The butter vs olive oil debate rages on

Judith Wills / 20 February 2015

With the possible health benefits of butter making the headlines again, diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills offers her practical advice.

Now – the slippery topic of the past week. You will all have been entranced by the hot debate over whether it's fine to choose butter rather than olive oil or 'spreads'. Actually this isn't hugely new news.

It's been suspected for quite some time – since the '80s in fact – that replacing animal fats with lower-fat or polyunsaturated choices is unlikely to protect you from heart disease or help you to live longer. I would never give up butter, especially a really decent organic one from grass-fed cows, which contains higher levels of good fats and less saturated, and also tastes better.

I well remember my great-uncle Arthur and his farming family in North Bucks back in the 1950s – they churned their own butter, drank their own full-fat milk and slaughtered and cured their own pigs for meat and ham. Olive oil and indeed most other oils were unheard of for cooking; lard was the thing.

The family were all borderline skinny, brimming with health and vitality and almost all lived into their late eighties. Of course, they were active all day long, and had never heard of convenience foods. But they did really enjoy their food and loved to have people round for Sunday tea when there would be homemade cakes. But they never snacked and had dessert only at the weekends.

The NHS's verdict about the butter debate (published on their website) says: “Overall, the media reporting was potentially quite dangerous. Much gives the impression that the claim 'saturated fats are not bad for you' represents a change in official dietary advice. This is not the case. The claim is the opinion of a small group of researchers.” They also point out that “the lead author of the study, Zoë Harcombe, does run a commercial diet plan called The Harcombe Diet, which promotes "eating real food", including dairy products.”

So don't ban butter, but I'm not going to be giving up my olive, nut and seed oils, particularly the extra-virgin and cold pressed types, which offer various plant chemicals that can help boost health and ward off disease. And which are, or should be, delicious in their own right – my favourite at the moment is cold pressed rapeseed oil which is not only farmed and produced in the UK, being good for the planet (see last week!) but is absolutely gorgeous.

And I still love olive oil, and sesame oil, and walnut oil; all have their place. Just don't cook at high temperatures with olive oil – the fats oxidise and can be bad for you!

Yes, it is all a minefield, this nutrition thing, for which I apologise to you even though it's not my fault! I spend 50% of my days trying to find the sense in a global load of waffle, too.

The main point to remember is, as always, that usually the best way forward with healthy eating, weight loss and exercise is to do that boring thing, and take the sensible/balanced approach.

Many people could learn a positive lesson from a youngster – 32-year-old blogger Laura Agar Wilson, who, in a very non-Paltrow way, teaches that you don't need to be fanatical to be healthy and happy. And that's something with which I've always agreed. She details her reasoning and her story at and her philosophy is well worth thinking about.

 Ate last night:

The trout fillets from my fishmonger looked nice, then, while sorting out the larder, I found all kinds of Chinese and Japanese bottles including mirin (sweet rice wine), Shaoxing rice wine (less sweet) and white rice vinegar.

There were pak choi in the larder, so this is what I concocted, a sort of pan-Asian thing with a bit of Brit in it:

I cooked the quartered pak choi and the trout fillets simply, in two separate pans each with a tad of groundnut oil in. Both take no more than a few minutes over medium heat. I added some of the Shaoxing wine to the pak choi pan to finish it off; you can use medium-dry sherry or even white wine otherwise.

I removed the trout from the pan and added a good tablespoon of sesame oil with a dessertspoon of finely-chopped fresh ginger and stirred for a minute, then stirred in a scant tablespoon of low-salt soya sauce, a little mirin, a little rice vinegar and a little ketchap manis (sweet soy sauce), plus 2 teaspoons of sesame seeds. You may also like to add a dash of water or fish stock if you want more than a bare minimum of sauce.

Allow to simmer for half a minute, then spoon over the fish; top with sliced or chopped spring onions (I cooked them but they would have been better just raw), and serve with the pak choi. I also served a small amount of buckwheat noodles, which don't look very pretty but do taste good.

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