Can Butter Be Part of a Healthy Diet? (Seriously, Now.)

The old butter verses margarine controversy is back in the spotlight. With many folks favoring wholesome, natural foods, margarine has now taken a backseat to butter. But can this full fat delight be part of a healthy diet?
butter curls
The old butter-versus-margarine controversy has been thrust  back in the spotlight. With more consumers favoring wholesome, natural foods, margarine has taken a backseat to butter. But can the full-fat delight actually be part of a healthy diet?

For years, butter was the bad guy, but with trans fats (found in many types of margarine) under scrutiny and the Food and Drug Administration considering banning them, Americans are eyeing butter again. In 2013, Americans bought more butter than margarine, spending $2 billion versus $1.8 billion, respectively. And according to US government data, Americans are expected to eat an average of 5.6 pounds of butter per person in 2014, or about 22 ½ sticks for every adult and child.

Nutrition Basics

One tablespoon of unsalted butter has 102 calories, 11.5 grams of fat (7 of them saturated) and 31 milligrams cholesterol. Butter is carb-free and contains 7 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A. It also contains 0.01 grams of lactose (compared to 12 grams per cup of milk), making it a potentially less problematic food for those who are lactose-intolerant.

What Not To Do

Flip through cookbooks from the 1970s, and any reader will see that butter was the fat of choice. Even today, there's no denying that butterfat equals flavor. But spooning several tablespoons of butter over pasta, cooked vegetables or a baked potato can tack on several hundred calories rather quickly. Using sticks of butter in cookie, muffin or cake batters can do the same.

As Always ... 

As with most other foods, it's about portion control. You can usually achieve the flavor you want by using a teaspoon of butter per serving, totaling less than 40 calories and 3 grams saturated fat. A pat of butter is perfect for pasta, vegetables, eggs, toast or baked potatoes. For baked goods, it's often possible to replace part of the butter with applesauce, apple butter, prune puree, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, avocados or peanut butter.

Here are a variety of healthy recipes that use butter in a healthful, everything-in-moderation way.

radishes with butter


Photo by: Con Poulos

Con Poulos

breakfast cookies

Breakfast Cookies; Ellie Krieger

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

potatoes with butter


Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

grilled steak

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

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