From the time we first understood that diet has an effect on one’s risk for heart disease, low fat, low cholesterol diets were the go-to prescription for heart health. If you ever had to stomach cake baked with margarine and applesauce, then you remember those days.
Now we know better. Protecting your heart isn’t all about cutting fat and cholesterol, and in fact, some sources of fat may be cardio-protective. While there is some research showing the benefits of a naturally cholesterol-free, plant-based diet for those who have already suffered a heart attack, that doesn’t mean cutting fat and cholesterol is the only way, or that it’s best for everyone.
First, let’s talk cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood. It is both produced by the body and ingested in animal-based foods. While high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, it’s important to note that there are two types, LDL, aka “bad” cholesterol, and HDL, aka “good” cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease.
While it makes logical sense to cut dietary cholesterol, most of the cholesterol found in the blood is made in the body. Certain individuals are more sensitive to dietary cholesterol, but for most, cutting cholesterol has little to no effect on blood levels. In fact, updated dietary guidelines dropped the recommended limit on cholesterol consumption.
Because cholesterol is only found in animal foods, and there’s plenty of research showing the heart healthy benefits of eating more plants and less animals, it makes sense to stop worrying about cholesterol on the food label, and instead focus on including more vegetarian meals in your diet. Try swapping beans for meat a couple times a week, having oats instead of eggs on occasion, or grabbing a meatless Luvo option.
Fat is a bit more complicated. After getting past the low fat craze, nutrition recommendations centered on eating “good” unsaturated fat and avoiding “bad” saturated fat. But even that didn’t tell the whole story. Some saturated fatty acids have a neutral, or even slightly beneficial effect on cholesterol, and come in foods that contain other heart healthy nutrients, like dark chocolate and coconut. And some unsaturated fats, like refined oils, were associated with a higher risk of heart disease despite their beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. There’s also omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold water fatty fish and in higher amounts in pastured or grass-fed animal foods, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease.
Rather than cutting fat out of your diet, which helps keep you full, lets your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and equally important, makes food taste great, focus on including more quality sources of fat in your diet. Think fat-rich whole foods, like avocado, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish, or unrefined oils, like extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil. A little bit of butter isn’t the end of the world, but try to use plant-based fats as a staple in your cooking.
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