Heart-healthy foods are synonymous with low cholesterol and are also known as heart-friendly foods.
It has been known for years and extensively scientifically proven that a lot of health benefits can be achieved through a heart-friendly diet.
As a whole, heart-healthy foods are both preventive to prevent cholesterol levels from rising, and curative if cholesterol levels have already risen too high. Scientific evidence shows that these heart-healthy foods may stop people from needing medication.
Below you will read why we have evolved from low-cholesterol to heart-friendly diets in terms of disease prevention.
You will also learn more about the difference between good and bad fats and the difference between good and bad oils in the context of cholesterol prevention.
Table of Contents
- 1 Heart-healthy foods: Introduction
- 2 Up to 15% drop in cholesterol levels thanks to heart-friendly food
- 3 Nutrition and exercise as prevention tools
- 4 Myths about heart-friendly foods
- 5 Evolution from low-cholesterol to heart-friendly foods
- 6 Besides bad fats, there are also good fats
- 7 Good versus bad oils
- 8 Heart-healthy foods: Conclusion
Heart-healthy foods: Introduction
It is generally believed that heart-healthy diets can reduce cholesterol levels by about 15%.
That drop seems lower than for medication use, but that doesn't mean the importance of heart-friendly nutrition should be minimized.
On the contrary, that 15% cholesterol reduction can mean the difference for many people between starting statin therapy (medication) or not.
Moreover, heart-friendly nutrition applies to a much more significant proportion of the population, so the benefit in terms of general public health cannot be underestimated!
Even for an individual like you and me, heart-friendly nutrition can have a significant impact in the long run.
Up to 15% drop in cholesterol levels thanks to heart-friendly food
The short-term effect of a heart-friendly diet is certainly not as great as that of a statin. Still, a healthy diet with all the essential building blocks is something we can maintain for a lifetime from childhood.
This small effect over a long period does offer a lot of benefits!
For example, it is more heart-friendly to reduce your cholesterol by 15 percent over 25 or 30 years through a modified diet than to lower your cholesterol by 45 percent over 4 years through statins at a later stage of disease evolution.
Therapy usually only comes into play when the risk has become too high.
At that point, the goal is to quickly and firmly lower cholesterol levels causing a return to medication, combined with lifestyle advice.
Tip: Read our other article to understand why we want to lower cholesterol in the first place: Cholesterol as the silent killer because of its huge impact on the human body.
Nutrition and exercise as prevention tools
Nutrition and exercise can play a significant preventive role in the preceding story.
In quite a few cases, a smart diet can keep it from having to go to medication therapy if you're struggling with higher cholesterol levels.
By the way, for optimal effect, treatment with statins (medication) is best combined with a heart-friendly diet.
Myths about heart-friendly foods
Interest in the effects of foods on cholesterol has grown tremendously from a scientific perspective.
This has led to many new insights and further refinement of nutritional recommendations. There are still some misconceptions circulating about the contents of a heart-friendly menu.
For example, a heart-friendly diet is not synonymous with a purely low-calorie diet or a low-cholesterol diet.
After all, low cholesterol eating is not primarily about losing weight but about bringing down cholesterol and fat levels.
Instead, heart-friendly eating is a clever, healthy way of eating that helps minimize cholesterol intake.
For people who are overweight due to unhealthy eating habits, that menu adjustment can lead to the loss of quite a few extra pounds and can help you to overcome shame about your obesity.
But in any case, that effect will be much less in those who already live a healthy lifestyle.
General prevention to protect your health
So the goal of consuming heart-friendly foods is not just to lower your cholesterol levels. Heart-friendly nutrition aims equally to provide a varied, tasty, and healthy diet that is preventive.
That's important: Heart-friendly eating is a lot broader and more balanced than merely focusing on cholesterol.
The goal is also to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, tumors, and diabetes, not just to lower your cholesterol.
Related post: Heart-Healthy Diet Tips & Recommendations to Prevent Heart Disease
Evolution from low-cholesterol to heart-friendly foods
In 2015, the US dietary guidelines were updated and made a little less strict regarding cholesterol intake.
In the press, it suddenly sounded like cholesterol bombs were no longer banned from the menu, and you could eat a boiled egg every day.
But that view of countless journalists is a bit too short-sighted. The real story is that we started to switch from low cholesterol to heart-friendly.
The purpose of this evolution from low-cholesterol to heart-friendly food was twofold:
- On the one hand, they want people to realize that dietary cholesterol intake has only a limited contribution to blood cholesterol levels. This message is important so as not to demotivate people and give them too high expectations of the effect of a cholesterol-lowering diet on cholesterol levels in their blood. A heart-friendly diet goes far beyond cholesterol. You should not judge the outcome of a heart-friendly diet purely based on its effect on cholesterol levels.
- On the other hand, the changing dietary guidelines respond to the trend toward increasing overweight and obesity in the US. Many people turned out to be very attentive to fat intake, but as a result, they seemed to lose sight of potentially dangerous sugar intake. As a result, they actually consumed a lot more calories.
