If you're watching your heart health, you probably can't remember the last time you enjoyed a little butter on your bread without feeling guilty. Now, butter seems to be making a comeback in the debate on how diet affects cardiovascular health, and many of us are wondering, "Is butter bad for your heart or is the occasional pat OK?" Here's what you need to know.
Putting Butter in Perspective
Doctors frequently advise their heart patients to steer clear of butter. Why? More than half the fat in butter is saturated fat, which is a kind of fat that can increase total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. Just a tablespoon of butter packs 7 grams of saturated fat. That's twice as much as a small, 4-ounce portion of lean flank steak.
On the surface, that might sound fairly alarming. However, saturated fat isn't one single kind of fat. There are actually several kinds of saturated fats. Some of them are more harmful to your heart and cholesterol levels, and others are more benign. Because foods contain these fats in varying amounts, the saturated fat in butter is different from the saturated fat in, say, beef.
Butter is More than the Sum of Its Fats
As it turns out, some of the saturated fat in butter is made up of a unique saturated fat that doesn't seem to influence a person's chances of developing heart disease at all. What's more, butter isn't only made of fat. It also contains other nutrients that may offset its cholesterol-raising action. Perhaps that's why a recent study found that eating a tablespoon of butter a day had no significant impact on a person's risk of heart disease or stroke. Even more surprising, it ever so slightly reduced their odds of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Of course, it's also helpful to keep in mind that the recent butter study looked at the impact of eating only a tablespoon of butter a day, so it's entirely possible that people who eat small amounts of butter practice moderation in their eating overall.
Rethinking Old Advice
So, is butter bad for your heart? For now, the latest research hints that it's neither bad nor good. What we do know is that, when it comes to your heart, there are far more beneficial fats. Unsaturated fats from nuts, avocados, and olive and canola oils are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. In fact, a recent study found that simply by replacing five percent of the saturated fat in a person's diet with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, their risk of dying an early death from any cause is reduced by 27 percent. Experts are also learning that the quality of a person's diet as a whole is far more important than the effect of any one nutrient or food.
To keep your heart at its healthiest, focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and fish. Then, if you still want to spread a little butter on your whole-grain toast or baked sweet potato, go right ahead and enjoy it -- guilt free.