Heart Health and Nutrition: Fact, Myth or Fiction

By Lori S. Brizee MS, RD, LD, CSP

If you believe what you read in magazines or on the internet, in order to be healthy you need to be spending lots of money on high powered supplements and eating just the right diet (that of course includes special expensive foods and juices). Here’s a short summary of what the latest research tells us:

  • Cholesterol in foods increases your blood cholesterol and risk for heart disease:

o   Most of the studies done have used eggs (a high cholesterol food). For the average healthy adult, eggs are just fine. For the person who has type 2 diabetes, more than 7 eggs per week increased risk for high blood cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.

o   Bottom line: enjoy your eggs! If you have type 2 diabetes or already have heart disease, limit them to no more than 7 in a week.

  • Eating polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and decreasing saturated fats will lower our blood cholesterol and decrease our risk of heart disease.

o   Yes indeed, by replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, you not only  lower blood cholesterol and triglycerides and decrease risk for heart disease, but you also decrease risk for type 2 diabetes.

o   Bottom Line: Definitely use liquid oils (canola, olive, corn, safflower, sesame….) to cook with and in salad dressings in place of butter, shortening, and animal fats (any fat that is solid at room temperature is saturated).

  • Fish oil will decrease risks for heart disease.

o   By eating two fish meals (total of 8 ounces of fish, that provides a total of 1750 mg of DHA and EPA, average of 250 mg/day) you can improve your heart health.

o   Bottom Line: IF you like fish, eat it at least twice per week. If you don’t like it, take fish oil supplements that provide about 250 mg omega 3 fatty acids per day.

  • Vegetable Sources of omega 3 fatty acids will improve heart health (flax seed oil, canola oil, walnut oil, grape seed oil).

o   These are heart healthy oils, but there is not an additive effect of taking fish oil and flax seed oil as a supplement.

o   Bottom Line: Use foods that contain vegetable sources of omega 3 fatty acids. Supplements are not likely to help much.

  • Nuts improve heart health.

o   Walnuts, almonds and pistachios have the most research—eating 1 to 4 ounces of these per day has been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol, as long as they do not result in weight gain.

o   Bottom Line: Make nuts a regular part of your diet, but be aware of their very high caloric content (1 ounce walnuts—about ¼ cup = 200 calories; 1 ounce almonds—24 to 26 almonds = 160 calories, 1 ounce dried pistachios—47 nuts = 160 calories)

  • Antioxidant supplements—Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Beta Carotene improves heart health AND  prevents many cancers.

o   SORRY, taking these supplements does NOT improve heart health or prevent cancer. Some studies show that vitamin E and beta carotene can actually be dangerous (“all cause death” was higher in people taking these than in people taking a placebo)

o   Bottom Line: If you are taking these now STOP—they are a waste of your money and could be harmful. Instead, eat citrus fruits, dark yellow and leafy green vegetables whole grains, nuts, avocados to get these nutrients naturally.

  • Folic Acid and B vitamin supplements improve heart health.

o   Sorry—there is just no substitute for eating nutritious foods. Supplements do nothing for your cardiovascular health, AND too much folic acid can mask a Vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause neurological problems. (For women of child bearing age, Folic Acid supplements—400 mcg/day IS protective against neural tube defects such as spina bifida).

o   Bottom Line: Eat fruits, leafy green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains to get folic acid and B vitamins, do not take supplements. {However, IF you are a woman who has the possibility of becoming pregnant, DO take a 400 mcg/day folic acid supplement}.

  • Alcohol actually helps decrease risk of heart attack.

o   Moderate levels of alcohol (1-2 drinks/day for men, 1 drink per day for women) decreases risk for coronary heart disease. On the other hand, heavy or binge drinking is detrimental.

o   Women need to weigh the risks versus the benefits of alcohol. One drink per day increases breast cancer risk by about 7%, the risk increases significantly with more alcohol.

o   Bottom Line: Moderate drinking for men can be beneficial. The risks of breast cancer in women outweighs the benefits for heart disease, women would benefit from keeping alcohol intake at less than an average of 1 drink per day.

  • Eat whole grains to reduce risk of heart disease.

o   Whole grains that contain cereal fiber are protective against heart disease—they are also a great source of nutrients; they keep our bowels regular; they prevent diverticulitis; and, they help us to feel full and eat less than when we eat refined grains.

o   Bottom Line: Eat whole grains instead of refined grains (100% whole wheat flour in baked goods, brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole grain cereals….)

  • Co-enzyme Q 10 helps prevent heart disease.

o   Sorry—there is not enough evidence to determine either benefit or harm from Coenzyme Q 10 for use in heart disease—it is used for other disorders and metabolic abnormalities.

o   Bottom Line: Consider stopping this if you are taking it now for improving heart health.

  • Working with a Registered Dietitian can help decrease risk for heart disease.

o   Working with a dietitian two to four times over 6 to 8 weeks for help with diet and lifestyle changes has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and help reduce need for medications.

o   Bottom Line: If you have high cholesterol or triglycerides, high blood pressure, high weight, or other risk factors for heart disease see a Registered Dietitian for at least 2 to 4 counseling sessions. E-MAIL Lori Brizee at [email protected] if you’d like to set up an in person, e-mail or telephone video-chat appointment.