Can You Eat Butter on the Mediterranean Diet?

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Butter is a favorite spread across the world. Cooking with it brings out some fantastic flavor.

However, it is high in saturated fat, which doesn’t align with the principles of the Mediterranean diet, plus some will think it will cause weight gain.

If you’re following a Mediterranean diet, this article will help clear up whether you can eat it. It also looks at some of the research and studies so you can better inform yourself about using it.

Can You Eat Butter on the Mediterranean Diet?

Butter is generally discouraged on the Mediterranean diet because it is higher in saturated fat.

Consuming more saturated fat is often associated with risks such as higher cholesterol levels and heart disease.

The diet usually recommends replacing butter with olive oil, which is higher in healthy polyunsaturated fats.

However, the diet also encourages moderation. Therefore, cooking with some butter occasionally is fine, but you don’t want to be using it every day or in large amounts.

Completely cutting out something you enjoy can create unhealthy eating habits.

Saturated Fat and Butter

Different organizations recommend slightly different limits of saturated fat per day:

  • The USDA recommends less than 10% of your calories come from saturated fat, or about 16g per day on a 2,000-calorie diet.
  • The American Heart Association recommends about 13g per day on a 2,000-calorie diet.
  • The NHS in the UK recommends less than 30g of saturated fat for men and less than 20g of saturated fat for women per day.

You can use this calculator tool by USDA to figure out exact recommendations.

Butter contains the following amounts of saturated

  • 1 pat of butter (about 5g) contains 2.6g of saturated fat.
  • 1 tbsp contains about 7g of saturated fat
  • 1 stick (113g) contains about 58g of saturated fat.

Typically for sauteeing vegetables, for example, you would use about 1 pat of butter. This is likely to result in about 10-20% of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat.

Although this is a lot, if you’re only cooking food with little saturated fat like lean meats and vegetables, you can create a relatively healthy recipe that stays well within recommended ranges.

However, cooking with large sticks of butter will bring you far over your daily allowance, so you should avoid this type of cooking completely.

Essentially, use butter moderately and if you do, use just a little to really enhance the flavor. 

For a more in-depth view of some studies of saturated fats, read our in-depth guide on saturated fat.

Does Butter Cause Weight Gain?

Overall, butter is high in calories.

  • Per 1 pat (5g): 36 calories
  • Per 1 tbsp (14g): 102 calories
  • Per 1 stick (113g): 810 calories.

In small amounts, butter won’t make too much of a difference.

However, adding in extra can quickly cause the calories to stack up.

If you don’t adjust your diet to account for the extra calories, this could contribute to you gaining weight over time.

For example, 3,500 calories equate to about 1 lb of body fat (this does differ depending on the person).

Based on that formula, adding a tablespoon of butter per day to your meals will add about 10.6 lbs of body fat over the year (or just under 5kg).

This shows why it’s best not to cook or use it routinely. Little changes can lead to big differences over time – both good and bad.

Butter vs Margarine

Margarine is often considered better for heart health as it contains oils with mostly unsaturated fat. Butter is made from cream and milk, and is therefore high in saturated fat.

Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is often found to help lower cardiovascular risk, lowering the LDL (the ‘bad’) cholesterol.

However, some margarines are healthier than others and can have different amounts of saturated fat and salt. Generally, the more solid margarine, the more saturated fat it contains.

Where you live also makes a difference. Margarines sold inside the U.S. can’t have trans fats. Margines outside can.

Trans fats are one of the worst to eat, so should be avoided as much as possible. 

How to Make Butter More Mediterranean-Friendly

Combine It With Olive Oil

You can balance the saturated fat content by pairing it with a healthy fat like extra virgin olive oil during the cooking.

The taste will be a little different, but you’ll still get some of the butter flavor coming through, whilst reducing your calories.

Some recipes will actually encourage both butter and olive oil to be cooked together. 

When cooked together, both butter and olive oil help carry the flavors of the food. Butter adds the creaminess that an oil can’t, whilst olive oil adds a unique flavor and aroma.

Together, they enhance the food’s flavor.

Try a Lighter Butter

Lighter butter contains fewer calories and saturated fat than regular butter.

If you like the taste of lighter butter, this can make it a bit more healthy to use. However, the taste is often sacrificed due to the lower fat content as a result, so you may end up using more to compensate.

A traditional Mediterranean diet would mainly just encourage you to use less butter, but if you are going to use it, use less processed foods. 

Cook with Healthy Ingredients

The Mediterranean diet focuses on general eating habits, rather than specific ingredients.

A little butter with some roasted vegetables still makes for a healthy meal, particularly because those foods are lower in saturated fat and calories whilst being high in vitamins, fiber and nutrients.

Use an Unsalted Butter When Cooking

Different brands add different amounts of salt and sodium to their butter, so be sure to check the labels. If you’re cooking with unsalted butter, you can then add the slowly add in enough salt.

If you use salted butter, your meals will be higher in salt and sodium unless you adjust accordingly.

You can then save your salted butter for places where you don’t typically add extra sodium or salt, such as a spread on toast.

To Sum Up

Butter is used in many varieties, from spreads to cooking agents. It does contain high amounts of saturated fat, so if you’re following a Mediterranean diet, you should try and consume less.

If you do use butter, try and use it in smaller amounts. You can also combine it with olive oil.

However, there is also a balance, and moderation is key. Focusing on a Mediterranean approach to eating will be better for your health, whilst allowing you to enjoy the things you like occasionally.