Is fat (particularly saturated fat) good for us?

Is fat (particularly saturated fat) actually good for us?  The other day my friend asked me about butter and wanted my opinion on the best option out there.  I’ve been using more butter in the last few years and think it can be a healthy option if you choose the right butter and use it the right way.  But what is the right butter and what are the real pros and cons?

All these questions bring me to the bottom line issue that's receiving a lot of attention these days in the nutrition community and among those interested in these things: fat, particularly of the saturated variety.  When the fat free diet craze started in the 80s and continued into the 90s, many foods came onto the market that had little to no fat and people ate them as part of their "diet".  The catch is that the fat in these foods was replaced with carbohydrates (mostly refined, and sugar) and actually contained roughly the same amount of calories as the original product.  All of this was mostly in response to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the USDA in 1980 which stated that we should "Avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol".  

 At the time, the message was interpreted as "eat more carbohydrates like bread, rice pasta etc as long as it isn't topped with fat".  This message has since changed to more specific advice to reduce saturated fat to 10% or less of calories and replace them with mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids.    Recently, reviews have been compiled of many of the studies out there on this topic (of note, many of these studies are 40+ years old).   Some of the top researchers (MDs, PhDs etc.) discussed this at the ADA's Food & Nutrition Conference Expo and stressed the importance of replacing most saturated fat in the diet with unsaturated fat (like that from olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado etc.) but NOT with refined starches and sugar as that can do just as much if not more harm.  They also mentioned the importance of making recommendations to the public that include tips not only on what foods specifically to eat, but also address the proportions (starch to fat to fruit/veg to dairy etc.) as well as food processing and cooking methods as these are all very relevant and important when considering the healthfulness of a diet.

Currently, Americans are advised to keep calories from saturated fat as low as possible, or around 7-10% of your total caloric intake.  But new evidence suggests that not all saturated fat is created equal and there may in fact be benefits to saturated fat.  Two of the old villains, coconut oil and butter have been getting positive reviews lately.  Both are high in lauric acid which has been shown to increase HDL (good) cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol, but do not negatively affect the ratio of the two which is very important.  A high HDL level is associated with heart health and a long life.    Lauric acid also has anti-microbial properties and may even reduce inflammation.  While there is still a lot of work to do in this area of research, I think it's definitely okay, and even beneficial to add some "healthy" saturated fat to your diet in moderation.  According to the American Heart Association and other similar institutions, it's best to keep your saturated fat intake to around 10% of total calories plus or minus a bit, so around 22 grams for someone on a 2000 calorie/day diet.  I personally don't keep such a close eye on it, but focus more on quality fats, proteins, fruits and vegetables.  My thought is that we love the flavor of veggies sautéed in grass-fed butter and will eat a lot more of them if they taste good!

Real butter made from grass fed cows that aren't treated with hormones or antibiotics, like Kerrygold or your local farmer's market butter is made from all natural dairy cream and nothing else which fits the minimal processing requirement I look for in my food.  It also contains vitamins and minerals as well as naturally occurring substances including antioxidants and others that are important for treatment of fungal infections, enhance the immune system, and increase absorption of many of the vitamins and minerals in your diet.  All done naturally. 

Commercially prepared "functional food" butters like Smart Balance mix vegetable oils that claim to help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase healthy HDL cholesterol levels.  They also add beta carotene for color where as in the natural and organic butters, it's there naturally thanks to the grass the cows are eating.  Also added are emulsifiers and preservatives (some that are considered unsafe at high levels).  There is 2.5 grams of saturated fat in the traditional Smart Balance mixture (13% of the daily value) and no cholesterol.  I would suggest avoiding these butters and if you have high cholesterol and are trying to reduce it,or if you eat a lot of these spreads, a better bet would be to switch to a moderate amount of coconut oil, grass-fed butter or olive oil for most purposes (coconut and butter are best for cooking as the smoke point is higher than olive oil so it doesn't oxidize), reduce the marbling in your meat, increase nuts, seeds and other healthy fats, cut out refined carbs and sweets, get moving and eat food in it's whole, least processed form possible.  So yes, butter can fit in your diet if used the right way.  If you have high cholesterol, diabetes or heart disease, talk to your doctor or nutritionist for a plan specific to your needs as the recommendations may be a bit different for you.  Also have your doctor check your ApoB levels, an important and up-and-coming indicator of potential cardiovascular disease.

Try this simple breakfast of lentils, avocado, a bit of butter, a dash of red pepper or hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon.  Real whole foods combined for a simple and delicious meal. 

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