The Decades-Old Debate: Butter vs. Margarine vs. Oils
For many many years, we have had an ongoing debate on what type of fats are best for our health. First I will start off by saying that fat is an important part of a healthy and well-balanced diet. In fact, for healthy individuals, around 20-35% of our calories should be coming from fat sources. There is a hierarchy of fats to keep in mind. We have our heart healthy fats: mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs and PUFAs. We have our saturated fats, those that come mainly from animal sources, but also from tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. Then we have trans fats, one of the few items I encourage my patients to avoid at all costs due to the negative role they play on our cholesterol levels.
So what is better, butter or margarine or oils? Butter is very high in saturated fat-- which high intakes of can lead to elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease. Knowing that, many people turn to margarine. However not all margarines are created equally. Some margarines, especially stick margarines, contain trans fats and you definitely want to stay away from anything that has trans fats. Trans fats are man-made oils that increase shelf stability and palatability but are directly linked to heart disease and are banned in many countries. They can be tricky to identify. Legally, the food industry can say "0 grams of trans fats per serving" but they could have <0.5 grams and they could just be rounding down. Therefore those who are having the equivalent of 3 servings may be taking in over a gram of trans fats. So, be sure to look in the ingredient list for the words "hydrogenated _____ oil" or "partially hydrogenated ______ oil". That means that ingredient is a trans fat.
Margarines can be a very healthy alternative, but we have to look at the ingredients. Most margarines contain some form of palm oil. Palm oil and coconut oils are other types of saturated fats, so I always encourage clients treating it like butter-- i.e. using sparingly and monitoring portion sizes. Look for margarines that are rich in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These are the heart healthy fats that help raise your HDL "good cholesterol" and lower your LDL "bad cholesterol". Plant sterols and stanols can also help improve our lipid profiles. Examples of ingredients that are good sources of these unsaturated fatty acids are olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, safflower oil, avocado oil as well as nut and seed oils.
Generally what I recommend is to try to use those plant based oils in their natural whole form. It will save you some sodium and the saturated fat. If you need something spreadable like margarine, just make sure there are no trans fats in it and if it contains saturated fats such as palm oil or palm kernel oil, just keep an eye on portion size. We want less than 10% of our calories to come from saturated fat, so on average that evens out to trying to keep our intake under 20 grams/day. So if a margarine product has 1-2 grams/serving, it is very possible to remain under that recommendation of no more than 20 grams of saturated fat intake for the day. And as always if you have any specific questions about fats, oils or your cholesterol levels, feel free to reach out to our registered dietitians at Advanced Nutrition Consultants 610-229-9060.