Heart Healthy Diet: Myths and Truths

Think you know what makes a heart-healthy diet? Test your knowledge of some common myths about diet and heart health.

Keeping up with the latest research on diet and heart health isn’t an easy task – the science is always advancing – and as the science evolves, so do dietary recommendations. But if you’re not keeping up on the latest findings about a heart-healthy diet (or, if you don’t get your information from reliable sources), you may not be able to separate fact from fiction. Here are some common myths and truths about diet and heart disease.

Heart health

Myth: The lower your fat intake, the better.

Truth: Years ago, the very low-fat diet was thought to be the best approach for reducing the risk of heart disease. But that thinking has changed, and most experts now recommend a Mediterranean-type diet pattern to promote heart health. This dietary pattern places an emphasis on vegetables, fruits and whole grains, as well as foods that provide heart-healthy fats, such as seafood, nuts and olive oil, which provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can help maintain healthy levels of blood fats. There’s another reason not to go completely fat-free, too: When fats are cut out, they’re often replaced with refined carbohydrates. In many fat-free food products, the manufacturers eliminate the fat but replace it with a similar amount of calories from sugar or starch, which isn’t any better for you.

Myth: A heart-healthy diet is bland and boring.

Truth: Many people (incorrectly) assume that a heart-healthy diet has no salt and no fat and, therefore, no flavor. As I mentioned above, a heart-healthy diet includes modest amounts of healthy fats, and many of the sources of these healthy fats provide a lot of flavor to meals. There’s nothing bland or boring about a bit of ripe avocado spread on whole grain toast, a sprinkle of nuts or seeds on steamed veggies, or some extra virgin olive oil drizzled over a ripe tomato. And, while most of us do eat more sodium than we need, most of it comes from processed foods, not the salt shaker. Small amounts of salt in cooking are generally not a problem, and liberal use of highly flavorful ingredients, like herbs, spices, onions, garlic and citrus, are the antidote to bland and boring.

Myth: Saturated fats aren’t bad for the heart.

Truth: Lately, there has been a lot of press on this topic. The discussion was fueled, in part, by some recent reports in the medical literature that examined the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease, and suggested that saturated fats may not be as bad for the heart as was once thought. But the reports were criticized by many in the scientific community who pointed out that the analysis of the data was flawed, and that the conclusions were misleading. There’s still evidence linking a high saturated fat intake to heart disease risk, and current recommendations continue to call for reducing your overall saturated fat intake, and replacing those saturated fats with fat from more heart-healthy sources.

Myth: The best way to lower cholesterol in your blood is to eat less cholesterol.

Truth: While it sounds intuitive, the amount of cholesterol you eat isn’t the main source of the cholesterol in your bloodstream. Most of the cholesterol that circulates in your system is produced by your liver, so reducing the amount of cholesterol that you eat will lower your blood cholesterol only moderately. But, that doesn’t mean you should eat cholesterol-rich foods with abandon; many high-cholesterol foods (like marbled steaks, sausages and bacon, cheese and ice cream) are also high in total fat, saturated fat and calories.

Myth: Chocolate is heart healthy.

Truth: It sounds too good to be true – could something that tastes so deliciously decadent actually be good for you, too? Before you start indulging, here’s what you need to know about chocolate and your heart. Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which contain natural phytonutrients called flavanols – natural compounds that help to maintain blood pressure and improve blood flow to the heart. But, not all chocolate products contain large amounts of flavanols – flavanol content decreases as cacao is processed into chocolate. And, the more sugar, milk and other ingredients that the chocolate contains, the less total flavanols in the final product,which is why, in general, dark chocolate has a higher flavanol content than milk chocolate. And, there are other ways to get your flavanols without the fat, sugar and calories that chocolate typically has – other good sources include berries, apples, nuts, onions and tea. So, bear in mind that because of their fat and sugar content, many chocolate products can take a serious bite out of your calorie budget. If you choose to indulge (and have some calories to spare), do so because you like the taste, not because you believe chocolate will ward off heart disease.