For a long time nutrition advice for heart health was centered around the idea that eating too much fat would lead to an increase in body weight and risk of heart disease. Thankfully, we now know that not all fat is created equal and eating foods that are higher in healthy fats is actually beneficial to your health and your heart.
The recommendation to reduce fat continued for over 4 decades—with cardiologists and nutrition professionals alike counseling patients to adhere to an overall low fat diet and to specifically minimize full-fat animal proteins (egg yolks, red meat, dark-meat chicken, cream, butter). We also now know that dietary cholesterol actually does not impact blood cholesterol like we thought – it’s actually the type of fats that have the biggest effect.
It’s now clear that inflammation plays a major role in increasing the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, when people started following the advice to eat less fat, they started to eat more foods high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars, which leads to inflammation and an even greater risk of heart disease. Such foods are high in glycemic index (GI) and they are digested quickly which leads to big spikes in blood sugar.
While the recommendation to limit saturated fats remains, many recent studies have also shown that when saturated fats are replaced with high GI carbohydrates, like white bread, bagels, and sugary breakfast cereals, the risk of heart disease increases by 29 percent. This shows that it’s not only what’s in our diet, but also what we substitute in our diet that plays a role in disease risk.
The aim for improving heart health is, in part, improving your overall cholesterol profile, specifically to lower the LDL or “bad” cholesterol and increase the HDL “good” cholesterol.
Foods that Increase HDL “Good” Cholesterol:
The Mediterranean diet has never been so trendy, but it’s more than a fad—it actually works and has been especially important for good heart health! There isn’t a set of rules you particularly need to follow; rather, it emphasizes eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and heart-healthy extra-virgin olive oil.
If you’re looking for something new, the MediterrAsian diet is a combination of—you guessed it—Mediterranean and Asian staples. This concept that researchers have dived into includes foods like (but not limited to) red yeast rice, bergamot, artichoke, and virgin olive oil—all of which show promising effects in increasing HDL cholesterol.
Getting started can be hard… It may be easier to start simple, by eating two portions of berries (about the size of a baseball) everyday has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol. It is believed that the anthocyanins which is an antioxidant found in berries are responsible for this effect. Berries that were used in the study include strawberry, cranberry, bilberries, lingonberries, blackcurrant, and chokeberry.
Need a key take-away? Try avocado which is unlike any other fruit. The nutrients found in avocados, such as fiber, potassium, magnesium, and monounsaturated fatty acids are associated with heart health benefits, and consuming it helps to increase HDL cholesterol.
Foods that Lower LDL “Bad” Cholesterol:
The Mediterranean diet not only improves your HDL cholesterol but it can also help lower LDL cholesterol. Particularly the healthy fats namely olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon.
Following this, many years of strong evidence show that eating a diet rich in soluble fiber like oats, barley, beans, and psyllium, plant sterols (found in foods fortified with plant sterols), vegetable protein (soy, beans, chickpeas, and lentils), and nuts lowers LDL cholesterol. Interestingly, such foods are also low in GI and they are digested slowly which doesn’t cause big spikes in blood sugar levels. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that a low GI diet actually reduces both fat mass and LDL-cholesterol levels in overweight adults.
Interested in trying the Mediterranean diet? Get started with these tips:
Start small. Eating a serving of nuts a day (about the size of a golf ball), particularly walnuts and almonds.
Try simple swaps. Use olive oil instead of butter.
Get a dose of fiber a day. Any plant-based food which includes fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. Check out this blog post for more inspiration on how to build a fiber-filled day.
Fitbit Premium members can enroll in a Guided Program that teaches you how to Eat to Beat Cholesterol in 16 days. To find the program, simply tap Discover in the Fitbit app and navigate to the Guided Programs section. Need more inspiration? Check out this blog post on How to Care for Your Heart at Every Age, heart healthy recipes, and how to shop for heart healthy foods.
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