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Fact or Fiction: Does Butter Clog Your Arteries?

Many trace the (mis)logic of this question back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s massive heart attack. Think of it as the Heart Attack Heard ‘Round the World.

The country’s leading cardiologist, Paul White (who had already treated some of America’s most famous and wealthiest cardiology patients like Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst, and Cornelius Vanderbilt) had found plaque blockages full of cholesterol in Eisenhower’s arteries — just as he’d seen in his other patients. The answer seemed simple. Ike ate too much of cholesterol-rich foods and had plugged up his arteries.

Soon after, “the Prudent Diet” was launched and Americans were told to swap out butter, eggs, and red meat for vegetables and highly processed vegetable oils. But facts are pesky things, and doctors at the time only had correlative evidence that eating too much cholesterol clogged the arteries. What doctors didn’t have was causation. They had a theory and, unfortunately, used this shaky information to tell Americans, in short, to start eating a lot more grains and refined vegetable oils. But after more than a half century of nutrition research, the proof that eating too much fat and cholesterol clogs the arteries never materialized.

Instead, some research has shown that diets high in sugar damage arterial walls and lead to the buildup of plaque. But it gets worse than simply cardiovascular diseases. It’s now clear that diets that increase blood sugar also cause obesity and diabetes. There is, however, a silver lining to all this news. Animal fat has been vindicated. Sure, people slogged through dreary decades of egg whites, smoothies, and margarine all for nothing. But now, it’s not only okay to eat eggs, they are widely recognized as one of the healthiest foods known to man. They’re loaded with omega-3s, B vitamins, vitamin D, iodine, as well as many other vitamins and minerals.

Moreover, butter’s back on the menu as well. In fact, butter has a higher smoke point than vegetable oils, and is much healthier for cooking because it doesn’t denature and become carcinogenic. By the early 2000s, a clear link had been discovered between vegetable oil and heart disease. Most vegetable oil that we consume, whether in the form of a butter substitute or fry oil, is hydrogenated for shelf stability. When vegetable oils are hydrogenated, a new, wholly unnatural compound is formed – the dreaded trans fat. The National Academy of Sciences states that no level of trans fat in food is safe. Why? Because like sugar, trans fats contribute to the hardening of the arteries known as atherosclerosis (a.k.a. “heart disease”).

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