As with most things in nutrition, context is really important and it’s certainly not about foods or nutrients being good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. And this is very much the case when it comes to fat.
We often hear talk about healthy or unhealthy fats, but it isn’t that simple. What we do know is that diets high in saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular and heart disease. We also know that butter is high in saturated fat, so does that mean we should exclude it from our diet?
The short answer is – no.
However, as I mentioned at the start – it’s all about context, and how your intake of saturated fat fits within your whole dietary patten. Do you cover your vegetables in spoonfuls of butter or coat them in a rich cheesy sauce, and eat lots of fatty meats and calorie-dense packaged foods? Or, do you like some butter on your toast in the morning or on your corn cob in summer, but most of time your diet is full of fresh fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, lean protein, nuts and seeds? If your diet looks more like the second option, then it probably isn’t a big deal. However, if it’s more like the first option, then we maybe need to be concerned about your saturated fat intake.
You may be wondering why saturated fat is such a concern when it comes to heart health. It’s not a direct effect, as is often the case with dietary effects (and why context is important). High saturated fat leads to an increase in LDL cholesterol – the bad cholesterol – and this, in turn, increases the chance of arteries becoming blocked or damaged, which leads to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. What we want, when it comes to cholesterol, is more of the HDL cholesterol – the good one – and less LDL, and dietary changes can help with that. Mostly by swapping the saturated fats for unsaturated fats; though, sometimes you may need medication to help keep the LDL level down.
A simple way to tell the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is how they are at room temperature. Saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil are solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils are liquid.
Here are four simple ways to swap saturated fats for unsaturated:
• Swap out the butter for margarine
• Use avocado, hummus, nut or seed butters on sandwiches instead of butter
• Cook with olive, canola or sunflower oil (no, canola oil isn’t as bad as you may have heard on Tik Tok)
• Dress your vegetables with a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of pepper, or leave them naked
If you sometimes have buttery vegetables, or the odd fatty takeaway, enjoy it rather than stressing about the effect of one single meal. Just remember the context and that it is your dietary pattern as a whole that counts.