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Butter and Margarine: What Are Your Options?

By Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., R.D., C.D.E
By Megrette Fletcher M.Ed, RD, CDE and Michelle May, M.D.
Authors of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes

In this third post in our series about butter vs. margarine, we’re going to take a look at your choices to answer the question, “What do I have?” First, let’s put this into context by briefly recapping the first two posts: Seeing foods as “good” or “bad” is a simplistic and problematic way to think about nutrition-especially when some of the foods you love end up on the “bad” list. Eating mindfully is a conscious, flexible way to make food decisions that won’t leave you feeling deprived or guilty. As we started to explore in the last two posts, when dealing with a tough nutrition question like, “Should I eat butter or margarine?’, ask yourself, “What do I want?“, “What do I need?“, and “What do I have?”

What Do I Have?

While it poses many challenges, living in our current food-abundant environment also provides many options. Once you’re aware of what you want to eat and what your body needs, you can choose the types and quantities of foods that help you balance eating for nourishment and eating for enjoyment. So let’s look at the options available in the butter vs. margarine debate.

Butter

butter cubed with knifeAs you learned in the last post, butter is a saturated fat which increases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). If you really enjoy it, there are three main options: “regular” butter (which may be salted or unsalted); whipped (with added air); and light butter (with air, water and 40 percent milk fat). You can easily compare the amount of saturated fat per serving by checking the label. Ounce for ounce, regular butter and whipped butter have the same amount of saturated fat. However, because air is added to whipped butter, it’s easier to spread and has a larger volume, helping you reduce the portion size, therefore decreasing the amount of saturated fat you’ll eat.

Likewise, with light butter, the added air and reduction of milk fat lowers the total saturated fat per serving. Keep in mind that you also have the option of substituting butter with liquid oils: try dipping your bread in olive oil; use vegetable, olive, or canola oil for sautéing; experiment with using spreads like nut butters, guacamole, or hummus in place of butter. Further, if you like butter but LOVE steak, ice cream, or other saturated fat-containing foods, you may decide to forego butter in favor of one of those instead. Again, it all comes back to balance, variety, and moderation.

Margarine

margarine boxIf you’re open to trying margarine, you want to limit your trans fat intake. In general, the softer the margarine, the better; this means that margarine that comes in a spray, liquid, or tub is better than margarine in stick form. Look for margarines that clearly state “no trans fats” and check the label for trans and saturated fats. Examples include: Promise, Olivio, Smart Balance (regular or light), and Benecol (regular or light).

Hint: you can find Trans fat listed on the Nutrition Facts panel; however, if the product contains 0.5 grams or less per serving, it won’t be listed. Therefore, be sure to also watch out for “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils in the ingredient list. Some margarines have plant sterols and stanol esters added to them. Plant sterols and stanols block the intestines’ absorption of dietary and biliary cholesterol, which has been shown to improve a person’s cholesterol level.

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends that people who have high cholesterol get 2 grams of stanols and sterols a day.1 As you can see from the examples below, that’s a lot of margarine so you’ll want to consider whether the additional calories are worth the benefit.

Serving size Sterols/Stanol per serving
Benecol Spread one tablespoon 0.85
Promise Activ Spread one tablespoon 1.0
Smart Balance one tablespoon 1.7

You may find that you enjoy the flavor of these margarines and see an improvement in your cholesterol level, so using the sterols/stanol fortified margarine is a good balance of eating for enjoyment and eating for health.

Bottom Line

The key to mindful eating is awareness throughout your entire eating cycle. This includes connecting with your present eating experience, so once you’ve used the three questions, “What do I want?”, “What do I need?”, and “What do I have?” to decide what to eat, eat it in a way that allows you to mindfully enjoy your selection.

 

1American Diabetes Association, Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for diabetes. Diabetes Care. vol 31, Jan 2008, Supplement 1 s66.

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About the author

Megrette Fletcher is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, author, and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. Megrette is the 2013-2014 president of The Center for Mindful Eating, a non-profit, organization to assist health professionals to explore the concepts of mindful eating. She has written articles for and has been quoted about mindful eating in Diabetes Self Management, Today’s Dietitian, Today’s Social Worker, Bariatric Times, Glamour, Family Circle, The Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Women’s Day, and Oxygen Magazine. Megrette currently works as a diabetes educator in Dover, New Hampshire.

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