What is Ghee?
Ghee, or clarified butter, is made by melting milk at low temperatures. On the Indian subcontinent, cow milk was typically used, however traditional forms of clarified butter in the Middle East and Africa included goat or sheep milk. The process is the same—as the milk is heated, the water evaporates, and slowly the liquid fats are separated out as the milk solids (proteins and sugars) condense and are then skimmed or strained out. You are then left with a clear liquid oil that solidifies at room temperature. Sometimes the butter is fermented prior to heating, which can change the properties of the ghee. Because the water is almost completely evaporated out of ghee, it is remarkably shelf-stable at room temperature.
The Benefits of Ghee
This is an important question, as there is controversy in the medical and nutritional world about ghee. As is usually the case, there is still more to learn about the scientific details of ghee, but when used in the right way, we can reap the benefits of any food, including ghee, while balancing potential harm.
In Ayurveda, ghee has many health benefits, when used in the correct amounts and with specific intentions in mind. However, when used in excess, especially for certain dosha types, it can create imbalances. Nutritional science validates many of the benefits of ghee, and also supports Ayurveda’s caution to use ghee in moderation, as too much ghee can also have negative health consequences as well, including increasing cholesterol.
The Ayurvedic Perspective
From an Ayurvedic perspective, being aware of the qualities, or properties, of foods can help us decide how much of, when, or if, to use a particular food in our diet. In addition, in Ayurveda ghee is used not only as food, but as a carrier for certain herbs known as ghritams, in addition to topically for therapeutic purposes in the eyes, ears, and nose. Using these principles, we will take a look at ghee.
Ghee carries the sweet taste and therefore is primarily composed of the qualities of Earth and Water, which are heavy, thick, oily, soft, and smooth. From an Ayurvedic perspective, therefore, when we ingest ghee, we can accumulate these qualities in our physiology. Using ghee topically, or when ingested, will lubricate, soften, and moisturize tissues. It is also said to support the reproductive tissues and immune system.
From a dosha perspective, due to its qualities, it can be balancing for Vata dosha when taken in moderation. Ghee can also be balancing for Pittas, due to the cooling effects and can be used in moderation a well. However, it should be used minimally in daily use for Kaphas, as it causes accumulation of oiliness and heaviness.
Another consideration is using ghee intentionally for short periods of time, for example, during detoxification. Because ghee has a high proportion of saturated fat, it can bind fat-soluble toxins and create more flow of bile which can aid during detox. However, once the detox period is over, intake needs to be modified for an individual’s needs.
The Nutritional Makeup of Ghee
From our modern biochemical knowledge, we know that ghee contains saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and cholesterol. These fats include omega-3’s and omega-9’s. These biochemicals are what give ghee many of its qualities. It also contains several fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K, as well as other antioxidants and anti-inflammatory fatty acids.
Under certain circumstances when produced, ghee may contain certain amounts of cholesterol oxidation compounds. These molecules, which are produced when animal products are heated, have been implicated in cardiovascular disease. However, there are also studies that document a lowering of serum cholesterol from moderate consumption of ghee, and a reduction in oxidative byproducts. Theories behind these findings include an increase in bile production in the liver, which can help eliminate cholesterol through binding in the intestines. Also, in animal studies, ghee has been shown to reduce the oxidation of cholesterol in the liver, which may balance oxidative compounds created in the production of ghee. Also, there are more oxidative compounds produced when ghee is made at high temperatures, so this needs to be taken into account when analyzing the constituents in ghee, or studies on ghee.
In addition, ghee is sometimes implicated in the increased incidence of heart disease reported in India in the last two decades. However, this may be due to the modern production of ‘ghee’ made from vegetable oils, instead of milk, as opposed to being due to ghee itself. This modified ghee production produces more trans-fatty acids, which are unhealthy and can contribute to heart disease. In fact, in times past, there was a very low incidence of heart disease in India despite the use of ghee in everyday cooking, so we know there is more to the story. In short, studies are quite variable as far as ghee and risk of vascular disease, and any risk is likely multifactorial. In addition, the type of ghee studied, as well as other factors related to heart disease such as stress and modern lifestyle, need to be taken into consideration.
Although there is also a concern about weight gain when using ghee, there are no studies to confirm this is the case when used in correct amounts. It is true that excess ghee can cause weight gain, particularly for Kaphas who are prone to accumulating heaviness. Some studies suggest that the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in ghee can actually help reduce excess weight and body fat. Remember that "a little can go a long way", therefore this does not mean that ghee should be consumed in excess, as it is quite calorie-dense.
From a modern perspective, there also may be people who have a strong family history of, or carry certain genes (like APOE 4), that put them at higher risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular conditions, such as heart attacks and strokes. For them, the benefits of ghee may not outweigh any potential risks, and ghee can be avoided or minimized significantly, such as only using it during cleansing but not daily.
So, What to Do?
In Ayurveda, anything we ingest, when done with awareness can be used as medicine, but when used incorrectly can “act as a poison”. This is true for ghee. To use ghee to support health, the typical recommended dosage of ghee is between 1-3 Tablespoons/day, depending on your dosha, family history, and genetics. Be sure to buy ghee that is made from organic dairy sources, and not ghee that is produced from vegetable oils, which can contain more trans-fatty acids.
What it comes down to is to use ghee in moderation, in accordance with your dosha balance, unless you have a specific health condition where the benefits don’t outweigh the risks. When limited to a few teaspoons a day, along with a nutritious plant-dominant diet, we can reap the benefits of this sacred food while minimizing the potential health risks.
Sheila Patel, M.D., is the Chief Medical Officer for Chopra Global and a board-certified family physician who is passionate about bringing holistic healing practices into the Western medical system. She earned her M.D. at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and completed her residency in family medicine at the Ventura County Medical Center in Southern California. For more than a decade, she practiced full-spectrum family medicine, from prenatal care and deliveries to ER coverage and primary care for all ages. In addition to her work at Chopra Global, she sees patients in an outpatient family medicine setting bringing integrative mind-body practices to her patients to help them achieve their best health.
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