There are some very common misconceptions about what foods and substances really are healthy for our hearts. Here are five heart health myths…busted!
1. Myth: fat free diets are heart healthy:
In the past couple of decades, if you were diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor probably put you on a “heart healthy” low fat diet. But new evidence is revealing this could possibly be the worst possible diet for our hearts! Research from respected institutions like Harvard show that low fat diets may actually raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes (read more here).
Low fat foods make us hungry! Getting enough of the right kind of dietary fat is critical for controlling our hunger hormones – so if you are not getting enough healthy fats in your diet – you are likely going to be hungry all of the time, which can lead to overeating and weight gain, which as we all know, is bad for our hearts. Healthy fats also help to keep our bloodsugar in balance, which is important because blood sugar spikes over a period of time can lead to a condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance makes it more difficult to lose weight, and can lead to pre-diabetes, diabetes, and an increased risk of heart disease. Also, post-meal glucose spikes are very dangerous for our hearts (read more). In addition to the 26 million Americans with diabetes, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that more than a third of the general population is now pre-diabetic. Knowing your blood sugar levels is very important, as high blood sugar is quickly becoming one of the leading preventable causes of sudden death in the United States.
A multi-billion dollar industry was born from the erroneous concept that fats are bad for us, and for over a decade, consumers dutifully have bought low and reduced fat foods at the grocery store thinking that they were doing a good thing for their health. But many low fat foods are significantly worse for us than the regular ones. Take Reduced Fat Peanut butter for example. The company website claims that it only contains 60% peanuts – like that is a good thing. But if I am buying peanut butter – I want there to be peanuts in there, we have to ask ourselves, what comprises the other 40% in the jar? if you read the label, you will find out what makes up the other 40% is not good for our hearts or any part of our bodies – corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. So instead of the healthier fats from the actual real peanuts, we are getting “fake fats,” added sugars, genetically modified soy, and GMO corn syrup solids. So I can say without a doubt – that all “reduced fat” foods are not healthier for you. I recommend buying a natural peanut butter, or even better – upgrade to a product like NuttZo – which is a blend of 7 different nuts and seeds, and is a good source of heart protective omega 3 fatty acids. NuttZo contains no added sugar or anything else we don’t need in nut butters.
What do we want to avoid like the plague? Sugar. A study found that drinking just 1 sweetened beverage a day was associated with a 20% increase in heart disease in men (read more).
2. Myth: Saturated fat is bad for your heart.
So what kind of fat is good for us, and which kind is bad? For years we have been taught that saturated fats are bad, and polyunsaturated fats are good for us. Again, this is completely wrong!! I tell all of my clients to get rid of the margarine, corn oils, soy oil, and vegetable oils. So many of us have been dutifully buying margarine in the stores – because we thought it was healthier for us than butter. This is completely false. The benefits that saturated fats offer, are they are more stable, so they are less likely to become damaged, or oxidized – and it is the oxidized or damaged fats/cholesterol that is dangerous, causing the free radicals that leads to disease.
Some saturated fats are actually recommended and have been shown to greatly benefit the heart – like coconut oil. Coconut oil is comprised of medium chain fatty acids, which are more quickly and easily converted into energy – so they are less likely to be stored as fat. Coconut oils are also rich in lauric acid, which has been shown to lower cholesterol, lower our risk of cancer, and benefit the heart. In fact, research shows that these are better for your heart than margarine and polyunsaturated oils. Read: Saturated Fats Are Good for You to learn more about how saturated fats can be better for our heart health. Another saturated fat that is also a good choice is organic or grass fed butter. I always recommend choosing organic or free range for ALL animal proteins – as they are higher in omega 3s (reduces inflammation – important for our hearts and overall health), will not contain antibiotics (80% of the U.S. antibiotics are fed to livestock), and reduce inflammation.
