heart healthy fats

Beware the Heart Healthy Fats

You’ve probably heard of “heart healthy fats,” but are they actually a good thing for you eat?

If you pay any attention at all to nutrition, weight loss, or heart health, you’ve probably gotten the message by now that low fat diets do not result in weight loss, and that increasing heart healthy fats in the diet is a good thing.

As is typically the case with nutrition information, a combination of bad research, media driven research distortion, food industry trickery, and an overwhelming number of graduates from “Google U,” have resulted in an increased promotion of fat consumption along with a concurrent demonization of carbohydrate, which in my opinion, is leading to the further fattening of America.

On any given day in our lab, we talk with clients who, despite doing everything they’ve been told is good for weight loss, are unable to successfully shed fat. One of the most consistent behaviors that these people have in common is a high consumption of “healthy” fats. The most common are almonds, olive oil, flaxseed, chia, coconut oil and avocados.

It is not that these foods are bad for you, but as is the case with anything, while some is good, more is not necessarily better, and this is the message that never reaches the masses.

The Healthy Fat Deception

Consider the avocado, which is often considered a “superfood,” due to its relatively high nutrient content, fiber, and “healthy fat.” Virtually everything you read about avocados touts their health benefits, but very rarely will you see a recommendation to consume them in moderation.

After all, with something so good for you, why would anyone want to limit its consumption?

The answer is simple. You don’t need to eat a lot of avocado to get an enormous number of calories. In fact, one medium avocado contains about 250 calories, 80% of which come from fat.

To put this in perspective, a Snickers bar has the same 250 calories and about half the fat. When faced with this fact, most avocado lovers will say something like “Yeah, but they’re healthy fats,” as if calories from healthy fats are somehow magically incapable of causing fat gain.

If it comes as a surprise to you that an avocado has the same number of a calories as a Snickers bar, it’s partly because the avocado industry does a good job of masking this by assigning avocados an unrealistically small serving size.

One serving is considered to be about 1 ounce, or roughly one fifth of an avocado ( see pic below). If you’ve ever successfully cut an avocado into 5 equal sections, you will quickly realize that this not a realistic amount for a person to eat.

This must have something to do with why the slogan for the Haas avocado board is “Love one Today”, and not “Love 1/5th of One Today”. Why is a serving size for an apple, banana or orange an entire fruit, while the serving size for an avocado 1/5th of the fruit?

The answer is simple. By downplaying the calorie content in avocados, you can sell more of them.

To get a more realistic view of how much avocado one might typically eat, consider adding guacamole to your burrito the next time you’re at Chipotle. Take that plunge and you’ll be adding nearly an entire medium avocado; 230 extra calories and 22 grams of fat.

While one might be able to argue that those healthy fat calories are good for your heart, it’s very clear that they’re probably not good for your waist, and there is an obvious negative relationship between waist size and heart health.

The take home message- eat heart healthy fats in moderation, as they are only healthy if eating them doesn’t make you fat.

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Todd Miller

Dr. Todd Miller is an Associate Professor of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. He is an expert at designing eating strategies and training programs that are specifically tailored to a person’s metabolism, and is currently studying the role that strength training plays in weight management. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator, and Fellow of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Learn More

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