07/22/2016 AT 11:15 PM EDT
Saturated fats have had a bad reputation for years. Not only have they been considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but we’ve also been strongly warned to limit our intake based on government dietary guidelines. Butter, which is very high in saturated fat – about 70 percent – has been particularly vilified.
But what about in the 90s when we were told to use margarine instead of butter? We later realized stick margarine was mostly trans fats (the true villain), and we were doing more harm than good. Were we wrong to condemn butter in the first place?
It certainly seems confusing – and studies don’t always help clarify. Researchers from the U.S. and Australia recently found that eating one serving (14g, or roughly one tablespoon) of butter a day was associated with a decreased risk of death (regardless of the cause), not associated with any new onset of coronary heart disease or stroke, and even appeared to have a small effect on reducing new cases of type 2 diabetes. These results were based on a major review of data from nine different studies across multiple countries (including the U.S.).
Sounds encouraging, but hang on a minute before drowning that popcorn in butter.
As with all studies, we need to be careful with the interpretation and application of the results. The findings observed do not prove cause-and-effect. For example, we cannot definitively say that one serving of butter a day caused the decrease in new cases of type 2 diabetes. Many other factors could have been at play.
This review did not account for other factors known to affect cardiovascular health, such as overweightness and physical inactivity. In addition, without randomized controlled trials to compare the health outcomes of people who do and don’t consume butter, or people who consume healthier alternatives to butter, these researchers were limited in their conclusions.
Overall, as the researchers acknowledged, the effects of butter and other dairy fat on long-term health outcomes requires further investigation. No strong conclusions should be made from these findings.
RELATED VIDEO: Get Abs Like Megan Fox!
So what does this mean? Is butter back or not? Well, yes and no.
Before I explain, let’s review what we know about fats:
The Bad: Trans Fats
Decades of studies have led to the consensus that trans fats, a product of hydrogenation found in processed foods and stick margarine, are terrible for you. They raise bad cholesterol, lower good cholesterol, and increase total inflammation, leading to disease. They’re so clearly harmful that there’s legislation out there to outlaw them altogether. Butter is definitely a better option than a trans fat source.
The Good: Unsaturated Fats
These fats originate from plant sources and are normally liquid at room temperature. This group includes olive and vegetable oils, avocado, seeds and nuts. While these fats are also high in calories, they provide a ton of health benefits that make them an important part of our diet. These actually protect our hearts from disease and do the opposite of what trans fats do – they raise our good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.
The Somewhere In Between: Saturated Fats
Saturated fats include animal fats, such as from eggs, beef, cheese and yes, butter. Saturated fats have been hotly debated in the last decade, and it all comes down to this: Saturated fats probably aren’t bad for you in moderation, but they’re not exactly good for you either. As the study points out, a tablespoon of butter a couple of times a week may not be bad for you, as long as you’re not increasing your total caloric or fat intake.
So can you eat butter? Sometimes.
Sure, a pat of butter here and there won’t do real damage, but where possible, we should be using the unsaturated fats that actually promote health, rather than ones that aren’t shown to be beneficial.