butter on dish, saturated fats, nutrition

For decades we have been told to reduce our overall fat consumption. In particular, saturated fat consumption has been considered a risk factor for metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, so we’ve all been warned not to eat saturated fat.

What Happens If You Eat Saturated Fat?

A new study from Norway suggests that fat in general and saturated fat specifically may not be such a dietary disaster after all. In this carefully controlled study, overweight middle-aged men were randomly assigned to follow either a very high-fat low-carb diet or a high-carb low-fat diet for three months.

The investigators were aiming for those on the very high-fat diet to get 73 percent of their energy from fat. The high-carb diet supplied 53 percent of its energy from carbohydrate and 30 percent from fat.

Both diets had the same amount of calories (just under 2,100 per day) and protein (17 percent of energy consumed). They included many of the same minimally-processed foods. The difference between them was in the relative quantities of the foods.

What Did the Study Show?

The men were able to stick fairly closely to the diets. Those encouraged to eat saturated fat got 71 percent of their energy from fat and 11 percent from carbohydrates. The others, following a low-fat diet, got 29 percent of their energy from fat and 53 percent from carbs.

At the end of trial both groups had lost weight and had reduced waist circumference. Imaging demonstrated that they had reduced their burden of visceral fat. The response to the two diets with regard to belly fat and insulin resistance was also similar. So were risk factors such as triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

How Risky Is It to Eat Saturated Fat?

In light of these findings, one of the investigators, cardiologist Ottar Nygård, commented, “The very high intake of total and saturated fat did not increase the calculated risk of cardiovascular diseases.” Levels of bad LDL cholesterol did not rise significantly on the high-fat diet. Total and LDL cholesterol did drop on the low-fat high-carb diet. On the other hand, beneficial HDL cholesterol went up only among the men on the high-fat low-carb regimen.

Another of the scientists, Simon Dankel, noted, “the alleged health risks of eating good-quality fats have been greatly exaggerated. It may be more important for public health to encourage reductions in processed flour-based products, highly processed fats and foods with added sugar.” Perhaps that is what we should learn from this study: Eat real food.

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dec., 2016

This is not the first time that we have written about research that casts doubt on the sat-fat dogma. You can read our earlier posts here and here.  You may also want to listen to our interview with Dr. Mark Hyman on how to eat fat and get thin.

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  1. patricia

    Perhaps in time we may have reliable information on healthy vs. unhealthy fats, and we may also have reliable information on the optimum quantities of fat we should consume. In the meantime, I have been convinced by the research findings on sugar and am trying to eliminate added sugars from my diet. I think that natural sugar, as in fruit, is o.k. so I’m sticking with the low carb plan for now, with the timid addition of butter and non-skim milk.

  2. John
    Croydon, PA

    A very high-fat diet has more saturated fat and more unsaturated fat than a low- fat diet, and the majority is unsaturated fat. Given that saturated fat and unsaturated fat have previously shown opposite effects for LDL and HDL, it appears that the unsaturated fat has offset some of the effect of the saturated fat in this study. That is good to know. But it would also be good to know if a very high-fat diet, which held saturated fat to 10 percent of calories, might be better.

  3. Simon N Dankel
    Bergen, Norway

    Great to-the-point summary of our research. To John, Croydon, PA: Half the energy on the high-fat low-carb diet came from butter and meats, making 1/3 of the total energy saturated fat. We did an intervention with strict control of key nutritional factors, which gives far more confidence in the true causal relationship than the type of association study you have referred to. I think your criticism of the author is unfounded, this was a spot-on summary. Best wishes, Simon Dankel, senior author of the FATFUNC trial.

  4. ebm

    Robert, try increasing fiber, soluble as in oatbran and insoluble,
    wheat bran plain psyllium. Also nuts, chia, flax, ground pumpkin
    seeds on salads, veggies, in baked goods, like muffins, pancakes.
    Nothing “white”, as in flour, sugar, potatoes. I used to put mayo
    on my veggies, but now I love Unrefined coconut oil on everything,
    including flax muffins without sugar added. Yummy. Mug style
    Flax muffins use: 1/4 c ground flax, 1 teasp chia seeds & ground
    pumpkin seed, cinnamon, 1egg, 1tsp coconut oil. If too thick, add
    vanilla extract. Stir it up well in the mug and microwave 55secs.
    Remove and run knife around inside mug. Shake out on plate to
    cool. You can put coconut oil on the slices, honey or jam.
    Good luck!

