4 Harmful Myths About Food and Heart Health
When it comes to heart health, there are many misconceptions about what we should eat. This week I’m debunking four common ones:
Myth #1: Eggs are bad for heart health.
A single egg delivers around 375 mg of cholesterol. Meanwhile, scientific bodies advise limiting cholesterol intake to below 300 mg per day - and under 200 mg per day if you already have heart disease. No wonder eggs get a bad rap.
However the relationship between food cholesterol and blood cholesterol is quite complicated. For example, the vast majority of cholesterol that’s absorbed in our digestive tracts comes from the re-absorption of bile. Which means dietary cholesterol exerts a relatively modest effect on blood cholesterol levels in most people. Plus, saturated fats and highly processed/simple carbohydrates are very powerful drivers of high cholesterol in their own right - and eggs contain neither of these in any significant amounts. Often, it’s what else is on the plate that’s worse for us than the eggs themselves. Plus eggs are high in protein, low in calories and deliver boatloads of important vitamins and minerals. After all, they're constructed to support life!
But just because I say that eggs aren’t bad doesn’t mean you should eat them with wild abandon! Too much of any food, however perfect, will backfire on you at some point. I routinely see patients who might eat 6 eggs a day as part of their keto plan and their blood cholesterol levels are through the roof – coming down only after they significantly scale back their egg consumption. Keep it to one a day on average and you should be fine.
Myth #2: If you’re on medication for heart health, it means you can eat whatever you want.
Some people believe that taking medications, like blood pressure-regulating pills or statins, means they can eat whatever they want without worrying about the consequences. This is simply not true. While medication can help manage certain heart conditions, what we eat impacts those same conditions, sometimes quite profoundly. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are driven in part or in whole by diet. So why would you eat in a way that causes your blood pressure or cholesterol go up so you need MORE medication to control it? Medication side effects are almost always dose-dependent. So the higher the dose of the drug the higher the likelihood of experiencing an unwanted drug-related consequence. Plus when you eat right to help control high blood pressure or high cholesterol you’re also eating in a way that helps ward off cancer and dementia. Less drugs, more health. Win-win.
Myth #3: Changing your diet isn’t enough to reverse damage already done to your heart.
It is never too late to improve your heart’s health through diet and lifestyle changes. While it is true that some damage to the heart or heart arteries may be irreversible, research has shown that a healthy diet (together with medications as needed) can help prevent further damage and even improve heart and vascular function. A heart-healthy diet should include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean/plant-based proteins, and healthy fats. Avoiding ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks, and excessive alcohol can also help improve heart health.
Myth #4: A low-fat diet is best for heart health.
Many people believe that a low-fat diet is the best way to improve heart health. While reducing saturated and trans fats is important for heart health, it is not necessary to eliminate ALL fats from your diet. In fact, healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can have positive effects on heart health. These fats can be found in foods like nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, and fatty fish. In addition to healthy fats, diets rich in fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids (think Mediterranean diet and the ingredients found in Step One Foods), also play a major role in heart health. But again, too much of a good thing can backfire. All fats are calorie dense so eat even the healthy ones in moderation.
In the end, it all comes down to common sense and the 7 words that will never steer you wrong: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And whether you’re wondering if eggs are OK, or if you can eat what you want because you take drugs, or what you should eat to help stop or even reverse heart disease, this commonsense advice will always give you the correct answer.
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