Most of the saturated fat in our diet comes from animal products, including red meat, eggs, and dairy. These foods also all contain cholesterol.
Many people believe that eating lots of cholesterol will directly increase the level of cholesterol in their blood. However, the USDA Dietary Guidelines from 2015 say there is little evidence for a link between dietary cholesterol and cholesterol levels in the blood.
Read on to learn more about the link between butter and blood cholesterol levels. We also suggest some butter substitutes and explain how to lower cholesterol.
How does butter affect cholesterol levels?
Butter may increase cholesterol levels.
One tablespoon of unsalted butter contains 31 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol and 7.2 grams (g) of saturated fat.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that anyone who is aiming to lower their LDL cholesterol should get no more than 5–6 percent of their total calorie intake from saturated fat. On a 2,000 calorie diet, this equates to 11–13 g of saturated fat per day. Therefore, two tablespoons of butter provide more saturated fat than most people should be consuming daily.
Eating lots of saturated fats can increase a person's LDL cholesterol level. As butter contains a lot of saturated fat, people with high cholesterol should be mindful of how much they consume each day.
However, a review of papers from 2014 suggests that people should focus on maintaining a favorable ratio between LDL and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels. The authors state that there may not be a strong link between a person's consumption of saturated fats and their risk of heart disease or stroke.
Despite this, the AHA still recommend that people with high cholesterol monitor their consumption of butter. They suggest replacing it with healthy fat alternatives such as avocados and olive oil.
Symptoms and risks of high cholesterol
High cholesterol may not always produce noticeable symptoms. Therefore, some people may need a blood test to check their serum cholesterol levels. It is essential to monitor cholesterol in the blood as high levels can lead to a condition called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis can cause the following problems:
Lowering cholesterol levels
Eating plenty of vegetables and plant sources of protein may help to lower cholesterol levels.
While many people use medication following a high cholesterol diagnosis, the following lifestyle changes can also help:
- eating lots of healthy, heart-boosting foods, such as fibrous whole grains, healthy fats, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids
- limiting intake of partially hydrogenated oils, fried foods, and foods containing trans fats
- eating plenty of fruit and vegetables
- replacing fatty meats with lean meats, such as turkey, chicken, and fish
- including fibrous and protein-rich plant sources, including lentils and beans, in the diet
- exercising for at least 30 minutes every day
- limiting alcohol intake
- quitting smoking
- trying to maintain a healthy weight
Butter vs. substitutes
Oils that are high in unsaturated fat but low in saturated and trans fats are heart-healthy substitutes for butter. These include avocado, olive, and sunflower oils.
Some people use margarine in place of butter, but there is conflicting evidence regarding this replacement. Margarine uses vegetable oil, so it often contains less saturated fat than butter, which contains animal-based fat. However, hard margarine can also contain saturated and trans fats, so it is best to check the nutrition labels.
If a person has high cholesterol, they can ask their doctor about using stanol-based spreads or sterols, which may help reduce cholesterol levels.
It is possible to quickly compare the nutritional profiles of different butter alternatives using the USDA Food Composition Databases. Looking at the nutritional information on food packaging can also help people make healthful choices. The aim should be to limit the intake of saturated and trans fats as much as possible.
Some people with high cholesterol may need medications, but doctors will usually always recommend these additional dietary changes initially:
- cooking with healthful oils, such as olive, avocado, or sunflower oil
- using yogurt instead of butter, cream, or sour cream
- choosing grass-fed butter
- using butter sprays in place of butter to add flavor
Recent research counters the original belief that cholesterol in the diet strongly influences blood cholesterol. Being mindful of saturated and trans fat is essential though, as these may contribute to the rise in blood cholesterol. People with high cholesterol may have a higher risk of certain conditions and diseases such as atherosclerosis, stroke, and heart attack.
Butter is high in calories and fat, so people should eat it in moderation or replace it with healthy unsaturated fats. Eating a lot of butter may contribute to weight gain and could play a part in raising levels of LDL cholesterol.
A person can continue to enjoy butter in moderation as part of a healthy diet unless their doctor tells them otherwise.