Butter or Margarine – Do You Really Know Which is Healthier?

July 26, 2010

With over 30 years of health writing behind me, I have never wavered in my allegiance to butter. Certainly on taste grounds, but also in terms of health because a little butter for me is far preferable to a lot of other substances. We need a certain amount of fat in our diet to help our body absorb fat soluble vitamins and butter helps with this as well as increasing the absorption of many other nutrients from our food.

Is margarine better than butter is a question that I am frequently asked, and I know there are a lot of other butter lovers out there, so let me help you decide if you are really having the healthiest option.

The main reason that most people abandon butter is because of its high levels of saturated fat and certainly margarine is lower in saturated fat, but not by a massive amount. Further, it carries its own hazards mainly because its high levels of trans fats pack a double whammy for heart disease by raising levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering levels of HDL (good cholesterol). A recent Harvard Medical Study found that over eating margarine can increase heart disease in women by 53% compared to the same amount of butter.

Despite extensive advertising, again according to Harvard Medical School, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. So the switch to margarine became a move to a product that offered just as much danger but without the benefit of tasting good. The good news is, if you have already switched and happy with the taste, that some of the newer margarines are low in saturated fat, high in unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats so they are fine as long as you don’t use too much as they are still rich in calories.

If you want to have a healthy heart, then avoid margarine and use butter sparingly. Personally, I have adopted the French habit of not using butter at all on bread if I am adding something to it like cheese or honey, and reserving it for essentials like baked potatoes and crumpets where the taste makes a real difference.

There are however a couple of healthy options that you might want to add to your diet to supplement butter and these are olive oil and other vegetable oil–based spreads, which contain beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Again, our continental neighbours — this time in Italy — have a good habit of dipping their bread in olive oil rather than buttering it and that has definite healthy heart benefits.

As I am tirelessly fond of saying, ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ so if butter falls into that category you can eat it with a clear conscience — just don’t overdo it.


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