The other issue with margarine, is that it contains a hefty serving of trans fats – largely a man-made fat – the worst kind of fat. Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, making the oil more solid and less likely to spoil. This process is called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation and allows stick margarine to be firm at room temperature. Trans fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, and they tend to lower the HDL cholesterol. Trans fats also may make our blood platelets stickier, which is a definite bad situation for our heart health. Just one tablespoon of stick margarine can pack a whopping 3 grams of trans fat. So pitch out the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, and buy some good ‘ole real butter again (but make sure to choose organic or grass fed).
3. Myth: Eggs raise your cholesterol and so we should avoid them. Many people believe that eggs, and foods with cholesterol raises blood cholesterol and heart disease risk. But half of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol (read article). Don’t worry about dietary cholesterol – eat your eggs! According to research out of Harvard, eggs – even though they contain cholesterol do not raise blood cholesterol for 60% of the population. For the other 30% for whom eggs did raise blood cholesterol, it raised both the LDL and HDL (it did not change the ratio – most important) and at the same time it reduced the oxidation of the LDL cholesterol – oxidation is the reason why LDL is bad for us. But buy organic eggs – they are higher in omega 3 fatty acids and so they are better for our health & our hearts.
In fact, there is a considerable amount of research to show that high cholesterol is NOT an accurate predictor of heart health. Read the book The Great Cholesterol Myth, Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease, written by Dr. Steven Sinatra (a heart surgeon with over 25 years of experience), and Dr. Johnny Bowden, the “Rogue Nutritionist.” The Great Cholesterol Myth says the real culprits of heart disease are:
Lastly, we need to understand that cholesterol is a very important hormone. It is the mother of all hormones – and without sufficient cholesterol, our body can’t effectively manufacture all the other hormones, which can lead to low testosterone levels in men, among other things. It also has been linked to increased rates of Alzhemiers and dementia – because our brain needs cholesterol for proper brain cell function.
4. Myth: Foods Labeled “Trans-Fat Free” are heart healthy:
There is one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on – that trans fats are the worst kind of fats we can eat for our hearts and our overall health. So we want to avoid eating any foods that contain even trace amounts of trans fats. But – just because the label says “trans fat free,” does not mean that it contains ZERO trans fats!! As long as a food has less than .5 trans fats per serving, it can say trans fats free, but it still can contain trans fats. And because trans fats prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, they are found in lots of packaged and processed good – like cookies and cakes. These are the kind of foods that we tend to eat multiple servings of – so even if they only contain trace amounts of trans fats, those can add up very quickly. Plus, any food that has a label on it – is probably processed. So the less foods you eat with labels and marketing claims, the better for your heart health. But we are all busy, so we will occasionally want to eat something from a package, so it is important to learn how to find Trans Fats on labels (hint – most margarines, certain vegetable oils and many packaged/ processed foods contain them). Just know, the less packaged and processed our diets are – the better for our overall health.
5. Myth: Heart Disease only affects the middle aged.
Diseases that we once considered to only hit in middle age, are starting to show up in kids. Once called “adult-onset” diabetes, it is now referred to as Type 2 diabetes – because it is appearing long before adulthood now. New research shows that heart damage is beginning very early in life. And because of poor lifestyle and diet choices – the disease can accelerate quickly. Teenagers are increasingly showing evidence of heart disease and even having heart attacks. Developing good lifestyle choices should begin as early as possible – waiting until middle age to think about our heart health might end up to be too late. One of the key foods to encourage kids to limit is sugar – especially sugary drinks like sodas. Drinking just 1 sugar sweetened soda per day was shown to raise a man’s risk of heart attack by over 30%. Eating too many sweets or even carbs/grains causes spikes in bloodsugar – leading to a condition called insulin resistance – read this study. Another food group to not overconsume is simple carbs – foods like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Wonder Bread and other simple carbs are very quickly converted to the body into sugars, and they offer no nutritional value, and create inflammation in the body – a key marker for heart disease and many other diseases.
The best predictor for future heart disease in children is their waist circumference, read this article for more info. Having belly fat is an indication that there could be fat forming around the organs, and this fat is far more dangerous for the heart than any other type of fat. This New York Times article tells us how we can prevent heart disease in our children.
Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.
©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.
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