What does your ticker really need to stay healthy?
Have you seen that meme where one avocado person is walking away in tears from the other avocado, who proclaims, “I said you’re the good kind of fat!” Part of what makes the joke funny is the truth of our own confusion about fats and what’s good for the heart. And that spills over to a lot of foods (like eggs and red meat) and drinks (like wine). From one year to another, it can be hard to stay on top of the latest heart research, and what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for your ticker. But it’s an issue we all need to take seriously if we want to help prevent heart-related conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, stroke and heart attacks.
Since February is Heart Month in Canada—and with cardiovascular disease still our country’s second leading cause of death—let’s turn inward, to the heart, and focus on how we can show the heart some love with the foods we eat. Here, we debunk some of the common myths about foods and heart health.
Heart Myth #1
All Fats Are Bad
Fact: Not all fats are created equal. In the name of improving heart health, the fats to have just a little of are trans and saturated fats.
Trans fats and hydrogenated oils are processed and preserved to extend their shelf life, but have no health benefits. Saturated fats, found in foods like cheese, red meat, bacon and coconut oil, are solid at room temperature, and—if over-consumed without the addition of fibre from fruits, vegetables and whole grains—can tip the scale in favour of the ‘bad’ cholesterol levels over time.
The type of fats to consume more of are the monounsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil, plus polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish, walnuts, flax seeds and sunflower oil. These help to reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol levels, also known as LDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats also help reduce inflammation and build cell membranes.
- Sprinkle 1 tbsp ground flax seeds on your plain yogurt or cereal.
- Use coconut oil, clarified butter or olive oil for cooking at higher temperatures.
- Use avocado or flax oil in your salad dressing.
- Limit red meat consumption to once per week, and include lean, skinless poultry, fatty fish or fish oil supplements and plant-based proteins often.
- Choose to bake, poach or roast foods rather than frying.
Heart Myth #2
Margarine is Better Than Butter
Fact: Both margarine and butter are saturated fats from different sources. Margarine might contain more hydrogenated vegetable oils and plant sterols; however, butter is less processed and contains fewer chemicals. Clarified butter, also called ghee, is a healthy choice if dairy is an issue for you as some of its milk solids and lactose have been removed.
- Read the margarine nutrition label to help you make informed decisions about the type and quality of fat you are consuming.
- To reduce the amount of saturated fats in your diet, occasionally use ghee, olive or avocado oil to ‘butter’ your bread.
Heart Myth #3
Sugar Puts You at Risk of Diabetes, Not Heart Disease
Fact: A diet high in sugar from sweets, hidden sugars in processed foods and refined carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and this puts you at risk for cardiovascular problems. Plenty of fibre is extremely beneficial for heart health as it removes excess cholesterol and provides the body with protection from free radicals.
- Swap refined grains for whole grains such as wild rice, whole grain breads, almond flour, brown rice pasta and quinoa.
- Swap sweets for berries, dark chocolate, trail mix with dried fruit or frozen yogurt bark.
- Choose plain yogurt over flavoured, and add heart-healthy blueberries with ground flax seeds for breakfast or a snack.
- Aim for a daily fibre intake of 25–30 grams from leafy greens, beans and legumes, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale, red and blue berries, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Heart Myth #4
Eggs Raise Cholesterol Levels
Fact: Eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, but are also an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Often, it’s the foods we pair eggs with that contribute to the overall saturated fat content, such as bacon and sausage, which we fry in butter and serve with a side of white toast…and more butter. If anything, eggs help raise the ‘good’ cholesterol, also known as HDL cholesterol. This is the favourable type that removes the bad LDL cholesterol from our arteries.
- If you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, limit your egg consumption to once or twice per week.
- Skip the yolk and try an egg white omelette with veggies.
- Poach or bake eggs instead of frying them.
Heart Myth #5
Fat-Free Foods Are Healthier Choices
Fact: You will see low fat, reduced fat, fat-free and light on nutrition labels, referring to how much fat is in the product. We should watch the quality of fats we consume but remember that we need dietary fat for organ insulation, hormone synthesis, brain health and energy. When fat is removed from food it loses some taste, so more sodium, additives and sugar are often added to compensate. This is dangerous because a diet high in sodium, processed food and carbohydrates contributes to high blood pressure and weight gain. Focus more on the type of fat listed on the nutrition label, plus any added salt, before you reach for a fat-free option.
- Swap added salt on your food for flavourful and heart-healthy herbs and spices like cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne pepper, parsley, ginger, garlic and curry powder.
- Choose yogurt, cheese and milk with light, moderate or full fat content instead of zero fat and consume it in moderation along with plenty of fibre from whole grains and vegetables. Be sure to check the nutrition label for added sugar.
- Choose low sodium soups, condiments, dressings and broths wherever possible.
Jen Casey is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner. She focuses on holistic, diet-free approaches to weight loss and balancing hormones through nutrition and lifestyle. Book a free 30-minute online nutrition appointment with Jen or one of our other nutritionists at naturesfare.com.
Article was published in The Good Life magazine.