So from that perspective, it is entirely understandable that the focus is shifting a bit more to calorie intake in the fight against obesity.
Indeed, there is a directly proportional relationship between the number of calories you take in and the likelihood of weight gain.
In other words, tunnel vision had to be done away with because focusing on cholesterol alone is too limited! Instead, you need to focus on your cardiovascular health through a smart and healthy diet and more physical activity.
Besides bad fats, there are also good fats
Fats are one of the main pillars of a heart-friendly diet. Those who regularly consume meals rich in saturated fats (also known as bad fats) will increase their cholesterol levels.
Therefore, one of the most critical and first goals of a heart-friendly diet is to replace these saturated fats with the more healthy, unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil, minarine, margarine, etc.
Fats are nutrients composed mainly of fatty acids that provide fuel to the body. Fats also contain essential fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
A heart-friendly diet contains fats with a good fatty acid composition and in a proper ratio. Below you will get an overview of some good and bad types of fats!
Monounsaturated fatty acids (good fats)
This group slightly decreases bad LDL cholesterol and slightly increases good HDL cholesterol.
In addition, these monounsaturated fatty acids also have a slight positive effect on triglycerides. In other words, these are "good" fats.
This group includes the following:
- Oil based on almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and peanuts
- Rapeseed oil
- Peanut oil
- Most vegetable margarines and minarines
- Olive oil
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (good fats)
These protect the blood vessels, so there will be less deposition of excess cholesterol (thus less chance of arteriosclerosis).
They also have a preventive effect on clot formation in the blood.
In addition, these polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega-3 type lower triglycerides and counteract inflammation.
This group of fatty acids is found in flaxseed oil and in various types of fatty fish such as:
The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is also important. The ideal ratio is about 4 to 1.
Theoretically, an imbalance between the two is inadvisable because, among other things, it could promote inflammatory processes.
Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (good fats)
This group of fats also brings down cholesterol levels. Still, they must be balanced with other unsaturated fatty acids (for example, those of the omega-3 type).
Sources of this type of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are the following:
- Vegetable oils such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, corn oil, walnut oil, and sunflower oil
Saturated fatty acids (bad fats)
These fats raise LDL cholesterol and are therefore not recommended.
These saturated fats are primarily of animal origin. They include fats from meat, butter, lard, cream, whole milk, and hydrogenated fish fat.
In addition, weird but true, there are also some plant-based sources of saturated fatty acids! So, plant-based fat does not automatically equal heart-friendly fat!
For example, coconut fat, coconut oil, palm fat, and palm oil are rich in saturated fatty acids.
Vegetable margarines and minarines also used to contain trans fatty acids, while this is no longer the case today. Almost none of the margarines currently on sale in stores still contain trans fatty acids.
Trans fatty acids (even worse fats)
If anything, this group of fats is even worse for a healthy heart than saturated fats.
Trans fatty acids are created by processing (such as hardening or hydrogenation) of oils and fats, and they can increase bad LDL cholesterol.
Known sources are hard vegetable frying fats, hydrogenated margarines, minarines, and the products containing them such as pastries, cookies, etc.
Trans fatty acids are created when one wants to make a product based on liquid vegetable oils spreadable (harden).
Precisely because of the desire to avoid these trans fatty acids, many margarine manufacturers now use fats of vegetable origin that are naturally solid such as palm fat or coconut fat.
Practically speaking, this is not a bad solution if the consumer wants something to spread on a sandwich.
Vegetable natural hard fats such as palm fat are preferable to chemically hardened oils containing trans fats, even though the former have a lot of saturated fat.
So margarine with palm fat is not necessarily bad because you have to look at the overall fatty acid composition.
Good versus bad oils
Some examples of good oils (monounsaturated oils and polyunsaturated oils):
- Oil from various nuts such as pistachios, cashews, almonds, and walnuts
- Rapeseed oil
- Oil from kernels, such as from pine, pumpkin, and others
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Safflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Hazelnut oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Wheat germ oil
- Olive oil
- Sunflower oil
Some examples of bad saturated oils:
- Hardened vegetable trans fats
- Cocoa butter
- Palm oil (contains quite a bit of saturated fat)
- Coconut oil (contains quite a bit of saturated fat)
Heart-healthy foods: Conclusion
Heart-healthy foods are not a synonym for a purely low-calorie diet. Nor is a heart-friendly diet a synonym for a merely low-cholesterol diet.
Heart-healthy foods lower your cholesterol levels, and ensures you eat a varied, delicious, and healthy overall preventive diet.
The goal is to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and tumors, and diabetes, so it's not just about lowering your cholesterol.
It is generally believed that heart-healthy foods can reduce cholesterol levels by about 15 percent.
And that is potentially very important for general public health because it applies to so many people!
It is equally vital for you as an individual because this healthy diet can provide considerable benefits in the long run. That is, at least, provided you make it a habit you can maintain for many years.
Finally, good fats do exist! So one of the most critical and first goals of a heart-healthy food diet is to replace the bad saturated fats with the more healthy, unsaturated fats!