Butting In on the Butter Debate: Is Saturated Fat Still the Enemy?

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If you saw Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times declaring "Butter Is Back," you might think that the medical community has reversed its position on the dangers of saturated fat. Well, we certainly haven't, and neither have our colleagues.

There is solid data that the five food felons—trans fat, added sugars, syrups, non-whole grains and saturated fat—promote inflammation, heart disease, stroke and cancer. No ifs ands or buts about it. The highly publicized March 2014 meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine does not change this. Saturated fat, from butter, four-legged animal fat (including milk), poultry skin, and coconut and palm oils, is bad for your health. Period.

However, if you substitute trans fat or simple sugars or syrups for butter, then yes, butter might be the lesser of two (or three) evils. Over the years, consumer fear of saturated fat has created a plethora of products that sell because they're touted as being "low fat" or "fat-free." This sounds good, but when you take the fat out of food, it changes the taste. And since people are used to the taste of fat (it's acquired), that means that products with less fat don't taste as good to many people. So manufacturers replace the missing fats with sugar. Meanwhile, the article that Bittman wrote about was based on studies done at a time when people were commonly substituting trans-fatty margarine for butter in their homes. (Fortunately, with all we know about trans fats today, you almost can't do that anymore in North America.)

In these cases, yes, saturated fat might be less toxic to you. It'd be better to eat a higher fat snack than one laden with artery-destroying sugars that you didn't even realize were there, or real butter instead of margarine. But that doesn't change the fact that saturated fat is harmful to humans nonetheless.

The American Heart Association recommends a diet that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils and nuts; and limits intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats. The AHA also suggests keeping calories from saturated fats to less than 6 percent of your total daily calories. We believe you should have, at most, 4 ounces of red meat, including pork, a week. And if you choose to eat dairy, it should be strictly skim.

Remember, just because there might be something worse than saturated fat doesn't make saturated fat good for you.

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