Butter Your Vegetables: The Role of Fruits, Vegetables & Dietary Fat in Health

In our home, we eat our vegetables with butter – lots of butter, and newcomers to traditional foods are often shocked at the amount of fat recommended in the wholesome recipes featured on Nourished Kitchen.  After all fat, especially saturated fat, is bad, isn’t it?  It’s dangerous – all this despite significant evidence that dietary fat, including animal fats, featured prominently in the native diets of humans prior to the industrialization of the food supply1 thus nourishing and fostering human evolution along with other wholesome, unrefined foods. Indeed animal foods rich in dietary fat comprised approximately two-thirds of the average hunter-gatherer diet, with some pre-agricultural societies consuming up to 99% of their diet from animal foods and others as little as 26%2.  Fat nourishes.

While the consumption of plant foods varies significantly among traditional societies, based largely on both climate and season, such foods also provide essential nutrients – vitamins, antioxidants and minerals. As valuable as these plant foods are, to maximize their value, it is essential to eat them with fat.  In an age when low-fat milk and steamed vegetables are heralded as a panacea for obesity, cancer, heart disease and other ills, it’s easy to forget the value of the foods that nourished our ancestors; moreover, it’s near blasphemy to suggest that we ought to butter our carrots, braise our greens in bacon fat or even spread our sandwiches with a homemade mayonnaise loaded with egg yolk and olive oil.

Fruits, Vegetables, Dairy Fat and Disease

Yet, as we serve up sauce-less steamed broccoli and butter-less potatoes, we not only miss the flavor and satisfaction that wholesome fats provide, but also better absorption of the nutrients found in those vegetables.  While increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and other plant foods are linked to better health – particularly in relation to cancer and cardiovascular disease.  Yet, the role of traditional dietary fats is largely ignored.   A recent study of over 1.700 Swedish men indicates that consumption of fruits and vegetables was associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, but only when combined with full-fat dairy consumption3.  That is, the men who enjoyed enjoyed plenty of vegetables along with full-fat farm milk, butter and cream experienced fewer incidences of cardiovascular disease then the men who eschewed dairy fat, consuming margarine or skim and low-fat milk.

It seems that the combination of fruit, vegetables and wholesome traditional fats not only affects the risk of cardiovascular disease, but also cancer risk and even the effects of aging on the skin.  A recent analysis of over fifteen studies on the effects of dairy fat and death from heart disease, diabetes and cancer found that those who consumed more dairy products experienced lower risk of stroke and heart disease than those who consumed very little dairy4. Some physicians have posited that since cancer cells thrive on sugar, a diet of up to 80% fat by calorie is indicated5 – such a recommendation makes the inclusion of a tablespoon or two of butter on a dish of freshly cooked vegetables seem a little paltry by comparison.

A  study of over 1.700 Swedish men indicates that consumption of fruits and vegetables was associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, but only when combined with full-fat dairy consumption.

Dietary fat is also critical to skin health.  Wholesome fats are rich in vitamins critical to health, particularly vitamins A, D, E and K. Just a tablespoon of olive oil contains about 10% of the daily value for both vitamins E and K while butter is rich in vitamin A6 and pastured lard rich in vitamin D7.  A recent study analyzed the diet of over 700 Japanese women – paying particularly close attention to their intake of vegetables and dietary fat.  Researchers discovered that not only were green and yellow vegetables associated with better skin health, but that dietary fat, particularly saturated and monounsaturated fat, were linked to increased skin elasticity8.

Bottom Line

Eat your vegetables, and don’t hold the butter.  Wholesome, unrefined fats nourished human evolution from its earliest days and will continue to do so.  While many national health organizations encourage the strict limitation of dietary fat – particularly animal fats; such foods featured prominently in the traditional diets of healthy and well-nourished peoples prior to the advent of industrial agriculture and food processing; furthermore, current medical research into the effects of fruit, vegetable and dietary fat consumption indicate that dietary fat may enhance the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption providing value to our diets and supporting health.

1. Price. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. (6th Edition) Keats Publishing. 2003. 2. Cordain. Saturated Fat Consumption in Ancestral Human Diets. Phytochemicals: Nutrient-gene Interactions. 3. Holmberg et al. Food Choices and Coronary Heart Disease: A Population Based Cohort Study of Rural Swedish Men with 12 Years of Follow-up. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. October 2009. 4. Elwood, et al. The Survival Advantage of Milk and Dairy Consumption: an Overview of Evidence from Cohort Studies of Vascular Disease, Diabetes and Cancer. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2008. 5. Cowan. A Holistic Approach to Cancer. Wise Traditions. Winter 2009. 6. Nutritiondata.com. 7. Put the Lard Back into Your Larder. 8. Nagata et al. Association of dietry fat, vegetables and antioxidant micrnutrients with skin ageing in Japanese women. British Journal of Nutrition. January 2010.