Posted on 18 Comments

The butter dilemma

The challenges of heart-healthy meal planning when avoiding processed foods

If you’ve been here any length of time, you know how I get at this time of year. The warm breeze starts blowing, the trees begin to green, and I start looking forward to the opening of the farmers markets.  My favorite markets don’t actually open until late June, but it doesn’t stop me thinking about food and about being better at supper-making.

April and May are big “drag myself out of the cooking rut I landed in over the winter” kind of months for me, and I like to take the opportunity to be smart about any dietary changes I am making. If I’m going to find some new recipes to try, it would make sense to hone in on recipes that use good, fresh, whole food ingredients. That’s the theory, anyway.

Inevitably, I kind of slide on these things during the winter. Every year. And every spring, I start thinking about ways to reduce our intake of processed foods. It’s tricky because we are all kind of picky in our own ways. For my part, I most definitely love the idea of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, more than the actual practice of it. But I try, nonetheless.

The challenges of heart-healthy meal planning when avoiding processed foods

So, I’ve been flipping through cookbooks, marking down some promising ideas, making a shopping list, etc. and it’s brought back to mind something that kind of bugged me last summer, although I never wrote about it at the time: the butter dilemma.

When Neil had his heart attack, we were sent home with a pile of literature on what constitutes a “heart-healthy” diet. The most important commandment? Avoid Saturated Fats, aka replace butter with margarine, aka replace a natural food with a highly-processed one.

Wait, what?  I just spent the last five years learning how icky margarine is and how much better butter is for you, and now I have to go back to margarine? No way. Not going to happen.

And butter is not the only thing that must go. Forget the current thinking that un-tinkered-with full-fat versions of foods such as milk and cheese are better for you than their processed low-fat or fat-free counterparts. If it’s got saturated fat, it’s bad.

You wouldn’t think reconciling a heart-healthy diet with a whole-foods diet, both of which are supposed to nurture your body and keep you well, would be at odds with each other, but as far as fats are concerned, they are.

The challenges of heart-healthy meal planning when avoiding processed foods

We’ve been on heart-healthy food journey for nine months, and in that time I have dutifully avoided butter, but I refuse to replace it with margarine. I’ve switched to various oils. And while I have tried to use the best possible oils for our health (and less of them in general), I am still pretty fuzzy on what constitutes best practices for cooking with oils. It’s not surprising, really, that I would be confused, since the Internet can’t seem to come to a consensus either.

I am starting to think that it is impossible to live a whole foods lifestyle and follow an American Heart Association-approved diet at the same time. 

I don’t love cooking in the first place, but it sucks even more joy out of it when my gut is at odds with the dietary guidelines I’m supposed to be following.

The challenges of heart-healthy meal planning when avoiding processed foods

I tend to think, when one of you has a medical condition and has been told by his doctor what he should and should not eat, those instructions need to trump whatever current conventional wisdom may be telling you. It’s not up to me (a self-educated lay-person when to comes to all of this) to decide that I prefer the explanation that inflammation is more to blame for heart disease than saturated fats are. Although, I kind of wish it were up to me, because that would make my time in the kitchen a lot easier.

We really need to learn to like vegetables more.

Posted on 18 Comments

18 thoughts on “The butter dilemma

  1. Yeah, when you have people with specific dietary needs it can be a little insanity causing because it’s not going to fit your vision of what awesome food should be.

    So far we are lucky – we get the usual lecture: reduce sodium, saturated fats, increase whole grains, less sugars, leaner proteins, extras in moderation, more exercise.

    And while my peeps are a little picky (one likes his meats, one is slow to like the weirder spices) I’m lucky that they’re both lazier than they are picky: if I make it and put it in front of them they will eat some of it.

    Kiddo is helping with menu planning now tho and I see our Google menu calendar filling up with kid faves. Will have to explain can’t have those every supper.

    1. You said:

      when you have people with specific dietary needs it can be a little insanity causing because it’s not going to fit your vision of what awesome food should be.

      and I totally agree. You hit the nail on the head.
      It’s great you’ve got your daughter helping out with the meal planning, even if she does go heavy on her own favorites 🙂 In my house, they’d be asking for plain, unadulterated pasta every night!

      1. I had rules – she couldn’t pick anything we actively didn’t like (any of us) unless she had versions that the rest liked.

        And every supper meal had to have two veggies, a protein and a starch / grain of some sort.

        Now I just need her to learn to prep and clean up better… but that took me well into adulthood to get quick enough it didn’t suck.

        The bf likes when she meal plans better because she has a sweet tooth and always makes sure there’s dessert. I’m hit or miss on it.

        1. I’ve got my kids cleaning up after supper pretty well, but the meal planning unfortunately is still all me. And with the aforementioned pickiness in this house, it’s nearly impossible to make something everyone will eat in its entirety. That’s one reason I really like Dinner: A Love Story. Her big thing is “deconstructing” dinner – making something that has enough parts to it, that it can be easily customized to fit everyone. I did it last night with chicken tacos, and it worked pretty well.

