We have been trained to fear fats; but, our body does need some of it! The most important consideration is the type of fat chosen. Saturated fats are “bad” and unsaturated fats are “good”. Unsaturated fats may improve cholesterol levels while saturated fats make them worse. So, when it comes to comparing butter (saturated fat) to margarine (unsaturated fat), the answer seems simple. Saturated butter: bad and unsaturated margarine: good, but, beware. There is another type of fat, trans fat, that may mask margarine as a healthy alternative.
So, what is a trans fat? Basically, a trans fat is an unsaturated (liquid) fat that is chemically altered into a saturated fat (solid). Hydrogen is added to oils to make them solid so that they last longer. Examples are: shortening, margarine spread, and store-bought baked goods. But, what’s the fuss? It’s made with healthy oils, isn’t it?
Well, to start, trans fats are not natural and our bodies are programmed to eat natural foods. A process is required to make trans fats, and since we should avoid processed foods, it makes sense that these are discouraged. When we look at what trans fats do inside the body, though, the answer becomes more obvious.
There are 2 types of cholesterol in the body: HDL (good) and LDL (bad). Unsaturated fats can lower LDL (bad) and raise HDL (good), making them “healthy”. Saturated fats raise LDL (bad) and do not change HDL (good) levels; and, since high LDL raises risk of heart disease, saturated fats are “unhealthy”. Then we come to trans fats. Trans fats raise LDL (bad) and lower HDL (good), which is a double-whammy towards heart health since a high HDL counts AGAINST risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fats as much as possible. 0 g of trans fats per day is ideal. But, be aware because food companies are SMART! Since they know that people are avoiding trans fats, they are now able to label foods as being “trans fat-free” as long as there is no more than 0.5 g per serving. So, just because something says it is trans fat-free does not mean that it is!
Want to ensure that there are no trans fats in your food? Check out the ingredients. If you see “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”, your oils have been messed with, and you might want to look for another option.
So, in the battle between butter and margarine, who wins? I always opt for natural foods; so, I’m sticking with butter in small portions. Other options include Smart Balance and Country Crock spreads. Now, they are processed; but, they are lower in Calories and made with a blend of oils without trans fat (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil). Check your nutrition labels and make an educated choice, but don’t forget that we should like the foods we eat, so taste preferences should be considered, too.