Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Which food is better...?

My Sunday Star-Times column from 13th April. 
I’m always being asked which is ‘better’ between two foods. Which is better: butter or margarine? Milk or soy milk? Sugar or honey? Olive oil or coconut oil?

We always want to know the definitive answer to this question. But unless the question is burgers versus broccoli or water versus cola, the answer is usually “It depends”. It all depends on context – the context of your day, your overall diet and your personal situation. 

For example; you may see a lot of stuff online about how butter is ‘better’ than oil spreads or margarine because it is more natural and less processed. You could certainly say that butter is less processed and has fewer ingredients than your average margarine. Personally I prefer the taste of a scrape of butter on my toast. But does that make it ‘better’? 

Margarine is not necessarily the terrible evil you might think from reading stuff on the internet. (In fact for something to technically be called ‘margarine’ it has to be 80% fat, just like butter, so you don’t see a lot of actual margarine on the shelves these days). It is all about context. If you are eating a fabulously healthy diet and don’t have weight or cholesterol issues, a little butter won’t hurt. You may prefer the taste and be happy keeping the quantities low. But if you’re loading up on butter and are overweight or have high cholesterol, you’re probably better off switching to a reduced-fat spread for your toast, which has far less saturated fat and is lower in kilojoules. Or swap to avocado or nut butter so you’re getting some healthy fat. Context is everything. Margarine is a more manufactured product, and that can be a turnoff for some. But it doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’ for everyone. We have to choose what works for our own situation. 

It’s the same with all the other ‘either/or’ questions about food. Milk is a nutritious and useful food for most people. But soy milk may be better for you if you can’t tolerate dairy. Too much sugar is not good for anyone – but neither is too much honey. It’s the same with oils – all are energy dense so too much of any oil, whether it’s coconut or olive or canola, is not a good idea. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, so it’s a good idea to treat it like butter and use sparingly, if at all. But if your diet is full of healthful whole foods and tons of veges and you like the taste of coconut oil, a little bit is not going to hurt. 

It’s very easy to get caught up in all-or-nothing arguments when it comes to healthy eating. But as in many areas of life and given our human nature, all-or-nothing solutions seldom work for long.