If you’re concerned about high cholesterol, you may wonder if eating butter will have a negative impact on your cholesterol. Butter is a dairy product made primarily from milk fat. It also contains small amounts of water and milk solids. Most of the fat in butter is saturated fat.

At one time, people with high cholesterol were told to avoid butter since it’s high in saturated fat. Saturated fat has been linked to an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL cholesterol is sometimes called bad cholesterol, and can increase risk of heart disease and stroke. The other type of cholesterol is high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and it’s sometimes called good cholesterol.

Recent research, however, has caused medical experts to re-evaluate their previous stance on the impact of saturated fat and butter on cholesterol and heart health.

Learn more: Does high cholesterol cause heart disease? »

Products such as butter that contain saturated fat have historically been linked to high LDL cholesterol, high total cholesterol, and heart disease. But according to a 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis, research doesn’t support a definite link between saturated fat and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Instead, your ratio of LDL and HDL levels may be more important than your total cholesterol number or your LDL level alone.

That doesn’t mean you should eat all the saturated fat you want. The AHA still recommends people concerned about their LDL cholesterol keep their saturated fat intake to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. Other organizations recommend less than 10 percent. The AHA also supports replacing butter with healthy plant fats, such as avocados and olive oil, instead of refined carbohydrates, which can worsen heart health.

One tablespoon of unsalted butter has 31 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol. To put this in perspective, the United States Department of Agriculture’s previous recommendation was to consume between 100 – 300 mg of cholesterol a day. Evidence doesn’t support that dietary cholesterol in food plays a significant role in blood cholesterol levels, however.

You can help reduce your risk of high cholesterol by substituting foods for regular butter that are lower in saturated fat or have been shown to have less impact on heart disease risk, such as:

  • grass-fed butter
  • Earth Balance spread, a vegan, soy-free, non-hydrogenated option
  • avocados
  • avocado oil
  • coconut oil
  • olive oil
  • yogurt
  • applesauce or a smashed banana for half the fat in baked goods

Some items can be exchanged for butter using the same measurements. For example, a 1 to 1 ration means that if you need 1 tablespoon of butter, you could use 1 tablespoon of grass-fed butter instead. Other substitutes will require some math skills to determine the correct ration. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of butter, you could replace it for ½ tablespoon of avocado oil or olive oil.

grass-fed butter1 to 1
Earth Balance spread1 to 1
applesauce1 to 1, but in baked goods, only replace up to half of the fat with applesauce
banana1 to 1, but in baked goods, only replace up to half of the fat with mashed banana
coconut oil 1 to 1
avocado oilhalf
olive oilhalf

Low-fat Greek yogurt also makes a good substitute for butter or sour cream on baked potatoes. Butter sprays add buttery flavor to vegetables and popcorn, but many also contain artificial ingredients.

Butter is thought to be a better diet option than hydrogenated margarine since it contains less trans-fat. Still, the American Heart Association (AHA) indicates both butter and margarine can increase LDL cholesterol, but margarine more so.

You may also want to limit your consumption of some other foods that may have a negative impact on your cholesterol. These foods may increase your LDL and have a negative impact on your HDL, meaning you should limit your consumption, or avoid them all together:

  • fried foods
  • shortening
  • baked goods
  • solid, hydrogenated margarine
  • alcohol

High cholesterol has no symptoms. The condition is confirmed by a blood test. Over time, unmanaged high cholesterol may cause atherosclerosis, a condition that may reduce blood flow in your arteries. Atherosclerosis may cause:

High cholesterol may lead to atherosclerosis, heart attack, or stroke. More studies are needed before a final consensus can be made that saturated fat causes heart disease due to high cholesterol. Recent research, suggests that saturated fat may not have as big an impact on cardiovascular health as previously thought. Cholesterol may only be a minor factor in the development of heart disease. The fat on your body may be more likely to cause a heart attack or other life-threatening condition than the fat in your food.

The bottom line? Butter is still high in calories and fat. Too much may increase your waistline as well as your total cholesterol level. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, it’s okay to enjoy butter now and then if you’re eating an overall heart-healthy diet.

In some cases, high cholesterol is genetic. You may need medications such as statins to keep your levels optimal. However, the following lifestyle changes may help you improve and manage your cholesterol levels:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet rich in healthy fats, lean meats, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
  • Avoid fried foods, foods with trans fats, and foods with partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids such as wild salmon and ground flaxseeds.
  • Increase your soluble-fiber intake by eating more oats, lentils, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Exercise regularly, aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes a day.
  • If you smoke, quite. If you need help, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs.
  • Lose five to ten percent of your body weight if you’re overweight.
  • Limit your alcohol intake; no more than one drink daily for women and men over age 65, and no more than two drinks daily for men younger than 65.

Read more: Good fats, bad fats, and heart disease »