By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD
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You don't have to go far in the media or be on Facebook for too long before you see butter promoted as being healthy again.
But is butter really healthy, is margarine better or worse and what are the healthy oils you should include in your nutrient-rich, optimised diet?
Butter as a healthy oil?
I don't count butter as a "healthy oil". The reason is because butter contains around 50% saturated fat, which may increase blood cholesterol in some people.
Now let me qualify this as its not black and white. Recent research and reviews have challenged the link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease.
But because butter:
(1) 'Some' people may have a negative cholesterol response,
(2) Doesn't contribute significant wide range of nutrients, and
(3) That there are better healthy oil options (see below), my general rule is still that butter and other saturated fat oils, like palm oil are not healthy oils.
But here's another qualification.
Consuming saturated fats from natural, whole foods as part of an optimised, nutrient-rich diet may not be bad for you at all.
Saturated fats from natural, whole foods (think eggs, meat, cheese) may not have negative effects or be something to overtly limit in your diet.
In summary, I wouldn't say butter is a health food, nor does it make it into the healthy oil category. There are other dairy foods, like cheese and yoghurt that contain saturated fat, but these foods contribute significantly greater levels of nutrients than butter.
Margarine - better or worse?
In the 1950's when scientists first started to really say butter was bad for you, it triggered the growth in production of margarine as an alternative.
To make margarine hard like a block of butter, significant amounts of hydrogenated and trans fats were added. This was done for decades.
But in recent times (last 10-15 years) its become clear that 'industrialised' trans fats are perhaps worse than naturally-occurring saturated fats.
Margarines aren't really margarines any more.
Now thankfully, almost all the "table spreads" you can purchase in the supermarket have been reformulated to be very low in trans fats or are trans-fat-free.
So when you hear 'margarine' is bad for you, yes it was but what people mostly buy now is not even margarine. So these media reports are really confusing people.
Table spreads aren't bad for you unless...
Table spreads are not full of toxic chemicals and as a general rule can be thought of as healthy oils (containing monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats).
But there is also a qualification here.
The problem with table spreads emerges as a potential pro-inflammatory issue when you consume way too much omega-6 polyunsaturated fats compared to omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (for omega-3 fats, think oily fish & some nuts, like walnuts). And most table spreads are high in omega-6 fats.
Do I need either?
The question I have for you, is do you need to use butter or a table spread at all?
Do you even need to look at the table spreads section of the supermarket?
I know you may say, but what about recipes that require butter? If these are recipes for biscuits or cake, I think you know my answer.
And if you feel you need to spread your bread with either butter or a table spread, then maybe its the bread that should be reduced?
But if you want to use butter in a recipe that calls for butter to flavour the vegetables or baste the meat, then once again, as part of a nutrient-rich varied diet it may be no issue. In fact, it will keep more variety in your diet.
So, I'm not saying you can't have butter or a table spread, but I'm asking you to think about how you consume your fats and oils.
The reason I eat butter as a 'sometimes' food and don't buy spreads is that I get my healthy oils from whole foods & olive oil.
The focus is on maximising the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s by using olive oil (an omega-9 so it doesn't load up omega-6s) and consuming salmon, walnuts and taking fish oil for omega-3s. Ask your doctor before taking any dietary supplement.
By eating this way I don't need a spread of any kind. If I have bread, I'll dip it in olive oil with balsamic vinegar (yum). And avocado makes a good spread anyway.
What other healthy oil foods could you eat?
Each of the foods below contains around 5 grams of fat, most of which are healthy oils:
Almonds = 8
Avocado = 1/8 (25g)
Brazil nuts = 3
Cashews = 7
Fish Oil Capsules = 6 x 1000mg
Flaxseed oil = 1 teaspoon
Hummus = 1 heaped Tbs (25g)
LSA = ½ tablespoon
Nuts = 10g
Olives = 8 without oil, 6 with oil
Olive Oil = 1 teaspoon
Seeds = 1 tablespoon
Table spread = 2 teaspooons
Tahini = 1 teaspoon
Walnuts = 3
Peanut Butter = 1 teaspoon
Mayonnaise = 1 teaspoon
Almond Paste = 2 teaspoon
The real question is not whether butter is better than margarine, but how you are optimising your nutrition with healthy oils from nutrient-rich whole foods.
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