Have you been butter-shamed? Are you feeling judged for your fatty lifestyle? Do others ridicule your cheese consumption habit? Triggering phrases such as “How much more butter can you fit on that bread?” or “There’s no way you can eat all that sour cream!” can leave you feeling isolated and misunderstood.

Good news: you’re not alone, and you don’t have to live in shame or fear any longer! There are more of us than you might suspect: saturated fat hedonists who have been gleefully slathering on the butter, saving the bacon grease, loading up on the eggs and heaping on the full-fat cheese for years.

And the best part is, we’ve all been doing our hearts a huge favor by skipping out on the common Hateful 8 seed oils in favor of stable and delicious sustainable saturates!

On the other hand, if you’re tardy to the lardy party, it’s not too late! Just kick that canola oil to the curb (yes, even if it’s organic and non-GMO!), start saving the bacon grease and read on.

Fast fat facts

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll narrow our focus on the wonderfully complex world of fatty acid analysis toward two basic categories: saturated (mostly solid at room temperature) and unsaturated fats (liquid at room temperature).

We’ve all heard that unsaturated fats are “good” and saturated fats are “bad.”

However, nearly every food, fatty or lean, contains a mixture of many different fatty acids: fats  from avocados, sardines, olives, nuts, salmon and coconuts are all a mix of saturated and unsaturated fat.

Without getting too technical, the amount of saturation of each fatty acid chain with hydrogen determines how solid or fluid it is.

That’s why butter, a rich source of saturated fat, quickly hardens in the fridge. It’s also why cod liver oil won’t harden even in your freezer, because the oil is rich in unsaturates.

So, you can usually recognize foods rich in saturated fatty acids (butter, coconut oil, beef tallow, ghee) because they are solid at room temperature. This also shows their chemical stability. More saturation means less oxidation, which means the fat is less likely to become rancid.

Finally, any fat that is referred to as “omega”, whether it’s omega 3 (fish!), omega 6, (seeds!) omega 9 (olive oil!) is unsaturated, and tends to be liquid at room temperature – though these can have very different health effects!

So there you have it: every type of fat has its own unique traits and of course, the vital nutritional importance of omega-3 from seafood is paramount.

What’s so special about saturates?

Humans thrive on diets rich in saturated fats, and foods rich in saturated fats tend to be nutritional powerhouses, such as breastmilk, 50 percent of which is composed of saturated fatty acid (German, 2010).

Unfortunately, saturated fat has been the unfair recipient of blame and finger-pointing since the early 1900s, when Procter & Gamble began a Crisco-smeared campaign against lard, then the most commonly available cooking fat. 

Even then, no evidence supported the notion that Crisco – essentially hydrogenated cottonseed oil left over from the candlestick industry - was superior to lard (Smith, 2013).

Vegetable and seed oil in plastic bottles
So-called vegetable oils – extracted from seeds via heat, pressure and (often) solvents – have been billed as healthful for decades. That evidence now looks flimsy.

But that didn’t stop researchers in the 1950s from making the spurious claim that animal-based saturated fats, such as those in beef and butter, were responsible for heart disease. Researchers have debated this robustly ever since.

The emerging consensus? Foods rich in saturated fat tend to be healthful, nutritional superstars and avoiding them means missing out on some of the most delicious and uniquely satiating ancestral foods that humans have thrived on for centuries.

And unlike high omega-6-rich cooking oils, the mostly saturated dietary fats - lard, tallow, butter, coconut oil and ghee - are all stable, less prone to going rancid, and do not instigate the inflammatory processes associated with omega-6 oils. Those oils are, unfortunately, now consumed at excessive levels, according to Tom Brenna, Ph.D., renowned lipid expert (Brenna, 2021).

Abundant scientific evidence confirms that high omega-6 consumption may be the true culprit behind many common Western health issues… so why don’t the USDA dietary recommendations reflect the current science?

A recent provocatively-entitled paper published in a special issue of the scientific journal Nutrients called “Towards Better Guidelines and Recent Data” asks exactly that question (Astrup, 2021).

Toward better (and butter!) guidelines

 The USDA guidelines have been considered a “global gold standard” since 1980. Despite the revision which takes place every five years, some of the guidance still needs an update when it comes to fish and fat, as we’ve noted previously (Astrup, 2021).

Raw protein foods, salmon beef and eggs
Beef, fish, eggs, milk: all sources of healthful fats.

The special issue takes a closer look at the current recommendations with regard to consumption of carbohydrates, salt, and saturated fat. It notes a lack of rigorous evidence to continue the current recommendation of a 10 percent saturated fat daily intake cap, which it calls “based on insufficient and inconsistent evidence.”

Further, the paper explains that the concept of the “food matrix” should be considered with saturated fats. That means instead of viewing them as isolated nutrients, they should be considered and valued for the whole mix of nutrients that come along with them in real foods, which contribute to health in complex but important ways.

“Cheese and yogurt, for example, contain not only saturated fats but also other fatty acids, proteins, the milk fat globule membrane, potassium, and a number of essential nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, D, and B12, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid. These nutrients interact with each other, and one can play a role in the effective absorption of another. For instance, fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D require fat for absorption.”

Translation: Fatty foods can be incredibly healthful, too, especially when part of a synergistic matrix of nutrients – in other words, when part of a whole food.

Challenging the narrative

While highly unsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids in the diet (and subsequently in the body), which are ideally consumed in fish or shellfish to provide that crucial mix of nutrients, have amassed scientific documentation for their astonishing array of benefits. Including them in the diet has been termed one of the top 10 ways to avoid premature death (Mozaffarian, 2013). Not to mention, they taste simply delicious.

Whether government diet directives will catch up to the science or not remains to be seen.

In the meantime, enjoy your seafood slathered in saturates? You butter believe it.

 

Sources:

Astrup, Arne, Nina Teicholz, Faidon Magkos, Dennis M. Bier, J. T. Brenna, Janet C. King, Andrew Mente, José M.

Brenna, T. Personal communication. (28 Sept, 2021). Ordovas, Jeff S. Volek, Salim Yusuf, and Ronald M. Krauss 2021. "Dietary Saturated Fats and Health: Are the U.S. Guidelines Evidence-Based?" Nutrients 13, no. 10: 3305. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13103305

German, J. B., & Dillard, C. J. (2010). Saturated fats: a perspective from lactation and milk composition. Lipids, 45(10), 915–923. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11745-010-3445-9

Mozaffarian, D., Lemaitre, R. N., King, I. B., Song, X., Huang, H., Sacks, F. M., Rimm, E. B., Wang, M., & Siscovick, D. S. (2013). Plasma phospholipid long-chain ω-3 fatty acids and total and cause-specific mortality in older adults: a cohort study. Annals of internal medicine, 158(7), 515–525. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-158-7-201304020-00003

Smith, Robert. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/02/03/146356117/who-killed-lard 2013 NPR