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.

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What people are saying

  1. says

    So I have a question on this subject. I was raised on butter- and salt-free veggies, since my mom believed modern dietary wisdom about heart disease and health. Consequently, I LIKE the flavor of unadorned veggies (except potatoes; they need butter and lots of it). While I do try to put a pat of butter on top of my veggies when I serve them, I wonder if a similar dietary benefit could be had from eating the fat elsewhere in the meal. So, could I have plain steamed kale if I’m eating it with another, richer side dish or main? For example, when I eat steamed kale for breakfast, I eat it with eggs cooked in butter, tallow, or bacon fat, and usually drizzle the leftover fat from the pan over the eggs. Does this fat help me absorb the nutrients in the kale? What about eating raw carrot sticks with a tuna sandwich? Does the fat in the (homemade, of course) mayo and fish help the absorption of vitamin A?

    • D. says

      Does it make a difference HOW you do it? The whole meal ends up in your stomach for digestion at ultimately the same time, and would be absorbed pretty much at the same time.

      People worry too much about the details and don’t see the big picture, I fear.

      My question is how to convince a vegetarian to consume good fats. I have a client who won’t touch fat in any form because he says heart disease runs in his family and he is just sure the fats will kill him. He survives on soy crap and wonders why he feels ill. I’ve tried every way I know of to convince this guy that he’s missing out on fats, but he just keeps saying he never touches dairy products or fats of any kind. He won’t even use coconut oil or olive oil. He basically uses NO oil. He steams everything. He won’t take Vitamin D3 supplements because it comes from fish, yadda yadda. I’ve given him the lecture about how the nutrients in other foods are better utilized when consumed with fats, but it falls on deaf ears. He’s convinced that eating a “clean” diet (his words, not mine) is healthy and that animal products are bad. He won’t eat eggs either, so I would classify him as a vegan, although he calls himself a vegetarian. I’ve showed him lots of data, but he is totally resistant and feels he’s doing the right thing, but he’s been ill ever since I’ve known him. He has multiple allergies, one of which is asthma, and he has all kinds of skin and elimination problems.

      I guess some people just don’t want to learn, but it’s frustrating to see the ignorance about this subject. He now has his girlfriend eating this way, and she is trying to nurse their baby and is having major problems. The baby is not thriving, but the doctor has no answers (are you surprised!). Again, I’ve tried to make them understand that babies need fats for proper brain and body development but it’s a losing battle, I feel. I’ve seen her breastmilk and it’s thin and watery like gruel, without an ounce of fat in it. How sad for that baby.

      D.

      • jb says

        So sad. It goes to show you the power of marketing/advertising/brainwashing that have permeated our society.

        I have a friend that downed lard & fats for decades. She is coming around slowly to admit she was brainwashed.

        The power our government & conventional medicine has over the majority of people is alarming.

      • KLM says

        Even ‘standard’ nutritional advice would tell her the baby needs fat! Their doctor is 2x stupid if he isn’t telling the mom to consume fat while breastfeeding! Even if it’s all veg oil or in supplement form! She should be having full fat dairy for the baby _and_ to preserve her own bone calcium. A starvation diet like that while providing nutrition for two will, in the end, ruin her old age.

      • Leslie says

        I agree with what you said, except about the breastmilk. I’ve nursed 2 babies for over a year each and breastmilk IS thin and watery. It looks like skim milk. If you pump it and let it sit, it separates and you see the fat/hindmilk. So, her milk could be perfectly fine :)

        • Leslie says

          Also, you don’t need to consume full-fat dairy while nursing. It has no effect on the fat in breastmilk. You DO need to consume fat for a healthy diet, though!

  2. says

    preach it! for real, not enough can be said about the health benefits of real, good for you fats, like butter and ghee and lard, and schmaltz, and confit….yum! sugar if anything, should be vinticated, fat celebrated!

  3. Alex says

    Jenn….yep, you dont have to eat the fat ON the veggies…you can have it at the same meal…it all gets mixed together in the end…

    some have thought that you can eat the fat at any meal that day–but with the delicacy of vegetables and their quick digestion, if the fat isnt there to “transport” the fat soluble vitamins out of the veggie matter in the digestive tract, then the absorption rate is greatly decreased.

