Each month, a health care professional will weigh in on a health and wellness myth and will explain the real cause behind the malady.
This month’s misconception: A low fat diet is a heart-healthy diet.
As a cardiologist, I make it a point to discuss healthy eating habits with my patients as part of their prescription for preventing heart disease. I often have patients tell me they limit “red meat” or “fried foods.” Unfortunately, it comes as surprising news for most patients that this does not automatically equal a heart-healthy diet.
For several decades, most Americans have limited saturated fat in the diet, often by choosing foods labeled as “low fat.” However, many of the food choices taking the place of these “fatty” foods are equally unhealthy.
Foods high in fat are often replaced by foods that have other negative effects on the heart. In particular, starchy foods —such as breads, bagels, white pastas and crackers —have taken up much of the calories in American diets. These foods break down quickly into sugar in our bodies, which can promote diabetes, weight gain and inflammation, all of which increase the risk for heart disease. These foods also often contain high amounts of sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure, adding to one’s risk for blocked arteries and congestive heart failure.
Instead of focusing on a low fat diet, or even a low carb or gluten-free diet, a true heart-healthy diet will focus primarily on whole foods. The basis for any heart-healthy diet is a large number and variety of fruits and vegetables. Next, rather than processed starches, choose carbohydrates that list whole grains as the primary ingredients. Saturated fats and trans fats, as found in margarines, pastries and fatty meats, are associated with heart disease and should be limited. Water should be the beverage of choice, with soft drinks and juices limited to rare occasions.
Reading nutrition labels can often be confusing, but eating heart healthy doesn’t need to be!