Butter v. margarine

Butter. First we loved it, then we feared it. We started spreading margarine on our toast after being told it was the healthier alternative. Now it seems the tables have turned once again with people second guessing whether hydrogenated oils are really benefiting us. I thought it fitting to address this topic, seeing as we will all be faced with a shortbread cookie or two, and maybe even some pastry around the table this holiday season. I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to pass on that flakey shortbread cookie made with real butter. And to all those people out there who scrape only the pie filling from their slice because they say they don’t like the crust: I kind of don’t believe you.

Christmas is upon us, every year it creeps up a little quicker, doesn’t it! As a student, December finals always finish up right before Christmas, and part of my strategy for keeping focused until the bitter end is not fully allowing myself to fall into the Christmas spirit and the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations until I’ve handed in my last exam and am home for the holidays.  This means no study breaks to go Christmas shopping and minimal Christmas music and baking. This also means I force myself to get all my shopping done in the last few days before Christmas with all the other procrastinators. Ahh the joys of the season! But no, seriously, I love this time of year. Maybe not for the shopping, but definitely the decorations, getting to see friends and family who you maybe haven’t seen in a while, the big family meals, the classic Christmas movies, it’s just such a great way to end the year. Here in Southern Ontario, we can’t even complain about the weather this year, as it’s been so mild. While some of us might be longing for a white Christmas, I’m just happy that I could get out for a run, after dark, in just a light sweater to see all the beautiful Christmas lights around the neighbourhood that I grew up in.

Healthy holiday eating

I talk a lot about mindful eating, balance, and moderation, and I think it’s important not to forget these things as we set off to celebrate the holidays. I think my biggest piece of advice for healthy holiday eating would be to think of that big turkey dinner as you would any other meal that you might prepare for yourself at home. Mindset is key. There will be lots of yummy foods, likely in great abundance, and maybe not things you would eat everyday. That’s ok! The gravy, and stuffing, and cookies, and pie can still be enjoyed, and without guilt! As those big bowls of squash, and mashed potatoes, and green beans, and the platter of turkey (don’t forget the gravy boat) get passed around the table, try to focus on taking portion sizes that you would fill your plate with at any other normal non-Christmas meal.

Fill up on all those healthy delicious veggies, and be sure to put some protein and a little fat on your plate to keep you full and completely satisfied – turkey with gravy should do the trick! This strategy will help make it easier for you to avoid overdoing it with the Christmas cookies later on in the evening. It can be tempting to keep eating until you’re stuffed because there’s just so much good food all around, but just because there’s lots of food available, doesn’t mean you have to eat it all. It will still be around tomorrow, I promise.

You don’t have to head into Christmas with a battle of wills type of attitude, with the goal of sticking to your healthy diet 100%. I think it’s necessary to get a little off track every now and then in order to stay on track in the long run. Christmas can be a time to indulge, and that’s perfectly healthy, just try not to overindulge.

Which is better: butter or margarine?

Speaking of indulging, let’s get back to those shortbread cookies and your mom’s perfect pie crust. Butter is what makes these treats an irresistible part of the holidays. But should you really be worried about eating a cookie or two because of all that saturated fat? Or is margarine worse? Based on this 2015 headline, I can understand why you might be worried: “Butter is alright, but margarine just might kill you, massive Canadian study finds.”

Here is a great example of the important role that Registered Dietitians play in reading past the headlines and translating the media’s highly charged words into evidence based, practical nutrition and health recommendations. I am not claiming to be an expert just yet, and that’s why I turned to a trusted source to help me give you the facts. I’ve included a link to the PEN Evidence Clip at the end of this post for those who may be interested, but unless you are a student with access to this journal through your school library, PEN access requires a paid membership.

As we have flipped back and forth between loving butter and fearing it, it’s important to consider what the research supporting these claims is telling us and separate this from what the headlines are telling us. In this case we will look at a Cochrane review – a comprehensive systematic review which compared the results of many different randomized control trials, the creme-de-la-creme of research – and the ‘massive’ study out of McMaster University mentioned in the National Post article. The Cochrane review may be considered higher quality evidence, but when we are looking at trans fats (which can be created during the hydrogenation process and found in some margarines), the McMaster study might be the best information we have available at this point in time, since trans fats have not been well studied in randomized control trials.

The Cochrane review: randomized control trials (higher quality evidence)

  • Strong evidence that reducing the consumption of saturated fat (like butter) does have some beneficial health effects.
  • Reduced consumption of saturated fat reduces the risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) events such as stroke and heart failure.
  • A greater reduction in CVD events was observed in individuals who lowered blood cholesterol by reducing their saturated fat intake (like butter).

The McMaster study: observational studies (lower quality evidence)

  • Trans fat intakes are associated with a 34% increase in all cause mortality, and a 21% increase in total coronary heart disease.
  • These unhealthy associations for trans fats were only found for trans fats produced by partial hydrogenation (an industrial process that makes liquid oil into a solid fat, as is done with margarine), and not the naturally occurring trans fats found in small amounts in dairy foods.

These are the facts based on the most recent information that is available to us. Just the bare bones science. As we learn more, the recommendations may change, but right now, this is the best advice to follow.

Both pieces of research agree that there is a lack of evidence linking saturated fats to mortality. But neither the Cochrane review, nor the more recent study out of McMaster University that caught headlines, were looking specifically at butter compared to margarine. They were simply exploring the health effects of consuming different types of fat. Really the headline should read: Negative health outcomes associated with saturated fats are unclear, but as long as your margarine is non-hydrogenated, it won’t kill you.

But that wouldn’t be as shocking, now would it.


Here are a few of the take away points directly from the PEN report:

“Choose non-hydrogenated soft tub margarines instead of hydrogenated margarines. Non-hydrogenated margarines do not have trans fats, and offer desirable fats: canola, soy and/or olive oil.”

“Limit butter. It is a saturated fat, which raises the undesirable blood LDL cholesterol. However, butter in small amounts is not likely to be harmful when the rest of the diet is based on recommendations in these practice points.”

For reference, the rest of the “recommendations in these practice points” include limiting commercially produced treats (cakes, cookies, chips that are likely made with partially hydrogenated margarines – trans fats), limiting highly processed carbohydrates (sugars and high glycemic starches), including more healthy fats (like canola, soy and olive oil), and cooking more meals at home. All common sense stuff, right?

So to sum it all up, eating small amounts of butter, like you should any other fat, is not likely to be harmful when you follow an otherwise healthy lifestyle. So eat the shortbread cookie, and the crust on your slice of pie too, also eat your vegetables and get some form of exercise on the regular!

PEN Evidence Clip: Butter, Margarine, Saturated and Trans Fats – Making Sense of Research Reported in the News



2 thoughts on “Butter v. margarine

  1. Pingback: Everything in moderation, including moderation | Nutrition Kitchen

  2. Pingback: Healthy baking hacks | Nutrition Kitchen

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