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Margarine versus butter

Margarine versus butter: Which is healthier?

The war between margarine and butter started back in the ‘90s when margarine was packed full of trans fats. This is when a direct link between trans fats and atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque build-up in the arteries, was first discovered. Margarine quickly became a product under great scrutiny.

Today, most margarine products do not contain any traces of trans fats, but the battle wages on. Now there are so many different choices on the shelf — whipped, light, soft spreads, blends, olive oil base, etc. — that it is even harder to know which one is best.

Filled with fat, calories and cholesterol

The American Heart Association suggests buying soft, trans-fat-free spreads instead of regular butter or stick margarine because they contain less saturated fat, which means they are healthier for your heart. Butter blends with added olive or canola oil are even better, because they typically have even less saturated fat and cholesterol. "Whipped" or "light" blends contain fewer calories. So which will it be?

“The truth of the matter is, none of them are great for you,” says Sally Brozek, registered dietitian at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “Butter, while natural, is a saturated fat. There is plenty of scientific evidence that links saturated fat to increased blood cholesterol. And both butter and margarine are packed full of calories, so both can be a problem for those watching their weight.” 

Mediterranean diet is a better alternative

Brozek recommends substituting both butter and margarine with olive oil or canola oil whenever possible. This falls more in line with a Mediterranean diet, which is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats have been proven to be the best types of fats. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the Mediterranean diet to promote health and prevent disease. This diet includes:

  • Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil.
  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts.
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month.
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week.

So the next time you want a little butter or margarine on your baked potato or your veggies, try dribbling a little olive oil over them instead.

Baking with butter

When it comes to baking, it is harder to find an ideal substitute for butter. After all, butter enhances baking quality, giving baked goods a golden hue and great texture.

"It’s more about portion control," says Brozek. "If you watch everything else you are eating, you can afford to have a little butter, margarine or a baked good that is made with butter."

She emphasizes the fact that we really have to look beyond what we are spreading on our toast and on our potatoes. Instead, it is more important to take a look at all the foods in our diet. Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet and keeping sweets and treats to a minimum is really what it's all about.

For more ways to make your everyday life healthier, visit Living Better Health & Wellness.

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