- In June, a Tufts University study made headlines saying butter is ‘harmless’
- Days later Harvard University released a study saying it raises risk of death
- The next month, Tufts released new study saying butter is best avoided
- Now a Norwegian study has found a diet rich in saturated fat was the only way to boost good cholesterol levels in patients with abdominal obesity
To eat butter or not to eat butter. That, believe it or not, has become quite the controversy in research circles this year.
One study by Tufts University made headlines in June declaring that one tablespoon of butter a day could make a small contribution to reducing the risk of diabetes.
That was swiftly followed by a Harvard University study that said saturated fat – like butter – increases one’s risk of developing heart disease by 8 percent.
To complete the saga, the original report’s author, Professor Dariush Mozaffarian, released another study in July that advised skipping the fatty spread where possible.
Fast-forward to November and there is a new development: a Norwegian study has found that saturated fat is the key to boosting good cholesterol levels.
In fact, in the University of Bergen’s randomized trial of 38 men with abdominal obesity, only the volunteers on a very-high-fat diet saw an increase in good cholesterol levels.
In the University of Bergen’s randomized trial of 38 men with abdominal obesity, only the volunteers on a very-high-fat diet saw an increase in good cholesterol levels
The volunteers were divided into groups and given either a dietary pattern high in either carbohydrates or fat, of which about half was saturated.
Fat mass in the abdominal region, liver and heart was measured with accurate analyses, along with a number of key risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
‘The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases,’ says professor and cardiologist Ottar Nygård who contributed to the study.
‘Participants on the very-high-fat diet also had substantial improvements in several important cardiometabolic risk factors, such as ectopic fat storage, blood pressure, blood lipids (triglycerides), insulin and blood sugar.’
Both groups had similar intakes of energy, proteins, polyunsaturated fatty acids, the food types were the same and varied mainly in quantity, and intake of added sugar was minimized.
‘We here looked at effects of total and saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet rich in fresh, lowly processed and nutritious foods, including high amounts of vegetables and rice instead of flour-based products,’ says PhD candidate Vivian Veum.
‘The fat sources were also lowly processed, mainly butter, cream and cold-pressed oils.’
Total energy intake was within the normal range. Even the participants who increased their energy intake during the study showed substantial reductions in fat stores and disease risk.
‘Our findings indicate that the overriding principle of a healthy diet is not the quantity of fat or carbohydrates, but the quality of the foods we eat,’ says PhD candidate Johnny Laupsa-Borge.
Saturated fat has been thought to promote cardiovascular diseases by raising the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in the blood. But even with a higher fat intake in the FATFUNC study compared to most comparable studies, the authors found no significant increase in LDL cholesterol.
Rather, the ‘good’ cholesterol increased only on the very-high-fat diet.
‘These results indicate that most healthy people probably tolerate a high intake of saturated fat well, as long as the fat quality is good and total energy intake is not too high. It may even be healthy,’ says Ottar Nygård.
‘Future studies should examine which people or patients may need to limit their intake of saturated fat,’ assistant professor Simon Nitter Dankel points out, who led the study together with the director of the laboratory clinics, professor Gunnar Mellgren, at Haukeland university hospital in Bergen, Norway.
‘But the alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated. It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based products, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar,’ he says.