Dear Dietitian – Which is better: butter or margarine?
I am trying to eat healthier and have recently switched from butter to margarine, but some people at work say butter is better for you. One person even said margarine’s chemical structure is similar to plastic! What gives?
Dear Healthy Heart,
The origin of the myth that margarine’s chemical makeup is similar to plastic is unknown. I recently heard this fable from a patient in the hospital. Its origin may be a technique that pretends to have scientific value. I can tell you with 100% certainty that margarine’s chemical composition is nothing like that of plastic. I will bet my 401K plan on it!
That “plastic” myth could also be a rationalization for choosing butter instead of margarine. It certainly is scary to think of a plastic-like substance floating around in your veins! Some will claim that margarine is a poor food choice because it is processed, but scientific evidence is lacking.
It comes down to saturated fats versus unsaturated. Saturated fats, like those found in butter, meat, coconut oil, and full-fat dairy products, increase cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke). Conversely, unsaturated fats found in margarine, avocado, nuts, olive oil, and vegetable oil improve cholesterol levels, which may decrease your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Finally, we need to get out of “black and white” thinking when it comes to food. There are no bad foods. It’s excess amounts that can become unhealthy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fats (1). On a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams per day. Therefore, butter can be used in moderation in a healthy diet.
The overall healthy eating plan remains the same. Choose lean meats, high fiber grains (cereals, pasta, bread, etc.), low-fat or skim dairy, and primarily unsaturated fats. Focus more on fruits and vegetables, and consume at least five servings of these foods every day. Let’s keep it simple.
Until next time, be healthy!
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov