Is Butter Back? The Truth About Saturated Fats

Medically Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on July 16, 2014
2 min read

For decades we’ve been warned that eating saturated fat, the type found in meat, cheese, and other dairy foods, can lead to heart disease. Instead, we've been told to choose healthy fats from nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils.

New research questions that belief. A recent review of 72 studies found no link between saturated fat and heart disease. The review also showed that monounsaturated fats like those in olive oil, nuts, and avocados don't protect against heart disease.

This isn’t the first study to question the idea that saturated fats are bad for your heart. Five years ago, another research review also found no link between saturated fat and heart disease.

Still, these studies aren't the final word. Right now, not everyone agrees that saturated fats are harmless.

Major health groups like the American Heart Association say getting a lot of saturated fat raises your chances of getting heart disease -- and they aren’t changing their guidelines.

Until science figures out the answer, what should you eat?

Don’t view the study as a green light to load up on butter, steak, and cheese. Be smart about the saturated fats in your diet.

“Countless studies show that if you replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, you do get a reduction in heart disease risk,” says Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. Polyunsaturated fats, often called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, come from vegetable oils -- soybean, corn, and canola -- and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout. They are also found in most nuts, especially walnuts, pine nuts, pecans, and brazil nuts.

The best way to prevent heart disease may be to eat more whole, unprocessed foods. So eat fish, beans, fruits, vegetables, brown rice, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and olive oils, and even some animal products like yogurt and high-quality meat and cheese. The Mediterranean diet, which draws about 45% of calories from fat -- including small amounts of saturated fat -- is a good choice.

And remember: Diet isn’t the only reason people get or don’t get heart disease. Your genes and lifestyle habits (like smoking, exercise, and stress) also play a part.