Dietitian and Becel margarine spokesperson Gina Sunderland paused a moment when a client boasted about following a fat-free diet, but she knew it was important to set the record straight. She explained to the client, a health-conscious woman in her early 60s, that some fat is part of a healthy diet and she advised the woman to incorporate a little into her meals.

“As dietitians, we did huge disservice with our messaging in the 80s and early 90s,” says Sunderland, who is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We should not have been emphasizing low-fat this and low-fat that. We told people not to eat fat, and that message was way too simple.”

To be healthy, we need to embrace fats that are good for us while avoiding fats that are not. 

Unsaturated fat can help lower bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and, by extension, the risk of heart disease. It can be found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and fish. Unsaturated fat, which is liquid at room temperature, includes two groups.

The first, monounsaturated fat, is found in olive, canola and some other oils as well as avocados and various nuts, including almonds, peanuts and cashews. The second, polyunsaturated fat, is found in sunflower, soybean, corn and safflower oil as well as fish, walnuts, flax and other seeds.

Many of the items in the second group have omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body can’t produce on its own. Plant sources provide the essential omega-3 fatty acids that the body needs to function, which are also being investigated to determine their importance for heart health. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines are a great source of these fatty acids as well.

Canadian healthcare providers encourage people to eat unsaturated fat in moderation. They have also sounded the alarm over two fats that increase bad cholesterol and heighten the risk of heart disease: saturated fat and trans fats.

“The butter-versus-margarine debate has been a flashpoint in the ongoing conversation about fat. While some people promote butter as an “all-natural choice,” most dietitians advise to use less of it.”

Saturated fat, which is solid at room temperature, is found in red meat, whole milk, cheese, coconut oil and many commercially-prepared foods. Trans fats appear naturally in small quantities in some foods, such as meats and dairy, while industrially-processed trans fats are sometimes found in items like cookies, crackers, packaged snack foods and deep-fried foods.   

Butter isn’t better

The butter-versus-margarine debate has been a flashpoint in the ongoing conversation about fat. While some people promote butter as an “all-natural choice,” most dietitians advise to use less of it.

“We’ve all heard the slogan, ‘Butter is Better.’ Well, that is just not true!” says Sunderland. She points out that butter is high in saturated fat, while margarine is made from a blend of plant and seed oils and therefore contains the “good” polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

In fact, the results of a recent study by the Danish Dairy Research Foundation established that even moderate levels of butter consumption could result in higher LDL cholesterol. The study also showed that butter raises blood cholesterol levels more than olive oil, a plant-based alternative.

Responding to consumers’ health concerns, manufacturers have moved away from hydrogenation, a process that solidifies liquid vegetable oil but also can generate trans fats. Instead, they use a small amount of modified palm and palm kernel oil to get the job done. Non-hydrogenated margarine is more spreadable than its predecessor and contains no trans fats and up to 80 percent less saturated fat than butter.  Sunderland, a consulting dietitian, advises her clients to use it.

Avoiding fat a ‘big mistake’

Not surprisingly, some of her clients remain skittish about fat in general because of its calories, so Sunderland emphasizes that a small amount, two to three tablespoons, of good fat per day is the right amount. You could get much of your daily requirement by spreading soft margarine on toast and a sandwich, and by adding ground flax seeds on top of a salad or into your oatmeal.

Also, fat creates a feeling of fullness, so people who go without it often get hunger pangs that send them running for products that contain refined carbohydrates, which leads to weight gain. White bread, refined flour crackers, white rice and other products that fall into this category cause a surge in blood sugar. If the sugar is not used for fuel, it can become stored and result in weight gain. 

“The bottom line,” says Sunderland, summing up the message she conveys to health-conscious clients, “is to enjoy two to three tablespoons of healthy unsaturated fat every day. Avoiding fat altogether is a big mistake.”