    I LOVE any type of traditonal fats on veggies…last night i made amazing turnip greens braised in bacon fat with garlic…the kids even tasted it and while not a favorite, they ate some..they did however enjoy the organic corn nibblets with cultured grassfed butter sauce! :)

    Is it just me, or do you sit down to a meal like this and just SIGH?

  4. says

    As a Southern girl, I was raised on vegetables cooked with fat. I never cooked a bean in my life without some form of fatty pork along for the ride. Also, my favorite summer lunch in the world is a bacon and tomato sandwich made with plenty of mayo. My only struggle is to convince my family to eat the right butter, oils, bacon, and lard so they avoid GMOs and factory farming and then being able to find them. Did you guys realize that there are parts of the country that do not have suitable (GMO-free butter) available in a 45 mile radius? My parents stock up when they visit me.

    • jb says

      Just wish there was an easy way to obtain raw butter. I buy raw milk & am going to try my hand at skimming the cream to make some butter.

  5. says

    I just did a nutrient assessment on FitDay for a day of meals and found that well over half of my calories come from fat with about half of that coming from saturated fat (another almost half from monounsaturated and a small percentage from polyunsaturated fat). I guess this would bother some people, but I was pretty happy about that. The more (good) fat I eat, the better I feel.

  6. Jenn says

    Thanks for the great article! I’ve always suspected butter couldn’t possibly be as bad as it was made out to be.

  7. Linda says

    As always, you are right on top of the truth. Thank you for sharing such great information, again, and always.

  8. Jenn G says

    My mother put butter on everything, even during the ’70s when margarine was the “in” thing… She always said it was best! I love her for that, and think of her every time I slather it on veggies for our family.

  9. Jenna says

    Thanks for posting this. Such a great resource to share with people who don’t understand the harm that no-fat cooking and eating is really doing. Being Italian, we slather everything with olive oil, but a nice butter from grass-fed cows is always acceptable, too :-)

  10. says

    Thanks for this important information Jenny! I hope many people read this and benefit from it. After all the years I ate low-fat diets of varying degrees, it was so amazingly wonderful to learn that after all that time, I was mistaken about butter and fats and how healthy they were for me to eat! So now, every opportunity I get I shout it from the rooftops – as any fantastic truth should ever be told!

  11. Lynita says

    Like many of these dear readers, I, too, grew up in the south, and on a dairy to boot. We made our own butter (and this in the ’70’s), and never cooked a bean without some lard or bacon in it. IN FACT, we never seasoned our iron skillets, because there was always at least one with an inch or so of bacon grease sitting on the stove (covered when not it use of course) waiting patiently to fry something. Ok, that may be overkill, but that was growing up in Arkansas in the country. Everybody did it! College came, and everyone was all about eschewing fats. Suddenly food didn’t taste as good, and folks eating fat-free, low-cal processed food in packages to help control their weight started gaining lots more weight!!! Go figure. I welcome butter, don’t even have margarine in my home. AND, I incorporated it into a weight-loss program that you pay for and lost 28 pounds doing it! We love butter and olive oil at my house! Thanks for such an insightful article.

    • Gail says

      Leaving the iron skillet on the stove (covered) with the fat in it…what a great – and simple – idea. I’m always pouring my fat into a little crock and setting it aside. It just makes more work and mess. Thanks.

  12. says

    Great article, I have fallen into a rut with my vegetables with olive oil all the time and was considering using some clarified butter, this clinches it for me (and hopefully my picky three year old). WHERE can we find the recipe for the carrots and parsnips??? I could not locate it in your published recipes, I assume it’s not up yet?

  13. Ariane says

    I love reading things like this! my entire life I wondered, how can all fat be bad fat? Why is it that dairy farmers, when they eat lots of dairy and cheese and butter, usually look very healthy?
    I come from a country where people make and consume TONS of cheese (the netherlands) and a few years back our nutritional pyramid thing removed cheese from its list of things to eat. Everyone was shocked because most dutch people are raised with eating cheese and everyone knows cheese makes you big and strong and able to do hard labor, surely, not everyone was wrong all these years?

    I just love reading your blog because when I think about it, this actually makes sense, not this calory counting, sugar laden “light” variants crap some other people are preaching to be “healthy”.

