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The Butter vs. Margarine Debate When You Have Diabetes

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

butter and margarineIn our last post, “Is Butter Bad? Is Margarine Better? “, we introduced three important questions to ask when deciding what to eat:   What do I want? What do I need? What do I have? We also explored a “liking scale” to help you consider how much your preference for a particular food will affect your decision. Of course, it’s not enough to just think about what you like; you also want to consider what you need.

What Do I Need?

While awareness of your preferences is important, don’t stop there! Next think about what your body needs by considering questions like:

  • What are my health issues?
  • What is my family history?
  • What are my goals?
  • What else am I going to eat now?
  • What else have I eaten today?
  • What else am I likely to eat today?
  • How will my choices affect my blood glucose level?

With prediabetes and diabetes, health considerations are particularly important because having diabetes is a significant risk factor for atherosclerosis. When you have diabetes, you are two to four times more likely to suffer from heart disease and stroke than someone without diabetes. In fact, two out of three people with diabetes will die from these causes. While these are frightening statistics, awareness and knowledge empower you to minimize your personal risk.

What Can You Do?

Of course, keeping your blood glucose in the target range is important. In addition, you’ll want to manage your other risk factors-don’t smoke, manage your weight, and control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. We promised to look at the butter vs. margarine debate so we’ll focus on cholesterol levels.

Know Your Numbers

As we explained in chapter 14 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, not all cholesterol is created equal. Therefore, you need to know your blood cholesterol numbers. Remember: LDL is lousy cholesterol = the lower the better HDL is healthy cholesterol = the higher the better Find out what your LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels are and compare them to the following goals.

Blood Cholesterol Goals
LDL (lousy) cholesterol Less than 100 mg/dLLess than 70 mg/dL if you have heart disease
HDL (healthy) cholesterol Men: Above 40 mg/dLWomen: Above 50 mg/dL
Triglycerides Under 150 mg/dL 

 

 

 

 

 

If your tests are above these goals, you may need to change your diet, increase your exercise, start medications, or try some combination of these tactics. Did you know that improving your cholesterol-LDL, HDL, and triglycerides-can reduce cardiovascular disease and associated complications by 20 to 50 percent?1 Cholesterol levels are determined by three main factors: hereditary, activity, and dietary. Knowing your family history of high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke is useful information. Further, understanding how eating and physical activity affect cholesterol levels is also helpful. Without going into too much detail, here’s what you need to know:

  • Exercise increases HDL-in other words, it’s beneficial. But then you knew that already!
  • Replacing saturated fats (typically solid at room temperature) with unsaturated fats (typically liquid at room temperature) lowers LDL cholesterol and improves the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.

This is where your decision about butter or margarine comes in.

Butter’s Bad Rap

Butter is a saturated fat. (Remember: Saturated fat is solid at room temperature so it sits in your arteries). The American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association recommend that you limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet to 7 percent of total calories. We’re not big on counting calories (watch for a future blog post explaining why) but it can be helpful to know what your “fat gram limit” is when you’re looking at nutrition information. Since it is based on your total number of calories which will vary each day and knowing that there are 9 calories per gram of fat, that would require some math (now you see one reason why we aren’t big on calorie counting!). Instead, just estimate your average daily calorie intake and keep the following number in mind: 1600 calories = 12 grams of saturated fat 1800 calories = 14 grams of saturated fat 2000 calories = 16 grams of saturate fat Clearly, since the recommendation isn’t “zero,” there’s room in your diet for butter if you love it! It’s not a “bad” food-but it is a matter of balance, variety, and moderation. This is what we mean when we say “all foods can fit.”

Margarine’s Muddy Past

Margarine was originally made from unsaturated liquid oils that were chemically altered (hydrogenated) to make them solid. Later it was discovered that hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, now know as trans fats, no longer had the healthful properties of the liquid oils they were made from. Further, trans fats actually increase risk. The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of trans fats to 1 percent of your total daily calories (less than 2 grams per day).

Nowadays, many margarines no longer contain trans fats (hint, the softer or more liquid it is, the better). Some even have other healthful ingredients (more on that in the next blog post). It’s easy to see why this can all be so confusing! In our next post, we’ll explore various options in the butter vs. margarine debate to answer the question, “What do I have?”

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes fact sheet: national estimates and general information on diabetes and prediabetes in the United States, 2011. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011. pg 10.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. I am so confused. My husband has really bad sugar, one hour it could be 400 and the next 40 but he has no history of heart disease or stroke. My sugar I work hard to keep it between 95 and 120 but I have a history in my family of stroke, heart attack, high choleseterol, cancer, and not sure just what else there might be out there in my family. I am searching for a way to help both my husband and myself stay healthy for as long as we can and that is what is confusing me, he wants margarine but eats way to much, 2 Tbs. on a sandwich , me I prefer the taste of butter but then I only use about 1/4 tsp. on a sandwich.

    • Jessie Russo says:

      Hi Betty,

      The response below is from the author of this blog post, Megrette Fletcher:

      Thank you for your post. That is a challenging situation. I really appreciate how you are trying to balance both your health needs and your husband’s. It also makes sense why you are frustrated. Butter and margarine are very low in carbs, and really don’t raise blood sugar. In fact, eating healthy fats can help stabilize blood sugar. Know what is a healthy fat and how much is a great conversation to have with a registered dietitian. Because your husband has diabetes, most insurances including Medicare will cover meeting with a dietitian/diabetes educator. Learning what is a healthy fat can also be a bit confusing. In Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes we review the research, recommendations and help you sort out the latest recommendations for both carbohydrates and fat.
      It appears that you and your husband have different likes, dislikes and food drivers, which is normal. Again, the answer I would recommend is to work with a dietitian to sort out a plan, that is tailored to your needs to help ease the confusion.
      Megrette

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