Wednesday’s Ask Dr. Walt — Butter vs. Margarine

Dear Dr. Walt,

I say butter. My wife says margarine. Which is healthier?

—Arguing about Lard in Maryland

Dear Lard,

It depends upon whom you ask. Registered Dietician Katherine Zeratsky, writes on the Mayo Clinic Web page, “Margarine usually tops butter when it comes to heart health.” But, at the Women’s Health web site, Registered Dietician Lisa Moscovitz writes, “When it comes to butter versus margarine … it’s butter.”

So, who is right? Well, they both have an argument. But the real answer is that neither is healthy in large amounts. The real question is not which is healthier, but which is less bad for you.

Here are the facts behind this debate: Margarine is made from vegetable oils, so it contains unsaturated “good” fats, which are called polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Those that favor margarine argue that these types of fats can be heart healthy because they help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat.

However, not all margarines are created equal. Some margarines contain trans fat, which can be very harmful to your heart health. In general, the more solid the margarine, the more trans fat it contains. So stick margarines usually have more trans fat than tub margarines do.

Trans fat, like saturated fat (“bad” fat), increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. In addition, trans fat lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol levels. So, if you choose margarine, skip the stick and opt for soft or liquid margarine instead.

Butter, on the other hand, is made from animal fat, so it contains more saturated or “bad” fat. And despite the current butter mania, there is still significant evidence that a diet high in saturated fats (which includes all forms of butter and the wildly popular coconut oil) increases LDL or “bad” cholesterol, an important risk factor for heart disease.

“It’s important to emphasize that not all fats are created equal,” says Dr. Frank Hu, of the Harvard School of Public Health. “You should swap unhealthy fats with healthy fats rather than cut back on dietary fat,” he says.

And though fats that contain omega-6 fatty acids (such as many vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds) have recently come under attack for fear that they may cause inflammation and thus increase the risk of heart disease, there is scant evidence that this is true either, says Hu.

So, what do I recommend? Look for a spread that doesn’t have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat possible. When comparing spreads, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts panel and check the grams of saturated fat and trans fat. Limit the amount you use to limit the calories.

Best of all, consider using spreads that are fortified with plant stanols and sterols, such as Benecol and Promise Activ, which may help reduce cholesterol levels.

A recent study Hu co-authored shows that people who swap 5% of the calories they consume from saturated fat sources, such as red meat and butter, with polyunsaturated fat sources containing omega-6 fatty acids lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease by 9% and their risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 13%.

So, what’s the bottom line? Most nutritionists recommend that the primary source of dietary fat should come from polyunsaturated fats, such as canola and soybean oil, and monounsaturated fats, such as olive and avocado oil.


This Q&A was originally published in the March 2016 edition of Today’s Christian Living.

© Copyright WLL, INC. 2016. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.

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