  14. says

    OK, I have always thought butter was better. But here is the thing….my husband’s cholesterol is on the high side and the sheet from the Dr was so opposite of whole foods eating…..what kinds of things can I feed him and still lower his cholesterol? (The sheet even said no coconut oil-says it is a bad fat?) Help?

  15. says

    I LOVE BUTTER ON EVERYTHING! and coconut oil and chaffin orchards olive oil and beef tallow and macadamia nut oil and my new fav from Wise Traditions Coconut Ghee! LOVE IT ALL!
    deb

  16. says

    The timing of this post for me is interesting. I hit the grocery store this afternoon and for some reason the vegetable section looked especially good to me – especially leeks, brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, spaghetti squash – beautifully cooked with lots of butter. I cooked the spaghetti squash tonight, and for tomorrow’s breakfast it’s leeks sauteed in butter and eggs scrambled with cream and more butter.

  17. says

    So, I am trying to lose the last 25 lbs. of my pregnancy weight. (It’s been 2 years…) I’m a big fan of butter and olive oil, but is it possible to get down to a healthy weight and stay there while on the type of diet my body craves that includes butter? I’m actually a really picky eater, but a lot of it is body-guided. I have a problem with a lot of raw veggies. I just don’t like to eat them. They need to be cooked and have some sort of fat with them. And I crave meat. Maybe my body knows better. It doesn’t help with the ol’ weight loss though, does it? I suppose I should be exercising more… But like others have said, what we’re told is that fat is evil (like at Weight Watchers), and it’s so hard to overcome that mentality. Are there any studies that show that good fats help in weight loss? That would be wild!

    • says

      Look at the book “The Paleo Miracle” – lots of people in that book corrected their health problems AND lost weight while eating more fat (butter, coconut oil, and lard/animal meats, etc.). They are the proof of concept right there. However, there IS information out there where they have proven fats to aid in weight loss.. just Google it and you will find plenty of it. =)

  18. says

    I’m so glad to have read this article. It makes a lot of sense to me, especially because I have a hard time eating vegetables. And I realized just the other day, that I usually have to have some kind of fat present for me to even enjoy my veggies. I wonder if this is my body sensing the need for the fat. Eating raw veggies pretty much grosses me out – unless there’s a dressing or butter or peanut butter. I just never connected the two until I read this. Thanks!

    • Jenny says

      Both are fine as ghee is simply clarified butter. For people with sensitivities to lactose or casein, ghee might be an option.

  19. Rachel says

    I love this post and was raised eating good for you full fats. Can you provide a link to the information about the study that was done?

    • Jenny says

      All of the studies are cited at the bottom of the post. You can copy and paste the one you’re interested into google to come up with the abstract or, potentially, the full study if it is available.

  20. ella says

    Hi,

    I wouldn’t say I eat unhealthy, but I am not a natural food eater. If I was to change just the way I eat vegetables and fruit as you say to eat them with fat, butter etc. And still eat wheat and grains, would I be doing something good to my diet or worse? Adding fats in addition to (“unhealthy”- as some would say) the foods I am eating will just cause me to gain excess weight, is that not so?
    Where can I learn more on healthy eating and eating habits, I would like to know for myself and kids?

    Thank you
    Ella

    • ella says

      In addition, There were two weeks where I eliminated wheat from my diet, adding a lot of chicken and eggs instead. When I did a cholesterol test, The results came out high. The bad cholesterol was a bit high. How can I make small changes in my diet without causing danger to my health?

      Thanks again,

      Ella

  21. says

    These changes are part of the body’s protective mechanisms to control damage and start the healing process. Most importantly, the report provides valuable insights on the pipeline products within the global Human papillomavirus sector. Keep in mind that three areas of human face that play major role to express emotions are-.

  22. t says

    if I cannot find a source of quality butter, would any good fat do? (flax oil, coconut oil, avocados, soaked nuts and seeds…)

  23. j stinson says

    my sister was concerned about me because I eat about a half a stick of butter per day and use real cream in my coffee, which a drink a lot of. I eat meat too daily and have been doing all of that for several years. So I had my cholesterol panel done and it came back excellent. Especially my triglycerides, they were almost non existent.

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