Here’s a sobering fact: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is that it’s largely preventable. The American Heart Association reports that an estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, can be avoided when the right diet and lifestyle habits are put into practice.
Empowering, right? The key is knowing the facts and, apparently, there’s a lot the general public gets wrong about heart health — especially when it comes to food. Let’s bust some myths and set the record straight, shall we? Learning the truth may be the one thing you do today that could literally save your life.
Myth 1: A low-fat diet is best for heart health.
Even though we’re not exactly living in the ’90s, when “low fat” was slapped on the packaging of everything from frozen yogurt to cookies (SnackWell’s anyone?), Dr. Steven Masley, a physician, clinical professor at the University of South Florida and author of “The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up,” told HuffPost that many people still believe all fat is bad for heart health. He explained that we should minimize or avoid trans fats (found in many fast foods) and hydrogenated fats (commonly found in over-processed foods), but unsaturated fats are actually beneficial for heart health.
Unsaturated fats are found in foods like fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, and scientific studies have found that a diet including unsaturated fats can lower the risk of heart disease.
Myth 2: Eggs are bad for your heart.
Masley, who is also a nutritionist, says many of his patients avoid eggs because they believe eggs raise cholesterol. “But they actually don’t affect cholesterol much at all,” he said.
Two large studies (of roughly 40,000 men and 80,000 women, respectively) found that eating one egg a day was not linked to raising the risk of heart disease. Another scientific study that compared the diet of people in Japan with people in the U.S. found that those in Japan have a lower risk of coronary artery disease despite eating more eggs than people in the U.S.
So how did eggs get a bad rap? Here’s where the confusion likely came from: It’s true that eggs are high in cholesterol. But it turns out that cholesterol in food only has a minimal effect on cholesterol in blood. So what does raise cholesterol? According to Masley (and scientific research), foods high in saturated fat are the big culprit. This includes sausage, bacon and other fatty meats, fried foods, butter and dairy products ― but not eggs.
Myth 3: Red meat should be avoided at all costs.
In moderation, red meat itself may not be as bad for your heart health as the foods you’re eating alongside it. While many studies link the consumption of red meat to an increased risk of heart disease and death, the numbers aren’t as drastic as you might think. A 2020 study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Cornell University, for example, found that eating two 3.5-ounce servings of red meat per week was linked to a 3%-7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 3% higher risk of death.
A scientific report published in 2019, on the other hand, suggested no link between red meat and heart health. The report took three years to compile, taking into account work from 14 researchers in seven different countries. The report’s authors analyzed research that focused on the impact of red meat consumption on heart health and cancer. This included 61 studies that followed a combined total of more than 4 million people, as well as 73 articles. Ultimately, they found the evidence lacking. For every study they analyzed, the researchers found the link between red meat and disease ranged from low to very low.
You know what is not-so-great for heart health? According to Dr. Philip Ovadia, a cardiac surgeon and the author of “Stay Off My Operating Table,” the real problem is pairing your red meat with a lot of sauces, fries and soda. It’s these things, he said, that negatively impact heart health, not so much the meat. Sauces and fries can both be high in sodium, which can increase blood pressure. Additionally, fries are high in trans fats, which are linked to an increased risk for heart disease. As for soft drinks, regular soda (which is high in sugar) and diet soda (with artificial sweeteners) are both linked to increases in the risk of heart disease. When you do eat red meat, remember to avoid high-fat cuts. As previously explained, fatty meats are high in saturated fats — something that does negatively impact heart health.
Myth 4: If you’re on medication for heart health, it means you can eat whatever you want.
It would be nice if you could just pop a pill and then do whatever you wanted with no consequence to your body, right? Masley shared that some of his patients on medications, such as statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs), act this way. “I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve had who went out to eat at a restaurant thinking that if they just take another cholesterol pill they can eat whatever you want,” he said. Sorry, folks, no pill can outweigh diet and lifestyle.
Masley explains that eating a diet full of nutrient-poor food and not exercising undermines the statins, causing them not to work as well. Data backs this up. A scientific report taking into account over 69,000 people found that while statins can be beneficial as a primary prevention for heart disease, they are not associated with a lower risk of a heart disease-related death. A major reason for this is because statins do not impact weight, and scientific studies show that a nutrient-poor diet can cause obesity, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Myth 5: At some point, changing your diet isn’t enough to reverse damage already done to your heart.
Ovadia emphasizes that it’s never too late to start looking after your heart. Even if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, healthy diet and lifestyle habits can still lower its impact. “I’ve had patients who I’ve performed heart surgery on and they greatly improve their health afterwards when they start paying attention to diet and lifestyle,” he said.
What’s empowering about heart health is that so much of it is in our control. No one is destined to experience a heart attack, regardless of what your family history is or even what your own history is. All you have to do is take these words of wisdom to heart.