Henry Ford Health System Logo

Hold the butter? Your guide to healthy spreads

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN
for Henry Ford Health System
Once restricted to butter, margarine (and cream cheese on a bagel), today’s options for what to spread on your bread are seemingly endless.

For many Americans, bread is a dietary staple. We eat it in the morning (in toast form), in the afternoon (to hold together a sandwich) and with the evening meal (for dipping).

While the whole-grain variety of this tasty staple boasts plenty of vitamins, minerals and other healthful nutrients, it can also be boring. That’s where healthful spreads come in.

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

Spread the flavor

Once restricted to butter, margarine (and cream cheese on a bagel), today’s options for what to spread on your bread are seemingly endless. Extra virgin olive oil? Mediterranean hummus? They’re all fair game. Here are six ideas for the healthiest — and tastiest — spreads that deserve a spot on your bread:

  1. Hummus: Made with tahini (sesame seed paste), garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), lemon, garlic and salt, hummus is chock-full of protein, fiber and healthy fats. While this Mediterranean mainstay frequently appears as a dip for pita chips, crackers and raw veggies, it’s also a great spread for whole-grain bread.
  2. Olive oil: Olive oil contains disease-fighting compounds called phenols. It’s also made up largely of heart-healthy, inflammation-busting monounsaturated fat. So it’s no wonder this healthful oil is linked with staving off chronic disease. But at 119 calories per tablespoon, it’s best to go easy. Just a drizzle on toast provides more robust flavor than butter or margarine. Extra virgin olive oil is more flavorful than other types of olive oil. Just be sure to check the bottle for a label from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade group that tests olive oils to see if they measure up to the manufacturer’s claims.
  3. Avocado: Sure, avocados are high in fat, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them. In fact, avocados boast the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. These healthful fruits also contain nearly 20 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, plus fiber. One-third of an avocado contains only 80 calories and 3 grams of fiber, so it’ll fill you up without weighing you down. Just slice it thin, place it on your bread and spread. (It’s great as a mayo-replacement in chicken salad or deviled eggs.)
  4. Tzatziki: A flavorful yogurt and cucumber dip most commonly associated with gyros, tzatziki is a healthy dip for raw vegetables, toasted crackers and pita crisps, but it also makes a tasty sandwich spread. An added bonus: yogurt contains probiotics, which may help support gut health.
  5. Nut butters: Previously limited to peanuts, nut butters of all types are cropping up on grocery store shelves. They’re loaded with monounsaturated fats, which helps boost HDL (good) cholesterol while keeping LDL (bad) cholesterol in check. And they can create a makeshift meal in seconds. The caveat: Most nut butters add up to 200 calories per serving, so spread it thin.
  6. Tahini: Made from ground sesame seeds, this paste gives hummus and baba ghanoush their creamy consistencies and depth of flavor. It can also be used as a spread on toast or mixed with herbs and lemon or lime juice for salad dressing.

What about butter and margarine?

With the rise of high-fat diets, interest in butter — especially the grass-fed variety — is soaring. But butter is still high in saturated fat, which is the type of fat that’s bad for your heart and increases your risk of chronic disease. The bottom line: Use it sparingly.

Margarine, on the other hand, continues to get a bad rap because it used to contain trans fats. But thanks to recent laws, trans fat is no longer permitted as an ingredient. And if you choose a margarine made with olive oil, you’ll get a healthful dose of monounsaturated fat.

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth has served as the president of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also named her as the Outstanding Dietitian of the Year in 2012.

To make an appointment with a Henry Ford doctor or dietitian to discussion nutrition and your health, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

For healthy recipes, cooking videos and more tips on healthy eating, visit our health and wellness blog at henryfordlivewell.com and subscribe to receive a weekly email with our latest posts.


More from Henry Ford Health System