• Heart-Healthy Diet Myths

     
     
     
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    3/09/2011

    Research can be confusing, especially when it pertains to heart-healthy eating. As a result, there are many myths about how to eat for a healthy heart. If you are working to change your lifestyle, you want to know the whole story, don't you? Set the record straight here so your efforts will not be in vain.

    1. A low-fat diet prevents heart disease.
    2. A low-cholesterol diet prevents heart disease.
    3. If a food has "0 grams of trans fat," it must be a heart-healthy choice.
    4. It is not important to restrict salt and sodium.
    5. Sugar is a "no-no."
    6. I can eat whatever I want if I exercise enough.

     


    1. A low-fat diet prevents heart disease.

    This is not necessarily true. While it is true that a diet high in saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, some dietary fats protect against heart disease. Foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil, nuts, fatty fish and flaxseed, may be beneficial to your heart. Research has shown that diets with moderate amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Choosing these healthier types of fat may be more important than restricting the amount of fat you consume each day.

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    2. A low-cholesterol diet prevents heart disease.

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    Our understanding of cholesterol has evolved over time. Dr. Kimberly Skelding explains what we know about good and bad cholesterol and how doctors evaluate their importance.

    This is not the whole story. A low-cholesterol diet is indeed one part of preventing heart disease. That's why the American Heart Association recommends that people with heart disease limit cholesterol intake to 200 milligrams or less per day. But following a low-cholesterol diet does not necessarily prevent heart disease.

    One reason is because your age, gender, weight and physical activity affect your heart disease risk, sometimes despite your dietary habits.

    But there's another reason a low-cholesterol diet is often not enough to prevent heart disease. Saturated fat raises "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol even more than dietary cholesterol does, and this increases risk of heart disease by promoting atherosclerosis (clogging of your arteries). Trans fat, which is mainly found in processed foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, also increases LDL cholesterol and, therefore, increases your risk of heart disease.

    Only animal products have cholesterol, such as meat and dairy products. Generally, foods high in cholesterol tend to also be high in saturated fat. But some plant-based products—margarine, fried foods and commercial baked goods— can also be very high in saturated fat and trans fat. These plant-based foods are just as bad, if not worse for you, than some foods containing cholesterol. For example, shellfish contains cholesterol, but is very low in saturated fat and trans fat.

    So, it is a good idea to limit cholesterol, but an even better idea to also limit saturated fat and trans fat in your diet. Limit fast foods and processed foods. For beef, choose eye of round, top round roast, top sirloin and flank; for pork, choose tenderloin and loin chops; for dairy, choose nonfat or 1 percent low-fat products.

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    3. If a food has "0 grams of trans fat," it must be a heart-healthy choice.

    This is false. Labeling regulations allow food companies to report "0 grams of trans fat" on a "Nutrition Facts" label when a food product contains 0.5 grams of trans fat or less per serving. Some examples include commercial baked goods, crackers, peanut butter and margarine. So, it is possible to exceed the recommended daily amount (2 grams of trans fat per day) if you consume several servings of these products in a day.

    After checking the "Nutrition Facts" label for trans fat, it is also a good idea to check the ingredient list. Try to avoid products that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is a sign that the product contains some trans fat.

    Of course, there are many characteristics that make foods heart healthy. For example, heart-healthy foods are:

    • low in saturated and trans fat,
    • moderate in mono- and polyunsaturated fats,
    • low in sodium, and
    • high in fiber and whole grains.

    Learning how to read "Nutrition Facts" labels will help you determine which foods can be a regular part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Check out our step-by-step for Reading Food Labels.

    How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label

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    4. It is not important to restrict salt and sodium.

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    Dr. Tony Farah explains how salt can contribute to a heart attack and other forms of cardiovascular disease.

    This is false. It is important to restrict salt and other sources of sodium in your diet. Sodium raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease. Plus, some heart conditions such as congestive heart failure are drastically worsened by a high-sodium diet. A teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams of sodium. The average American consumes 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day. The American Heart Association recommends that people with heart disease and high blood pressure limit sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day. While at first it may be difficult to get used to the taste of lower sodium foods, your taste buds will adjust to lower sodium foods over a period of time.

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    5. Sugar is a "no-no."

    This is false. Sugar in moderation can be part of a heart-healthy diet. However, most Americans eat more than a moderate amount of added sugar. Sugar gets added to our diets both as table sugar and in products such as soda, candy and other sweet treats.

    Foods containing too much sugar may replace other foods that have important nutrients. And, unfortunately, the calories from high-sugar foods add up quickly, contributing to weight gain in some people.

    Even people with diabetes can have sugar in moderation. But keep in mind having too much sugar or other carbohydrates (bread, pasta, fruit, milk, etc.) at one time may make your blood sugar increase.

    So, it's a good idea to limit added sugar to leave room for more heart-healthy foods. For most American women this is no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) per day. For most American men this is no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) per day. As a reference, one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) from sugar. In addition, sweet treats that also provide important nutrients (such as a fruit and yogurt smoothie or a fruit cobbler) are better choices than sweets that provide only calories (such as a slushy or candy bar).

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    6. I can eat whatever I want if I exercise enough.

    This is false. Exercise is a great way to balance the calories we take in from foods, which helps with weight control. It is also great for stress management. And maintaining a healthy weight and managing stress helps prevent heart disease. But exercise won't necessarily erase all the effects of an unbalanced diet—for example, one that is high in saturated fat, trans fat and sugar, and low in whole grains, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Besides, your body likely won't feel like exercising if you haven't fueled it with the variety of healthy foods it needs.

    There are many uncontrollable factors that affect heart disease risk, such as your genes, age and gender. Some people may be lucky enough to have heart-healthy genes. But most of us need to do what we can to lower risk of heart disease as much as possible—by not only exercising, but also following a heart-healthy diet, managing stress and quitting smoking.

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