- Saturated fat in foods like butter and dairy has previously been linked to poorer heart health.
- Emerging research suggests there are different types of saturated fats, and some improve health.
- A surprising link to Navy dolphin research prompted one scientist to explore potential benefits.
A type of saturated fat called C15:0 found in butter and full-fat dairy may be good for you, new evidence suggests.
Stephanie Venn-Watson, a public health researcher and veterinary epidemiologist, told Insider that years of research on Navy dolphins unearthed the significance of the nutrient through an intriguing parallel between the animals’ risk of age-related illness and our own.
Now, Venn-Watson’s company Fatty 15 is leading research to better understand how we might benefit from more saturated fat and supplemental C15:0.
Studies suggest more C15:0 in your diet, with foods such as grass-fed butter in moderation may reduce risk of disease and improve health and wellbeing.
Some saturated fats may be healthy, despite years of recommendations to the contrary
In recent years, nutrition advice has moved away from the misconception that all dietary fat is bad.
However, saturated fat remains stigmatized as a “bad” fat, with sources like red meat, butter, and dairy linked to higher risks of heart disease.
But not all saturated fat is equal. A fatty acid called C15:0 has been linked to health benefits such as lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. The molecule was first identified in 1945, but recent research from Venn-Watson and others suggests it plays an important role in our health
Since we can’t produce it in our bodies and need to obtain it from food, research suggests that it’s an essential fatty acid similar to other healthy fats like omega-3, which can help prevent heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
“We have an opportunity in a relatively simple way to get an essential fatty acid back into the diet,” she said.
Full-fat dairy and butter may have a role in a healthy diet
Current evidence suggests foods like butter, full-fat dairy, some species of fish, algae, and mushrooms can help increase levels of C15:0. More research is needed to determine the optimal levels for humans and the best way to get it.
But it’s not a surprise that fatty foods have a role in a healthy diet with a variety of food groups, registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin told Insider.
“Foods that are supposed to have fat in them, there’s always a benefit to the whole version. Saturated fat, in and of itself, is not a fat to be feared. The source matters,” she said.
Zeitlin recommends incorporating no more than a tablespoon of high-quality butter per day (to saute veggies or on whole-grain toast, for instance), and about servings a day of dairy, to reap the benefits without overdoing it.
Evidence also suggests grass-fed butter and dairy may be a richer source of C15:0.
Data on Navy dolphins paved the way towards a better understanding of human nutrition, aging, and chronic illness
While research had shown a link between C15:0 and better health in humans, it wasn’t clear whether dairy fat might be the cause. Venn-Watson’s years of research with the Navy found dolphins were more likely to age healthfully if they had high levels of C15:0, which helped narrow down the link between the fatty acid and human health.
“Dolphins aren’t getting cheese or ice cream in their diet, they’re getting their C-15 from a completely different source in fish,” she said. “What the dolphins couldn’t tell us is how they were feeling. They weren’t saying ‘I’m sleeping better’ or ‘I’m less hungry.”
The next goal, she said, is to figure out why humans who increase C15:0 do report benefits of sleeping better and being less hungry, including Venn-Watson herself.
“The huge question I have is, can we understand who can best benefit from C-15,” Venn-Watson said.