Don’t you just love it when experts can’t decide on whether something is helpful or harmful to our health?
I still remember, a couple of years ago, Time magazine had a cover article with the title, “Butter is Back!” The article was not really all about butter per se. Instead, butter was used as the poster child for all saturated fats.
The author of the article used butter as a springboard to discuss the controversies surrounding the consumption of foods high in saturated fat.
Eating Butter By Itself
The reason this article is burned into my memory is because of a personal experience: a relative of mine read the article and afterward, was completely convinced that saturated fat is harmless. This is a true story, I promise — after reading this article, he began eating tablespoons of butter as a snack. He obviously took the argument that “butter is back” quite literally.
You’re probably thinking, “Well, you mean he added a tablespoon of butter to his toast as a snack.” Uh, nope. He would dive into the butter dish with a large spoon and just eat it plain… right off the spoon. Again, completely true story. I can’t make this stuff up.
That’s an extreme case where someone saw the headline and took the information quite literally.
Does Butter Raise Triglycerides?
If you’re wondering what happened to this person after they started this habit, his doctor eventually told him to stop. This is because his routine bloodwork revealed that his blood triglyceride levels skyrocketed to dangerously high levels.
Measuring blood triglycerides is basically a way to gauge the amount of fat in a person’s bloodstream. Too much fat, or put another way, too many triglycerides in the blood can increase a person’s risk for having a heart attack or a stroke.
I just presented some anecdotal evidence, which isn’t the most reliant form of information. But I used it to illustrate a point: for some, consuming certain forms of saturated fat, like butter, may not be the healthiest option.
What Foods are High in Saturated Fat?
Foods besides butter that are high in saturated fat would be:
- red meat
- coconut oil
- palm oil
- whole milk and anything made from it (like whole-milk cheeses)
Now, to make a more informed decision, it’s best to look at what the science says.
Sometimes, industry can influence the science. I’ve given the example where the dairy industry influenced the United States Department of Agriculture’s recommendations for dairy consumption. It’s unfortunate, but this happens. This is also why we can’t often rely on just one study or the recommendations of one organization to make an informed decision.
A student recently mentioned to me that the textbook he was using seems to contradict some of the articles he's been reading. That’s often because textbooks take so long to publish, that by the time they end up in your hands, the data presented is already old news. This is especially true when addressing topics like nutrition where recommendations seemingly change overnight.
I've done some of the leg work for you, dear reader, to try and come up with the best “once-and-for all” answer.
Do Saturated Fats Cause Cardiovascular Disease?
I tried looking at some of the agencies that aren’t supposed to be as biased. One is the Cochrane Review, another is the American Heart Association and the last is the Harvard School of Public Health. These organizations have looked at lots of studies and provided recommendations based on the results of this research.
Here’s where they agreed: reducing the amount of saturated fat you eat can lead to a modest reduction in your risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
How Can I Reduce the Harmful Effects of Saturated Fat?
As I always say, though, if you’re reducing something in your diet, you probably need to replace it with something else otherwise you may feel deprived.
Most of these health organizations agree that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with those that are high in polyunsaturated fats instead, may be helpful. These types of foods include those that are high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, mackerel, flaxseeds, soy, and walnuts. On the other hand, replacing high saturated fat foods with highly refined carbohydrates isn’t a great idea.
But there are still some unanswered questions. We have to keep in mind that when we eat food, we don’t eat them in isolation. Unless you’re my relative, you’re probably not eating saturated fat from a spoon. We mostly eat foods in combination as part of a meal or snack.
So, it could be possible that if we eat high saturated fat foods in combination with foods high in nutrients like antioxidants, then maybe we can offset some of the potential harmful effects of the saturated fat we just consumed. Maybe it's overall diet quality that’s most important. That’s why I can’t say that added sugars are the leading cause of disease, either.
We also don’t know whether plant sources of saturated fat are as harmful as animal-based ones. For example, what if my family member licked coconut oil off a spoon instead of butter? Would the effect have been the same?
How Much Saturated Fat Can I Have in a Day?
Here’s the bottom line: it’s probably safe to consume less than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. Any more than that, and we may see blood levels of both triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, also know as “bad” cholesterol go up. When this happens, the risk for cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke also go up.
If someone already has high triglyceride or LDL cholesterol levels or has a history of cardiovascular disease, it may be best to consume less than 12 grams of saturated fat each day.
I should mention that this means limiting ALL sources of saturated fat, plant-based or not. In the case of my relative, since their triglyceride levels were high, I would advise them to aim for the less than 12 grams of saturated fat each day recommendation. That means I would discourage snacking on tablespoons of butter OR coconut oil.