Health & Fitness

"They" can debate until the cows come home, but the choice is actually simple.

The first thing most of us put on our pancakes is yellow, comes from a little block or a pint-sized tub, and clogs our arteries. Ditto on a steaming English muffin or on a hot baked potato. "They", and many of "Us", debate endlessly on which yellow spread does us the least harm: butter ... or un-butter. Fortunately, a third option exists which is an easy, obvious, hands-down choice, as you’ll see.

Butter is a dairy product derived from animals, most of which moo. They’re more than happy to part with it, because they’d pop if they didn’t. Because butter comes from animals, a few of you won’t touch it. More power to you (besides -- rationale aside -- you're onto something). The other 99.9% of you (don’t quote me; I made that number up) who like cows as well on a plate as in a pasture still have a dilemma, and even the strict vegans still have an option -- and a decision to make.

For us 99.9 percenters that aren’t bothered by butter’s source, let’s discuss butter. For starters, it tastes GRRRRREAT, just as do Sugar Frosted Flakes. But the very reason it tastes so great is that it’s deadly ... concentrated saturated fat. For most of us, only bad genes can pump more excess cholesterol into our bloodstreams than sat fat can. Butter doesn’t contain cholesterol, but sat fat makes our livers produce cholesterol copiously. The cholesterol we get from an egg is a drop in the much larger bucket of cholesterol our own livers pump out in response to a sufficient dose of sat fat.

In fact, the only source of cholesterol is a liver, either our own or another one in some animal down our food chain. Cholesterol just doesn't exist in nature except as produced by a liver, and plants have no livers. Our livers, and I'd guess many of the ones in our food chain, produce much of their excess cholesterol in response to saturated fat ingestion. Butter is basically bad stuff, redeemed only by its flavor.

OK,  the choice is pretty simple, isn't it? Margarine, with much less sat fat and much of the flavor of butter.

Sorry, but it's not that simple. Margarine is chock full of transaturated fatty acids (TFAs). The food producers don't have to list TFAs on food labels, even though many trials show they cause more harm to our cardiovascular system than sat fats do.

Dang! Just when we thought it was safe to eat a big double handful of bread or a triple stack of pancakes smeared with ersatz butter, we find that both yellow spreads are poor choices.

Don't despair -- it is still safe to dive into a loaf of bread. In fact, a big chunk of bread slathered in your favorite spread is an excellent snack or a great part of a meal. There are just two catches, both of them positive: the bread should be some whole grain product, and the spread should be low in sat fats and TFAs.

We discussed the bread in a past column. Most would agree that a fresh, hot loaf of whole wheat raisin cinnamon walnut bread, pumpkin spice bread or cherry walnut whole wheat,  even with nothing slathered on them, taste more like a dessert than the healthy food they actually are. And a giant slab of any kind of whole grain bread smeared with whatever spread you prefer -- jalapeno jelly, pinon honey, olive oil and herbs, whatever turns you on -- is great stuff for both your palate and your longevity. So with bread, who needs butter OR margarine, given so many other healthier, tastier choices?

But on pancakes or French toast, you must have butter (or at least I Can't Believe It's Not Sat Fat), right? Not necessarily: have you tried Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, regular or Lite? It tastes better than any combination of fresh butter and real maple syrup I've ever tried, and it has no fat.

OK, maybe you'll grant me Mrs. Butterworth's, you say. But what about recipes? Doesn't every recipe for muffins, scalloped potatoes, pasta, cookies, bread -- almost every packaged or scratch item you cook at home -- call for something like five sticks of butter or margarine?

Ignore the recipe's call for saturated grease or TFAs; use olive oil instead. In most instances the resulting taste is as good or better and the texture is the same. In every case the resulting dish is a great deal healthier. If your mate prefers butter/margarine to olive oil in recipes ... fake it. S/he'll never know the difference until her/his cholesterol count improves unexplainedly.

But on vegetables, from spinach to potatoes, how do you get by without a stick of the yellow poison of your choice? On potatoes? Sour cream and salsa. Green beans? Herbs and any of the ersatz liquid butters based on corn oil, such as Fleischmann's. Spinach? With honey mustard sweet onion dressing, spinach becomes a dessert -- almost.

Are you starting to get the picture? The only thing that must have butter/margarine is grits, and once you dump in enough green chiles, salt, and no-fat cheddar and jack cheese, even grits are just fine with Fleischmann's fake butter. Besides, only I and two of you eat grits anyway, because most people think grits are eaten with milk and sugar and hate them that way. Who wouldn't? (Psst -- that's Cream of Wheat, guys, not grits.)

So the bottom line between butter and margarine is extremely simple: quit both cold turkey. Just like cutting my milk from 100 proof to 1% butterfat left whole milk tasting like so much straight liquid Crisco, both butter and margarine began tasting like old bacon fat just weeks after I quit both of the yellow spreads. No, thanks. Turn to olive oil, honey, jam, herbs, "buttered" syrups, monounsaturated corn oil fakes, etc. for much greater variety and more years to enjoy them.

Within reason, it's going to be my genes or my sports that kill me, not something as utterly forgettable as butter/marg. That is, of course, unless Mexican food is fatal. If so, I'll die happy, because I've not yet found a substitute for fajitas, enchiladas, nachos, and rellenos all smothered in green chile sauce. Fortunately, it can be made at home and found in some restaurants with very little fat -- and virtually NO butter/marg.

We can burn off excess calories through exercise, but many of us have no way to deal with elevated cholesterol besides eliminating most of the sat fat from out diets. Just  saying NO! to butter/marg keeps our vascular system healthy longer, leaves more space in our calorie budget for pancakes, and puts a greater variety of spices in our lives.

Oops -- I smell green chile cheese cornbread (lowfat cheese, of course) coming out of the oven. Gotta go dump some homemade cherry preserves and jalapeno honey over it before it cools off enough so much it won't burn my mouth.

God, but I love to eat! And as long as I keep active and minimize the sat fats, I can eat any thing and almost any quantity I want.

Most of you could, too.