Butter has had a long history as being a taboo food, and most health professionals have long advised people to limit intake of butter. Butter and most other dairy products are high in saturated fat, and many governing health agencies recommend limiting saturated fat intake.
A diet low in saturated fats and higher in mono and polyunsaturated fats has been recommended for heart health.
However, more recent studies have questioned the guidelines of limiting saturated fat intake and therefore question the need to put butter in the category as a harmful food.
As with other topics in the nutrition world, it seems the advice and research is swinging from one end of the spectrum to the opposite end.
Here is some clarification on the research of saturated fat and butter intake and making sense if butter is good for you.
Why does butter get a bad rap?
Research from back in the 1950-1970’s, mainly from researcher Ancel Keys, suggested higher intake of saturated fats increased risk of heart disease.
During this time, heart disease also rose to be the number one killer in America, so finding means to lower risk of heart disease was important to the research world. (1)
Some critics of Keys’ research suggest he violated some scientific principles when doing his studies, which included data from more than 13,000 people from 7 different countries.
Keys’ suggestion of lowering saturated fat intake were absorbed by the American Heart Association (AHA) and other health agencies to be established as a main guideline for health (2).
Most agencies recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories. According to his research, saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels which increases risk for heart disease.
LDL is considered the bad cholesterol, but there are different types of LDL cholesterol. Some research from Keys and others suggests saturated fat can increase LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol (3).
The type of LDL cholesterol saturated fats can increase is considered a less harmful type of LDL cholesterol than other types of LDL cholesterol.
Saturated fats have also been shown to increase HDL cholesterol which is considered good cholesterol (4). The way dietary fats affect the body are complex; it’s not as simple as it may have first appeared.
The research that founded the guidelines of limiting saturated fat intake has recently been called into question because of other research results showing different conclusions.
Some may see this as confusing, but this is the way scientific research works. Different studies with varying length, study populations, amount of people, diet variances, etc. can lead to different conclusions.
This is one reason why research continues to be ongoing.
What does recent research say?
A 2015 review article (5) from Annals of Internal Medicine analyzed data from over 70 studies looking at the effects of saturated fats and heart disease.
Researchers concluded current research does not clearly support a high consumption of polyunsaturated fats and a low consumption of saturated fats for heart health.
Another review article (6) from 2015 looked at studies with saturated fat intake and risk of heart disease and mortality in people who have already have coronary artery disease.
Researchers concluded there was not an association between intake of saturated fats and coronary events in people with coronary artery disease.
Because of these results and others, some researchers and health professionals are questioning whether the nutritional guidelines to stringently restrict saturated fat intake may need to be revised.
However, current guidelines still suggest to watch your saturated fat intake. More research is needed before guidelines change.
What do you replace the butter with?
Unfortunately, what was suggested instead of eating saturated fat food sources was to eat more polyunsaturated fats, like vegetable oil, and eat higher amount of carbohydrates.
However, replacing fats with simple carbohydrates is no longer recommended.
According to Dr. Chowdhury in a 2014 Times article (8), increasing sugary foods or refined carbohydrates can increase the more harmful type of LDL cholesterol in the blood.
Therefore, if you are replacing foods like butter with sugary foods, you are probably not doing yourself a favor.
Something to keep in mind is that there are many different types of mono, poly and saturated fatty acids that affect the body in different ways.
Some saturated fatty acids actually have neutral or positive health benefits, and some polyunsaturated fats, like omega 6, can actually lead to an increased risk for inflammation in the body.
Therefore, if you are replacing foods like butter with foods high in omega 6 fatty acids, that may not be the best thing.
What is maybe clearer is the effect of trans fats on the body. Trans fats are made by taking an oil and making it more like a solid fat at room temperature.
Many margarines or butter replacements were using hydrogenated oils which are trans fats. Taking trans fats in place of saturated fats is not recommended because trans fats increase risk for heart disease.
What is a better choice is making sure most of your fats are from monounsaturated food sources.
Many studies, including a large 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study (9) concludes a Mediterranean based diet, one high in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains, moderate fish intake, low red meat and dairy lowers risk for cardiovascular disease.
These studies suggest eating a diet higher in fat is ok, as long as most of the type of fat is from monounsaturated fats.
What the rest of your diet looks like plays an important role; eating enough fruits, vegetables, etc. is an important piece when looking at the whole picture not just a single nutrient from a food.
If you want to replace saturated fat foods, like butter, with other foods, choose minimally processed foods that are higher in monounsaturated fats like avocado, olive oil and nut butters.
Not all butter is created equal
Just like all dairy or meat products, what the animal eats makes a difference on the nutritional profile. Grass fed cows (11) have a higher amount of omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
CLA may actually help protect the heart from cardiovascular disease, and some studies suggest people who eat grass fed dairy products have a lower risk for heart disease.
Butter from grass fed cows will have a different composition compared to animals who are fed corn. For optimal nutritional benefit, eating grass fed dairy products may have higher CLA and omega 3’s which can be beneficial.
Looking at food intake compared to single nutrients
What is becoming clearer is that we can’t lump saturated or polyunsaturated fat into a nice neat little label.
We eat foods that have mixed nutrients, and there are varying types of fatty acids that impact our body differently.
Therefore, maybe instead of focusing on how much saturated fat, carbohydrate, etc. we get, we should focus instead on the foods as a whole and looking more at the big picture.
As Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University says (12), “Instead of emphasizing one nutrient, we need to move to food based recommendations”.
Maybe the question is not just how much saturated fat are you getting, but how much of your diet is from real, unprocessed food? How much artificial food are you eating?
Bottom line: is butter good for you?
Do the recent findings on saturated fat mean you can eat as much butter as you want?
Not so fast say most health professionals. Foods like butter should still be eaten in moderation, and as Cleveland Clinic (13) suggests for over all health, eat butter in moderation, eat mostly a Mediterranean diet and focus on staying at a healthy body weight.
Butter can be a source of omega 3’s, vitamins, CLA and a high source of energy. It shouldn’t be demonized, but yet it should still be eaten in balance.
Recent studies have questioned the standard guideline of restricting saturated fat for heart health.
Even so, more research is needed to further clarify if guidelines for saturated fat should be adjusted. The type of butter can also impact the nutritional quality; butter from grass fed cows can have higher amounts of omega 3 and CLA.
What is clear is replacing foods high in saturated fat, like butter, with foods high in refined carbohydrates is not a better choice.
Even getting too many polyunsaturated fats could cause they body to get out of balance with inflammation.
Eating a diet high nutrients and higher in monounsaturated fat, like the Mediterranean diet, appears to have the best risk reduction for heart disease. This diet encompasses more than limiting saturated fat; it also includes a high intake of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc.
Instead of focusing on a single nutrient, like saturated fat, zoom out to analyze your overall food intake.
What types of foods are you eating; are you eating mostly processed foods or unprocessed foods?