, or metabolic rate. They do this because they are easy to metabolize and the body preferentially converts them into energy, and not fat. Furthermore, short and medium chain fatty improve the function of our two main metabolic hormones: insulin and leptin. The evidence for metabolic-stimulation is so compelling that many people supplement coconut oil (high in medium-chain fatty acids) as part of a weight loss strategy.
Isn’t butter fattening? I have advised my patients to eat butter for many years. Moderate consumption does not cause weight gain. Butter is part of a healthy weight loss strategy because it stimulates metabolic rate, and because it promotes a feeling of satiety, and prevents over-eating.
What about milk and lactose intolerance? Butter has very little lactose or casein, which are the intolerance-causing parts of milk. Except in cases of severe allergy, butter is fine for those with a dairy sensitivity.
What about heart disease? Butter does raise HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), but there is no conclusive evidence that butter increases the risk of heart disease. In recent years, there has been some convincing evidence brought forward that butter does not increase the risk. If you choose to delve into the details of lipid research of the last few decades, you will discover a trail of shoddy science and the vested interest of the vegetable oil industry. It is too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say that: butter, a traditional and treasured food, fell victim to the 1980’s food police.
Why organic? Butter is a rich, concentrated food. It concentrates nutrients, but that means that it also concentrates fat-soluble pesticides. If there was ever a time to choose organic, it is butter.
How to make shortbread as healthy as possible:
- Choose fresh organic butter (preferably from grass-fed cows).
- Keep the sugar as low as you can. Consider raw sugar or maple sugar as more nutritious options than white sugar.
- Avoid gluten by using as much rice flour as the recipe will allow. Add a small amount of spelt flour to avoid crumbly cookies.
Yours in Health, Lara Briden
(I wrote this post when I was back working as a country doctor in a small mountain town in Canada in 2011.)