While other higher-fat dairy foods don’t seem to elevate blood cholesterol, butter definitely does.

Share story

ON NUTRITION

When studies came out a few years ago suggesting that saturated fat wasn’t the devil, many people took that as a license to bust out the bacon and the butter.

Headlines and sound bites aside, the real message in the research was that saturated fat appears to be neutral for cardiovascular health. In other words, if you want to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, there are worse things — and better things — you could eat.

Specifically, reducing foods high in saturated fat (primarily meat, dairy and eggs) but replacing them with foods high in sugar and white flour gets a thumbs down, while replacing some sources of saturated fat in your diet with sources of unsaturated fats (plant oils, avocados, nuts) gets a thumbs up.

While nutrition science can seem mercurial, the truth is that it is simply evolving. This has created new twists in the saturated-fat debate because we have the ability to take a closer look at different types of saturated fat, found in different foods, and how they affect us. Take dairy fat, for example.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Long-term studies that look at food habits suggest that intake of dairy foods, both lower fat and higher fat, either have no effect on risk of cardiovascular disease, or are associated with a lower risk. Fermented dairy (yogurt and cheese) is most favorable.

Short-term clinical studies suggest that whole-fat dairy foods don’t tend to raise blood cholesterol, even though they contain saturated fat. Butter, however, has not been vindicated.

Clinical studies show a significant difference between butter and other higher-fat dairy foods on blood cholesterol. In a nutshell, hard cheese and even heavy cream had a neutral or beneficial effect on cholesterol, but equivalent amounts of butter (measured as calories or as grams of fat) had a detrimental effect.

The cream vs. butter study used 40 grams of milk fat each day, the equivalent of 5 cups of whole milk or almost half a stick of butter. You might want to put down that Bulletproof Coffee (coffee blended with a huge hunk of butter).

So what’s the difference between butter and other types of full-fat dairy? It may be differences in calcium and protein (butter is extremely low in both), or it may be how the fat is carried in the food. Dairy fat is typically enclosed in a milk fat globule membrane (MFGM), which is rich in proteins and phospholipids (a type of fat) and may have health benefits. Butter is low in MFGM.

As Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, wrote in a review of dietary policy in the January 12 issue of the journal Circulation: “The current science supports consuming more yogurt and possibly cheese; with the choice between low-fat versus whole-fat being personal preference, pending further investigation.”

A few more tips:

It’s still wise to heed the advice of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to keep saturated fat under 10 percent of calories. You don’t have to limit total fat, but go for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish, because those have demonstrated benefits for health.

Think big picture. Are you eating lots of plants (vegetables, fruit, pulses, whole grains)? Are you minimizing sugar and white flour? Are you getting your protein from a variety of food sources?

If you love butter, use it sparingly where it counts the most to add flavor, but turn to more healthful fats for most of your cooking and baking needs.

Remember: Full-fat dairy has more calories than lower-fat forms.