Avocado: A Heart Healthy Secret or a Calorie Bomb?

Sipping my avocado mango smoothie under the shade of a large avocado tree on an avocado plantation in Guatemala, I had time to contemplate the pros and cons of avocados. Yes, they are considered a high calorie food, but they also contain many heart healthy benefits. Thus, the question is: are avocados a calorie bomb or a heart healthy secret?

Most Americans know avocados as the base of a savory dip for chips (guacamole); however, in many parts of the world they are used in sweet dishes such as cakes, ice cream and milkshakes.

Even though avocados are not sweet, they are considered a fruit and are rich in:

  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (same fats that are in heart healthy olive oil)
  • Potassium - avocados have twice the amount of potassium as a banana
  • Fiber - 10 grams of fiber, which provides 40% of the daily value
  • B vitamins - 20% of the daily value of riboflavin, niacin and B-6
  • Folic Acid - 40% of the daily value
  • Vitamin C - 23% of the daily value

Look at the nutrient breakdown and calories of an avocado using MyNetDiary's Food Search. You will probably be surprised that there are 234 calories in one medium avocado (150 grams). This is about the same calories as some candy bars or a bag of chips. In contrast, an apple contains about 50 calories.

An avocado a day can help lower LDL cholesterol

A study at Penn State in 2015 looked at whether incorporating an avocado a day for 5 weeks can lower LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol). A group of 45 overweight adults between the ages of 21 and 70 were randomly assigned to one of three cholesterol-lowering diets. The average LDL blood cholesterol of the study group was 128 mg/dl. According to the National Institute of Health, an LDL level of less than 100 mg/dl is considered ideal.

Diet #1 consisted of a low fat diet (24% of calories from fat) consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy and meats.

Diet #2 and Diet #3 both consisted of a moderate fat diet with 34% of calories from fat. The only difference between Diet #2 and Diet #3 was that Diet #2 incorporated one avocado per day. For example, Diet #2 would add 1/2 of an avocado with a chicken salad for lunch and 1/2 of an avocado on a sandwich for supper.

Diet #3 contained different sources of monounsaturated fats from olive oil and canola oil to equal the same amount of fat from one avocado.

Results

All three diets reduced LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol; however, the diet with one avocado per day reduced the LDL cholesterol twice as much as the low-fat diet (14 mg/dl compared to 7 mg/dl).

What is especially interesting is that the avocado diet decreased LDL cholesterol by 14 mg/dl compared to 8 mg/dl on the other moderate fat diet (the only difference was the source of fat). Thus, there does appear to be something special in avocados.

What sets avocados apart?

Avocados naturally contain a compound called "beta-sitosterol" which is found to have cholesterol-lowering properties. Plant sterols have a molecular structure similar to cholesterol, so they compete with dietary cholesterol for absorption in the intestines and therefore reduce cholesterol absorption. Hence, they reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood. Avocados contain 25 milligrams of beta-sitosterol in a 1-oz. serving. Many vegetables, whole grains, oils, legumes, and nuts contain plant sterols; however, avocados are a fruit source of plants sterols.

Bottom line for a heart healthy diet

Don't just add an avocado or increase your guacamole and chips to an already unhealthy diet and be content! A heart healthy diet consists of substituting monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids for trans and saturated fats. Thus, following a more Mediterranean diet consisting of more monounsaturated fats can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (e.g. strokes and heart attacks). Also, avocados incorporated into a heart healthy diet can help reduce LDL cholesterol.

Ideas to use avocados as a condiment

  • Mash and spread them on a piece of whole grain bread instead of mayonnaise.
  • Sliver on top of scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes.
  • Layer them on top of a sandwich.
  • Dice them on top of a salad.

The bottom line for good nutrition is moderation and variety. Thus, if avocados are eaten in moderation and substituted for trans and saturated fats they can have a beneficial effect on heart health and help decrease LDL cholesterol.

Originally published August 9, 2016
Updated March 25, 2019

Martha M. Henze, MPH, MS, RDN

Martha recently completed her Masters of Public Health (MPH) in global epidemiology and aims to help people improve their health on a population basis around the world.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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