Butter May Improve How Good Cholesterol (HDL) Works, New Study Finds

  • Article
  • 2 min read May 1, 2018

Great news for butter fans: A new study found that saturated fatty acids from butter can increase how well the good cholesterol carrier HDL works in our bodies.

The randomized controlled trial found saturated fatty acids from butter increased the function of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) as well as the level of HDL cholesterol (HDL-C) or good cholesterol in individuals with abdominal obesity. In this dietary intervention, 46 participants were randomly fed one of five diets with the same calorie content for four weeks: a diet higher in saturated fatty acids from cheese, a diet higher in saturated fatty acids from butter, a diet higher in monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil, a diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids from corn oil and a lower-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet. The study found that eating the diets higher in fat, regardless of the type of fat, increased blood levels of HDL-C when compared with the lower-fat, higher-carbohydrate diet.

Interestingly, while butter increased LDL-C, this increase was positively related to the increase in markers of HDL function in men, resulting in a net neutral effect. This might explain why a recent systematic review and meta-analysis showed a neutral association between eating butter and risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and type 2 diabetes.

Let’s look at what HDL functionality means. First, LDL is a lipoprotein that carries cholesterol from the liver and drops it into tissues, such as the arteries. HDL does the opposite; it picks up the cholesterol dropped by LDL and brings it back to the liver where it is ultimately eliminated from the body. This is how our bodies control cholesterol levels.

Although more research needs to be done, this new study adds to the growing understanding of HDL function, cholesterol metabolism and how different diets may impact HDL function and cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. For instance, blood levels of LDL-C and/or HDL-C alone might not tell the whole story. Emerging research suggests that decreasing CVD risk might involve both increasing HDL-C levels, and maintaining or increasing HDL function.

Additionally, the study shows that evaluating the effects of diets higher in saturated fatty acids on LDL-C only is too simple for predicting CVD risk. Not all foods containing saturated fatty acids have the same effect on CVD risk. Emerging evidence suggests that dairy foods are associated with a reduced risk of CVD or have a neutral association with CVD. A separate meta-analysis indicates that butter also has a neutral association.

Butter can fit into an overall healthy eating pattern. The key is to be mindful of the portion; 1 teaspoon provides 34 calories and 2.4 grams of saturated fat (about 20 calories from saturated fat), which can fit into the recommendation from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to consume no more than 10 percent of total calories from the saturated fat.