  5. ebm

    Whitley, as a former massage therapist, i found that numbness
    in arms and hands seems to originate from the shoulder/back area.
    A good physical therapist or chiropractor would be able to diagnose this problem.

  6. Kat

    Eventually, I hope the science will catch up with the reality of eating fat and understand that eating organic fat from grass fed animals is actually beneficial to health!

  7. John
    Croydon, PA

    I do not see how you can draw a conclusion about saturated fat from this study. The authors make a conclusion about total fat, not saturated fat, in the abstract you cited. I see no reason to read more into it. There is a 2016 study, “Association of Specific Dietary Fats With Total and Cause-Specific Mortality”, which supports limiting saturated fat.
    It is data based, not “dogma”. I am still waiting for you to present a balanced article on this topic.

    • Lex
      San Francisco, CA

      While agree that you can’t specifically conclude much about saturated fat from the Norwegian study, one cannot say much about saturated fat in Harvard study either. I say this because the highest quintile fat consumers in the Harvard study were still consuming something like 40% of energy from carbohydrates which makes them sugar rather than fat burners. I would imagine their insulin levels were sufficient to assure that most if not all of the consumed fat was stored rather than burned while the participants in the Norwegian study lost weight and waist circumference on both high fat and high carb diets in part due to the caloric restriction on both diets. I think all one can conclude from the Norwegian study is that a truly high fat diet is not an obstacle to losing weight and waist circumference and might have the advantage of increasing HDL.


    I have read quite a few nutrition books lately, including Big Fat Surprise, and I conclude that I may be in danger of eating too little fat. My cholesterol is 175 and I think it should be higher. Low cholesterol is linked to stroke and that’s the last thing I want to happen. I am going to supplement with olive oil for now and maybe add coconut oil later.

  9. Steve
    Everett WA

    Read the book Cholesterol Clarity. Saturated fat in a low carb diet is good for you. Saturated fat in the presence of carbs greater than a persons tolerance level for me that’s 20 grams can be very bad.

  10. M.J.

    I really enjoy reading The People’s Pharmacy. Such good information that no one ever explains to you. Keep it up.

  11. Glen
    Fort Worth, TX

    Love this health newsletter. Very informative. So helpful in building confidence to not run to the doctor with every little complaint but let our bodies heal themselves when possible, without the risk of harmful doctor intervention.

  12. Debi V
    Burlington, NC

    The only high fat food I consume is butter, which the other low fats are dairy and meat. I eat no beef or pork, and I eat only chicken, turkey or fish, broiled or baked. I only eat butter in my oatmeal in the morning (1/2 serving) and occasionally on frozen veggies that I steam. Or rice/pasta which I rarely eat. My HDL is way up and I am on a cholesterol medicine (Zetia). I wonder if it’s the butter I’m eating or if it’s because I haven’t been able to exercise much (I’ve had 3 surgeries this year, 1 back and 2 shoulder). If anyone has any ideas please let me know…

  13. Robert

    Is there something one can use to help in eliminating numbness and tingling in the arms and hands? It is so severe I can not sleep and if I am asleep it wakes me up. And, the discomfort continues for sometime.

  14. Whitley

    Three similar research programs inside the year 2016 is persuasive that increasing your fat intake is not a bad idea. These studies knock down long held fat intake teaching in the medical world that there would be some blowback but it’s surprisingly limited. At our house we have replaced margarine with unsalted butter this year.

  15. Mary
    Apex, NC

    Fats have been the biggest, most constant question I’ve had in cooking for the last 50 years. Whether or not certain fats or oils are good for you seems to change constantly. We learned long ago not to fry foods with lard or bacon grease, then later, not to use Crisco. So I started cooking with canola oil which I’d read was one of the two best oils. Now I’ve read that canola oil is bad for you. Olive oil was the other good oil, but they say not to cook with it, so I use it in salads only.

    Coconut oil is now good for you, and I cook with it sometimes, but the flavor, while good, is not the best for every food. Butter burns easily so that doesn’t work with high heat. This past year, I discovered avocado oil at the store. I’ve read that avocados are healthy, so does that mean that the new avocado oil is a good/healthy choice to use for cooking? PLEASE TELL ME which are best and healthiest oils/fats to use when sautéing vegetables and meats or making gravy, etc.

    • Terry Graedon

      Avocado oil is great for high heat cooking.

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