Eating avocados massively reduces the risk of heart attacks in men and women – including when eaten in place of butter, cheese or processed meats – a new long-term study has found.
Cardiovascular disease is a leading killer worldwide, taking nearly 18 million lives every year, according to the World Health Organization.
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In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says heart disease takes a life every 36 seconds.
Eating at least two servings of avocado a week reduces the risk of having a heart attack by 21 per cent when compared to avoiding or rarely eating avocados.
However, there was not an equivalent benefit in reducing the risk for stroke, according to the study published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
The study author is Lorena Pacheco, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
A serving of avocado, which is a fruit, was defined as “half avocado or half cup of avocado, which roughly weighs 80 grams”, Pacheco said.
The study followed more than 68,000 women and 41,000 men enrolled in two long-term government studies on risk factors for chronic disease: the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study.
All participants were free of cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke at the start of the studies and completed dietary questionnaires every four years over a 30-year period.
In addition to looking at the overall impact of eating avocados, researchers did statistical modeling.
They found consuming half a serving of avocado (quarter cup) a day instead of the same amount of eggs, yogurt, cheese, margarine, butter or processed meats, such as bacon, lowered the risk of heart attacks by 16 per cent to 22 per hundred.
“The full benefit of routine avocado consumption observed here derives from swapping avocado into the diet, and less healthful foods out,” said Dr David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition, who was not involved in the study.
However, the study did not find a difference in risk reduction when a half-serving of avocado was replaced with an equivalent serving of nuts, olive and other plant oils.
That makes sense, Katz says, because the health benefits are dependent on what food is replaced.
But if the avocado replaced butter and margarine as a spread, or was eaten instead of processed meats or cheese on a sandwich, “the nutritional distinctions are sizable” and would be expected to change the health outcome, he added.
Although avocados are “particularly rich sources of monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and fibre”, they can also be pricey and therefore not readily available to all, Katz said.
Similar substitutes could include walnuts, almonds, olives, olive oil and a variety of seeds such as pumpkin and flax.
Other foods to include that have major health benefit at “much lower price points” include beans, chickpeas and lentils, “and perhaps whole grains and related seeds like quinoa”, Katz said.
Preventing heart disease
Preventing heart disease means keeping your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
It also means getting plenty of good-quality sleep and regular exercise, managing stress, limiting alcohol and avoiding tobacco use, and eating a healthy diet lower in sugar, processed foods and saturated fats.
The American Heart Association says your body needs fat to boost energy, protect organs, produce hormones and help with nutrient absorption.
However, fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the heart-healthy choices.
Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sesame oil are sources of monounsaturated fats, along with avocados, peanut butter and many nuts and seeds.
Saturated fat and trans fats raise levels of LDL, known as “bad cholesterol,” the AHA said.
Saturated fats, such as butter, are typically solid at room temperature and are found in full-fat dairy products, eggs, coconut and palm oils, and fatty cuts of beef, pork and skin-on poultry.
Artificially made trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, raise bad LDL cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
Those can often be found in “fried foods like donuts, and baked goods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, stick margarines and other spreads”, according to the AHA.