  2. I don’t think the AHA is the last word on what your diet should be, personally. They are a very big business with sponsors that pay them a lot for ads, etc. They’re not altruistic at all. That’s my rant! I would never eat most of the crap that’s recommended. Low- or no-fat cheese. UGH. Margarine or whatever. They replace the fat, which is a natural animal or plant product, with chemicals. No thank you. I believe that Julia Child said that moderation in all things was the answer. I agree that we should eat the real food but just be moderate with the unhealthier ones. But the chemical-laden food should be avoided! That’s what we practice here (and we’re not the thinnest of people so…).

    1. I’m with you there. But the big issue for me is that it doesn’t really matter what I believe. Not being a nutritional expert, I have very little choice but to defer to the heart doctors or risk Neil refusing to eat it. He wants to follow their guidelines quite strictly. I’m still not using margarine, though. Grapeseed oil is my current fat of choice, when one is required.

  3. You might find it helpful to read Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. As a nurse and the daughter of man who died in his 50’s d/t a heart attack (and my uncle and grandmother), I became very interested in the subject. I found the book informative, even if I don’t always follow it to the letter. It looks at diet (he advocates a very, very low fat intake, which is difficult for some), but it also addresses lifestyle aspects that I believe modern medicine does not pay enough attention to. He has a website, too: There are ideas and sample recipes there, too. It might not be your cup of tea, but I just thought I’d pass it along.

    I’ve never posted before but read your blog often and find it very enjoyable. Good luck to you and your husband!

    1. Thanks for the link, Sunny, and the well-wishes! They’re appreciated 🙂

  4. I took the Dr. Oz RealAge test last week. According to their standards I should be taking an aspirin a day, except my blood is thin enough without it, along with a list of foods I should eat (I’m allergic to most of them), and supplements that I don’t need. Doctors spend an average of four hours of medical school studying nutrition. I think your whole food way sounds much better to me. Avoiding GMOs and chemicals is important.

    1. It’s good you know yourself well enough not to blindly follow the recommendations of a test like that. Not everyone is that smart…
      Technically, one can avoid GMOs and chemicals, and still avoid butter, so that’s good. But I’m still just taken-aback by how highly-recommended margarine and other fake foods are by health professionals!

  5. I remember having to learn to cook without glutin three years ago. HB was diagnosed with gluten intolerance shortly after we started dating, what a learning experience that has been. To be honest, I enjoy cooking more now then I did before the restriction. Maybe it’s the fact that I was pushed to be more creative. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m only cooking for two most nights. Either way I hope you find the way that works best for you and your family!

    1. Thanks. I do find the challenge of watching our fats and salt to be kind of fun, but it gets frustrating when the recipes I find are full of things I’ve sworn off of. I do best when I make up my own recipes. I guess I should just keep doing that whenever I get fed up!

  6. It can definitely be a challenge deciphering who to listen to for dietary advice. My father struggled with heart disease and unfortunately died of a heart attack a couple years ago, about a year after my mom had passed away from cancer. I have done a ton of reading on good health, heart disease and cancer in the hopes of living longer and, more importantly, hopefully healthier than my parents. I highly recommend watching Forks Over Knives (you can stream it if you have Netflix). I have made a ton of changes to my diet and am so glad that I did. They haven’t all been easy but making them slowly and one at a time made it easier.

    1. Oh, Maggie, I’m sorry for your double loss. That must have been hard, so close together. I appreciate the Netflix recommendation – I’ll add it to my queue! I’ve been making a lot of changes myself over the years, which is why it throws me for a loop to read contradictory advice. I am surprised anyone is recommending highly-processed foods in this day and age, but maybe I’m just naive. Processed food is big business. Don’t get me wrong, we eat our share of boxed and bagged snacks, but it seems that when you are talking about basic building blocks of home cooking (like fats, for instance) you should get them from as close to nature as possible.

      1. When I look back at the number of changes I’ve made to my diet it’s pretty amazing. I think partly because most of the changes I made a little bit at a time, little baby steps. And over the weeks, months and years, those have really added up! I also try to focus on some of the foods I’m trying to add in to my diet and get excited about those instead of focusing on what I’m taking out.

        I’d love to hear what you think after you watch Forks Over Knives. It truly blew my mind! It was very eye opening and it felt very empowering for me since some of the people they feature had similar health issues to my parents. It can be a bit overwhelming too though so be warned 🙂

        1. I actually was watching it at the exact moment your reply showed up in my inbox.

          I thought it was amazing. And since then, every time I have taken a bite of chicken or a sip of milk, I have thought twice about it. I’m not sure I’m ready to cut animal products out completely, but I’m experiencing some “mental discomfort” at the idea of eating as much meat as I currently do (which is, actually, not all that much in the grand scheme of things).

          Today I asked for soy milk in my frappuccino, so there’s progress 🙂

  7. South beach diet recipe books may also help. Dr. Agatson is a cardiologist and his (dietician’s) recipes are usually very good. I have all the books and love different recipes from them. May be useful for you? I hope it helps….

    1. Thanks for the suggestion!

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