Decades ago, health experts began to recommend that if you wanted to be healthy, your best bet would be to eat a low fat diet. That advice was so wrong-headed it boggles the mind.
In fact, a low fat diet is often a disaster for your health. What you need to do instead is eat a diet filled with healthy fats.
The importance of fats
Even a brief consideration of the importance of fat in your body demonstrates why cutting back on dietary fat is almost always a bad idea. Every cell membrane you own contains fat. Your brain is mostly made of fat. If you cut back on fat and substitute carbohydrates like starch and sugars, your body suffers.
Even though the experts originally claimed that their advice to cut back on fat was part of an effort to promote better heart health, research into the effects of eating a low fat diet shows that it endangers your cardiovascular wellness, it doesn’t protect it.
Eat whole foods
A study at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and Northwestern clearly shows that taking a whole diet approach to healthy eating, consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish, is your best bet at improving the health of your heart.
The Arizona scientists point out that while eating a low fat diet may lower your cholesterol, that doesn’t automatically translate into cardiac health. And when these researchers analyzed large diet and heart studies performed during the past 60 years, they found that focusing on whole foods and not reducing fat had the best results for cardiovascular wellness.
“Nearly all clinical trials in the 1960s, 70s and 80s compared usual diets to those characterized by low total fat, low saturated fat, low dietary cholesterol, and increased polyunsaturated fats,” says researcher James E. Dalen. “These diets did reduce cholesterol levels. However they did not reduce the incidence of myocardial infarction or coronary heart disease deaths.”
The researchers found that their analysis of studies dating from 1957 to the present demonstrated that a whole food diet perspective, particularly adopting a Mediterranean-style diet, effectively stymies heart disease, even when total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol doesn’t drop.
The Mediterranean-style diet is not very high in meat and saturated fat, but is higher in the monounsaturated fats found in nuts and olive oil. This way of eating also includes large amounts of vegetables, fruit, fish, legumes and whole grains.
Better than statins
The scientists believe that eating a good, relatively high fat, Mediterranean diet is better for your heart than taking statins and other drugs that are supposed to protect your cardiovascular system.
“The potency of combining individual cardioprotective foods is substantial — and perhaps even stronger than many of the medications and procedures that have been the focus of modern cardiology,” says researcher Stephen Devries, who is with the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology (Deerfield, IL) and Division of Cardiology, Northwestern University in Chicago. “Results from trials emphasizing dietary fat reduction were a disappointment, prompting subsequent studies incorporating a whole diet approach with a more nuanced recommendation for fat intake.”
The researchers recommend eating olive oil instead of butter or cream while eating the other elements of the Mediterranean diet.
“The last fifty years of epidemiology and clinical trials have established a clear link between diet, atherosclerosis, and cardiovascular events,” says Dalen. “Nutritional interventions have proven that a ‘whole diet’ approach with equal attention to what is consumed as well as what is excluded is more effective in preventing cardiovascular disease than low fat, low cholesterol diets.”
Problems in the 90s
As for me, when I began to have blocked arteries in the 1990s, I tried to fight my problems with a low fat diet, just as the experts back then recommended. Fortunately for my heart, I also decided to include fish in my meals as well as plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts. And since I was never a big fan of processed food (for example, I can’t stand potato chips), my choice of foods probably helped my arteries somewhat.
But it wasn’t until I went on a paleo diet in 2009 that my heart health significantly improved. I stopped eating foods with gluten. I cut out soy, grains, legumes and dairy. The inflammation in my body went way down.
As long as I keep my stress under control and get enough sleep, my blood pressure now stays normal instead of being borderline high as it had been since I was a teenager.
If only I had known how to structure my diet properly back in the 1990s…