Butter vs. Margarine

Featured Article, Healthy Cooking Tips, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition
on April 10, 2013
The health comparision between butter and margarine.

Spry editor Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl shed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.

DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I hear conflicting info about butter—some people say we shouldn’t eat it; others say it’s not as bad as margarine. I try not to use it a lot, but when I do, what is best to use?—Valerie

DEAR VALERIE: GREAT question. We shouldn’t need a nutrition degree or a subscription to the Journal of the American Medical Association to figure out what to spread on our bread or sautee our shrimp in, but sometimes it seems like it. The butter vs. margarine flip-flop has been going on a while, and while some aren’t convinced, I think there’s a pretty clear consensus (for the moment, at least). Here what I know, and what I do myself in my own kitchen.

Choose “good fats” first. In recipes that call for butter or margarine—particularly those that involve pan-frying or sautéing, substitute olive oil whenever you can. Olive oil is a monounsaturated oil and full of healthy omega-3 fats—good for your heart, brain, blood sugar—you name it. Go for a less expensive variety of extra virgin olive oil for cooking and choose a more expensive (and therefore, more flavorful) one for drizzling and dressings. If you need a more neutral oil, canola or grapeseed oil are generally fine. But I have found that I can use olive oil in just about any recipe except for sweets like brownies and cakes, where the flavor might be a bit off-putting.

When you must, go for good-old-fashioned butter. Choose unsalted butter—you can always add salt to the recipe if it needs it. After much study, researchers have determined that the trans-fatty acids in margarine—like the saturated fats in butter—up your risk of heart disease/heart attack and diabetes. Both saturated fats and transfats raise LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff), but saturated fats also cause HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) to rise, slightly offsetting the problem. Since it’s somewhat of a toss-up in relation to your health, I prefer going the more natural route, choosing butter. I think the flavor is better, and there’s less processing involved.

But keep a lid on it. Experts suggest limiting fat to 30 percent of your daily calories. The VAST majority of that should come from fatty fish (like salmon), healthy oils, nuts and seeds, and avocados—not the animal fats in butter, meats, and dairy, or the stuff in processed and rich foods like chips and crackers, desserts and fried foods. That’s as much about your health as it is about your weight. Focusing on whole foods, prepared simply—plus regular activity—is the way to a healthier life and a trimmer waistline. Hope that helps!

Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and Spryliving.com. Ask her your question here.