trans fat, margarine, butter, lower cholesterol with margarine

For decades, doctors told their patients to eat margarine instead of butter. The idea was that people who ate cholesterol-rich butter would raise their level of blood cholesterol. Then public health experts realized that it might not be possible to lower cholesterol with margarine because of the unhealthy trans fats in margarine. About 20 years ago, companies developed margarine specifically designed to lower cholesterol because it contains plant compounds that prevent cholesterol absorption. Does eating this type of margarine really help normalize lipid levels?

Can You Lower Cholesterol with Margarine?

Q. My doctor told me to use Promise margarine, no other spreads. Over a month or so, my cholesterol dropped to 100. It has been stable for more than 20 years. Is Promise responsible?

A. Promise Activ, Benecol, Smart Balance and Take Control margarine were all launched as a means of lowering cholesterol. They contain plant sterols or plant stanol esters. Regular consumption of such products in place of butter can lower LDL cholesterol by 7 to 12 percent (Trautwein et al, Nutrients, Sep. 7, 2018). 

Although the food companies suggest that you lower cholesterol with margarine alone, doctors may also prescribe a statin and suggest consuming stanol-containing margarine in addition (Han et al, Scientific Reports, Aug. 19, 2016). People who follow this regimen can lower their LDL and total cholesterol even more than with a statin by itself. Certainly, people taking prescription statins can lower their serum lipids more with this combination than with cholesterol-lowering margarine alone.

Going Beyond a Plan to Lower Cholesterol with Margarine:

Very few cardiologists recommend relying on such stanol-fortified spreads to lower cholesterol. They might point out the benefits of a combined approach: diet, exercise and weight loss (Clifton, Pathology, Feb. 2019). A dietary portfolio can be helpful in cholesterol control. What should you do? 

Employing a Dietary Portfolio:

Several years ago, research from Canada showed that a vegetarian diet containing cholesterol-lowering foods was significantly more effective than the conventional dietary recommendation of simply reducing saturated fat intake (Jenkins et al, JAMA, Aug. 24/31, 2011).

In the study, 350 volunteers were randomized into three groups. One group cut back on saturated fat. Another group learned how to utilize a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering margarine, soluble fiber from oats, barley and psyllium, as well as nuts and soy protein instead of animal products over the course of two clinic visits of up to an hour each.  The third group went through more intensive training involving seven clinic visits to learn about implementing the dietary portfolio approach.

Over the six months of the study, both groups following the dietary portfolio lowered their LDL cholesterol. Their results were significantly better than those of the people following a conventional low-fat diet. Cholesterol-lowering foods such as soluble fiber, nuts, soy and margarine containing plant sterols turned out to be effective for getting bad cholesterol under control. A recent review of controlled studies demonstrated that adopting a dietary portfolio can reduce LDL cholesterol and the estimated 10-year risk of heart disease (Chiavaroli et al, Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, May-June 2018). 

Learn More:

To control your cholesterol with diet, lower both trans fat and saturated fat intake, increase soluble fiber and substitute low-glycemic index carbohydrates such as vegetables for high-glycemic processed carbohydrates like bread, crackers and cookies. You can lower cholesterol with margarine, but don’t rely on margarine alone. Regular exercise can also improve heart health whether or not cholesterol levels drop.

You may wish to review our Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health or listen to our most recent interview with Dr. Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic. It is Show 1147: How Do You Control Your Cholesterol?

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  1. JAN

    You ask for comments yet mine are never published. WHY?

  2. Jan

    Here in France I’m in a ‘no GMO, no pesticide’ zone. This time of the year there are loads of root vegetables/butternut squash, and half a dozen versions of it. It’s seasonal eating and what everyone calls the Mediterranean diet. This ‘diet’ consists of fruit, vegetables, fish, olive oil, little butter and little meat. For cholesterol, the doctor suggested Brazil nuts, and after three months, I’m in the good zone! We read about those in the US struggling with health, and I think the main thing is to get your farmers back in production. Here, diversity in farming is the key to good health.

  3. Mary

    It seems to me that what the margarine is used on is important, too. Lots of carbs may contribute to high cholesterol, but there are so many different dietary programs that it’s impossible to know what’s good to eat.

    • Jan

      I’ve lowered my cholesterol by eating Brazil nuts – 3 a day.

  4. Mandi

    I stopped eating margarines and using sunflower oil, because I had read about an increased breast cancer risk. During the following year my painful swollen finger joints returned to normal. I later read that too much omega 6 in relation to omega 3 has an inflammatory effect.

  5. Rick
    Park Ridge, IL

    I am surprised that the Nature Made product Cholestoff Plus hasn’t been mentioned. It contains 900 mg. of plant sterols/stanols per serving, at only 10 calories. Costco frequently puts the 210 soft gel bottle on sale for about $20. When dining out, with no cholesterol lowering margarine available, this product is easy to take anywhere you go.

  6. David Edgerton Lane Sr.

    A LOT of years ago,about when Benecol first marketed, I learned that, while ‘margarines’ you refer to with plant stanols and sterols , can reduce cholesterol, I also learned from Dr Mirkin’s newsletter that only sterols continue to reduce cholesterol over the long haul. Stanols do initially make a difference, as do sterols, but only sterols continue to be effective.
    Thus far, at 82, my blood work is normal.

  7. Dagny
    Philadelphia, PA

    A better question might be: Is it a good idea to lower cholesterol? I thought by now the false assumption that it is would have been widely exposed, but the drug companies continue to push their agenda while mainstream medicine and insurance companies continue to buy into it. A cholesterol level of 200-300+ was considered normal and desirable before statins were invented. Now I’ve heard drug ads that encourage levels as low as 100, which could be dangerous. The brain is 60% fat and needs cholesterol to function!

    Follow the money, and take note of all the ways money is being made from the cholesterol myth – pharmaceuticals, supplements, drug insurance, drug advertising, TV specials, books, magazine articles, special margarines and other foods, and let’s not forget all the money to be made treating the side effects of statins, which are many, from memory problems to muscle wasting. I’m one of the victims of muscle wasting with severe and permanent damage to my shoulders, and I cringe when I read articles like this one that encourage the pursuit of low cholesterol numbers. LDL has its place in human health, but MSM encourages us to wipe it out as if it were an enemy! Using special margarine to lower cholesterol rather than follow a low carbohydrate, plant based diet isn’t much different from popping pills and eating processed and junk food. I think there will be health problems waiting down the road.

  8. Henry
    Mocksville, NC

    I didn’t see SMART BALANCE listed; does it not meet the cholesterol-lowering requirements?

    • Terry Graedon

      It does contain plant sterol esters; my oversight.

      • Kat

        Smart Balance was listed in the first line of the answer, along with other spreads.

    • Carol

      Thank you. A lucid response. Ingesting a product or pharmaceutical is not for good health. Doctors have little interest in cures. I’m sorry that I used a doctor’s recommendations and now I am on two pharmaceuticals and struggling to get off them. A doctor should only be used for a diagnosis. There are too many alternatives to a doctor’s knife.

    • Laurie
      Waseca, MN

      Henry, you hit the nail on the head!! A very good comment.

    • Debbie

      I agree totally with your comment. If my cholesterol went sky high, you could’t pay me to take a statin. There are so many alternatives to lower your cholesterol naturally, and statins have a long list of side effects. The one that scares me the most is early onset dementia.

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