Exploring Food Trends for Weight Loss and Health

Most of you are probably aware by now, that certain food trends fluctuate throughout the media (which can often make a Dietitians job challenging to say the least). One minute the media tells individuals to eat low fat, the next minute, high fat. One minute saturated fat is said to be bad for you, the next minute it is said to be good for you. One minute dairy is said to be good for you, the next minute it is said to be bad for you. No wonder people are confused by it all!

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Butter vs. Margarine: Does Butter Really Make It Better?

The age old debate rears its ugly head again, particularly thanks to the misinformation of unqualified individuals putting in their two cents. The problem is that individuals who do not have a background in studying nutrition and its effect on the body, or the “ins and outs” of the food industry in Australia give a misinformed opinion about what they “think” they know.
A perfect example of this is that margarine is “bad”, and butter is “good”. Surely, this thought process that butter is more “natural” (and I use inverted commas here for a reason) means that it is better for us is right?!

I hear it again and again, the argument that margarine is man- made and thus less natural, and in turn less healthy than butter. The man-made fat, known as trans-fat, can indeed have pretty worrying consequences as it increases plasma levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) responsible for depositing plaque on the artery walls, and decreases HDL (the “good” cholesterol) responsible for transporting cholesterol out of the body is, in Australia, very strictly regulated!

According to the Australian Heart Foundation [we] “began challenging manufacturers to remove trans-fats to the lowest possible levels many years ago”, and as such, the “trans fats found in foods in Australia are amongst the lowest levels in the world” (some foods do contain small, naturally occurring levels of trans-fats).


The issue here is not trans-fat, particularly as we are in Australia, and not America (where it isn’t well regulated, which you should consider when “googling” information on the topic) but the saturated fat content. Saturated fat is the type of fat responsible for increasing LDL cholesterol, and therefore contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease. Butter has over half the amount of saturated fat of margarine. In fact, switching from butter to margarine can decrease your intake of saturated fat by up to 3kg per year according to the Heart Foundation.

While butter is a significant source of saturated fat, margarine is a good source of poly and mono unsaturated fats (the plant based fats responsible for lowering cholesterol), and therefore in place of butter may help to decrease your cholesterol. More recently, there have been margarines produced that contain plant sterols and stanols which can decrease blood cholesterol by up to 10-15%, and Dietitians will often recommend these for individuals with hypercholesterolemia (though they can be expensive).

Of note, there has been some controversy of late surrounding saturated fat and its effect on health, which was largely brought about by a BBC program where a doctor put forth an opinion with a claim that the British Heart foundation agreed with him. They did nothing of the sort, and later the BBC had to retract their statements. Both the British Heart Foundation, and the Australian Heart foundation still maintain that it is recommended to consume a diet low in saturated fat, as this is where the evidence still points.



If you wish to read more about the BBC program, there is a very good piece put together by Bill Shrapnel (an Australian Dietitian) on the topic which can be found here:

In summary:

  1. Unqualified individuals who do not have a thorough knowledge of nutrition science often given unwarranted advice, which is wrought with misinformation (often based on information not applicable to Australia, or studies that provide inconclusive evidence).
  2. Margarine in Australia contains very minimal amounts of trans-fats due to strict regulations.
  3. Butter is a significant source of saturated fat, which is responsible for increasing LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). Switching butter to margarine can decrease plasma levels of cholesterol, and those containing plant sterols and stanols can decrease cholesterol by up to 10-15%
  4.  The Australian and British heart foundation still maintain that we should decrease our intake of saturated fats.

Please note, if you do enjoy the taste of butter over margarine and only consume it in small amounts every so often, I can’t see this to be a problem, particularly if you maintain a healthy diet and exercise.

A very last point to make, fat of any kind is a high source of energy (37KJ per gram), and therefore if eaten in excess can contribute to weight gain, which is turn may result in obesity, and obesity is a risk factor for several chronic diseases. Therefore, it is still essential that we consume an energy appropriate diet relevant to our requirements and activity levels.


References and further reading:
British Heart Foundation. Fats Explained. Retrieved from http://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/prevention/healthy-eating/fats-explained.aspx

Dietitians Association of Australia. Plant Sterols and Stanols. Retrieved from http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/plant-sterols/

Mozaffarian D., Aro A., Willett, WC. (2009). Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2. S5-21. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19424218

Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S (2010) Effects on Coronary Heart Disease of Increasing Polyunsaturated Fat in Place of Saturated Fat: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS Med 7. 3. Retrieved from http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000252#pmed-1000252-g003

The Heart Foundation. Butter vs. Margarine. Retrieved from http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/fats/Pages/butter-margarine.aspx