Diabetes Self-Management Blog

The world of nutrition is often confusing, even for dietitians and other nutrition experts. Debates (and bickering) rage on about which diet is best for weight loss, how much carbohydrate a person with diabetes should have, and what kind of fat is best to eat.

It’s not so easy these days to choose a spread for your morning toast or your baked potato. Years ago, folks had pretty much two choices: butter and margarine. Today, we have butter, light butter, whipped butter, stick margarine, vegetable oil spread, margarine with phytosterols, margarine with yogurt, and vegan margarine (just to name a few). How do you possibly choose?

First things first
Most people know that butter and margarine are not the same. There are distinct differences between the two, even though they’re often used for the same purpose.

Butter
• Made from churned cream (so it’s an animal product)

• Contains cholesterol and saturated fat (1 tablespoon has roughly 30 milligrams of cholesterol and 7 grams of saturated fat)

• Does not contain trans fats (an unhealthy type of fat formed when oils are partially hydrogenated)

• Contains vitamins A, D, E, and K

• Good choice for baking

• Healthier options are whipped butter or butter blended with canola or olive oil

• “European-style” or “rich” butter contains even more fat and saturated fat than regular butter

Margarine
• Made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil

• Some brands contain trans fat (1 tablespoon of stick margarine contains 3 grams of trans fat)

• Contains less saturated fat than butter (1 tablespoon has approximately 2–3 grams of saturated fat) and no cholesterol

• Tub and liquid margarines are healthier than stick margarines

• Some brands are fortified with plant stanols or sterols to help lower blood cholesterol

• Not good for baking due to its high water content

The debate
For many years, medical and nutrition experts recommended using margarine in place of butter because it contains no cholesterol and is lower in saturated fat than butter. But the tides slowly began to change (somewhat) regarding this recommendation. Sure, margarine is cholesterol free, but some brands contain trans fat, and we’ve learned how unhealthy this kind of fat is (it can raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower HDL or “good” cholesterol). And while many brands of tub margarine, or spreads as they’re technically called, removed the trans fat, some people still shy away from them because these products may contain chemicals and colorings that they’re not comfortable ingesting.

The decision
In my opinion, there’s no clear-cut answer as to which is better: butter or margarine. As you can see from the information above, both have their pros and cons. This is a question that everyone needs to decide for himself, based, in part, on factors such as how much he uses, what he is using it for, and the state of his heart health. I don’t see anything wrong with using a little bit of butter every now and then (there’s nothing like butter on an ear of corn!), but going through a stick’s-worth each day isn’t going to do your arteries or waistline any favors. So, here are some suggestions and considerations as you make your deliberations on what’s best for you:

• Use a vegetable oil (olive, peanut, canola) for baking and cooking whenever possible.

• If you insist on using butter, try whipped or light butter, which has about half the fat and calories as regular butter.

• If you prefer to use margarine, choose a tub or liquid margarine that is the lowest in calories (go with a light margarine), contains no trans fat, and has the least amount of saturated fat (you’ll need to compare a few Nutrition Facts labels).

• If your LDL cholesterol is above target, consider using a vegetable oil spread that contains plant stanols or sterols, such as Benecol or Promise activ.

• If you’re interested in using grass-fed butter, know that this type of butter is made from the milk of cows fed grass instead of grain. Grass-fed butter has the same amount of saturated fat as “regular” butter, but contains more beta-carotene, more vitamin K, and more omega-3 fatty acids. There’s no scientific evidence that grass-fed butter is any better for you, however, than regular butter.

• Saturated fat is not off the hook in terms of heart health. A recent study reported that saturated fat did not increase the risk for heart disease, but the study was not conducted well. The authors admitted as such, citing limitations, including the fact that fat intake of the subjects was self-reported (not a very scientific way of conducting a study).

• Regardless of what you use, remember that butter, margarines, spreads, and oils still contain calories.

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Comments
  1. Which Butter (or Spread) Is Better?

    That’s A no brainer for me. Food should be alive with DNA in it. Man made or Margarine is dead it has oxadized oil in it. you cant make good cholesterol with bad oil. Its very simple, Think of it as usable cholesterol or old cholesterol. all the bad cholesterol was once good, it just oxadized befor the body could use it. The liver remakes the bad cholesterol into good but it can’t remake it into good cholesterol unless you eat unoxidized Oil (good butter)

    Your body needs cholesterol. it’s in every cell of your body. it’s turned into hormones including Vitamin D which is not a vitamin but a hormone.

    All the so called good cooking oils oxidize into bad oil with heat including vegetable oil (olive, peanut, canola) (olive oil is great on salads or uncooked)

    there is only one Oil to cook with that doesn’t go bad with cooking, and that’s coconut oil. many people don’t like the taste of coconut but remember you can’t taste it in cooked foods.
    Coconut is a healthy super food. Look up the health benefits it will suprise you.

    get rid of you vegetable oil peanut oil, canola oil and Margarine. Mice and bugs won’t eat Margarine. and bacteria won’t grow on it.

    Do you really want to eat what a rodent turns his nose up at. Many think a little won’t hurt me, but how many hundreds of pounds do you eat in a lifetime. (

    If you add one more molecule to Margarine it becomes plastic).

    I hope this will help you debate.

    Dan

    Posted by Daniel McCance |
  2. Margarines fortified with plant stanols or sterols may help with cholesterol a bit but probably not enough to warrant the premium price, which is as much as ten times the cost of butter or margarine per ounce. You can do far more for your cholesterol with a bit of exercise and using all fats in moderation.

    Posted by Joe |
  3. I would caution against the trendy use of coconut oil. It is more saturated fat that butter and in western medicine, to-date, there is no proven scientific evidence that indicates possible health benefits. Dietitians also hesitate to promote coconut oil as the cooking oil of choice.

    In terms of alternative medicine, if folks wish to use coconut oil in their cooking, that is their choice. Sure, some people have started using coconut oil to help them with some pain or aches and they report it has “healed” their symptoms: remember that what works for one person may not be the case for the next. Whether coconut oil really was the reason for their improved state is difficult to prove. But using all oils in moderation sounds like a good approach.

    Posted by Alyse |

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