Do Avocados Lower Cholesterol?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Healthy Living

Should Avocados Be On The Super Fruits List?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

super fruits listYou may have seen the recent headlines suggesting that avocados lower cholesterol, are a miracle fruit, and reduce your risk of heart disease. Some of those articles are suggesting that you try to eat an avocado every day. Are those headlines true? Should you be eating more avocados?

If you are like me that would be a bit of a stretch. I prefer my fruits tastier and a bit less greasy, but I won’t let my personal preferences color my analysis of the data. Let’s start by looking at the rationale for testing the effect of avocados on cholesterol levels.

The 2013 American Heart Association Guidelines on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk recommends reducing saturated fats to no more than 5% to 6% of total calories (In the typical American diet about 13% of calories come from saturated fat). The AHA recommends replacing the saturated fat with either monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fat (vegetable oils and fish oil).

In addition, a major clinical study has recently shown that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either olive oil or mixed nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds) lowers cholesterol and reduces the incidence of major cardiovascular events by ~30% over 5 years in men and women aged 50 to 80 who were at high risk for cardiovascular disease (Estruch et al, N Engl J Med, 368: 1279-1290, 2013).

One avocado has about the same amount of oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat) as 2 tablespoons of olive oil or 1.5 ounces of almonds, so it is logical to suspect that avocados might have a similar effect as olive oil or nuts.

How Was The Clinical Study Designed?

Because there is still a lot of controversy as to whether diets in which the saturated fat is replaced with healthier fat or no fat at all (low fat diets) are better, this study (Wang et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2015;4: e001355 doi:10.1161/JAHA.114.001355) compared 3 diets:

  • A low fat diet in which most of the saturated fat was replaced with carbohydrate (24% total fat, 7% saturated fat, 11% monounsaturated fat, 6% polyunsaturated fat, 59% carbohydrate, 16-17% protein).
  • A moderate fat diet in which most of the saturated fat was replaced with pure oleic acid (34% total fat, 6% saturated fat, 17% monounsaturated fat from oleic acid, 9% polyunsaturated fat , 49% carbohydrate, 16-17% protein).
  • A moderate fat diet in which most of the saturated fat was replaced with avocado (34% total fat, 6% saturated fat, 17% monounsaturated fat from avocado, 9% polyunsaturated fat , 49% carbohydrate, 16-17% protein).

The study subjects were 45 healthy overweight or obese men and women (age 21 to 70, average = 45). Each subject was put on all 3 diets sequentially for 5 weeks each in a random order. That way each subject served as his or her own control.

The diets were carefully controlled to keep the calories the same so that none of the subjects lost weight during the study (weight loss would have confounded the results because weight loss lowers cholesterol in most individuals). The subjects were also told not to change their exercise habits. In short, it was a small study, but it was very well designed.

When the low fat diet was compared to the moderate (healthy) fat diets, the results were pretty similar to a number of other studies:

  • Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad type) were lowered to about the same extent by both types of diets.
  • Triglycerides were higher and HDL cholesterol (the good type) was lower for the low fat diet compared to the moderate (healthy) fat diets.

Because this has been shown in previous studies, I won’t discuss it further here.

Do Avocados Lower Cholesterol?

lower cholesterolWhen the authors compared the diet in which saturated fat was replaced with avocados to the diet in which saturated fat was replaced with oleic acid there were a number of significant differences.

  • Both LDL-cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol were significantly lower on the avocado diet than the oleic acid diet. The decrease was about 10%. Based on the metrics adopted by the American Heart Association this has the potential to translate into a 20% decrease in heart disease risk.
  • The avocado diet was the only one of the three diets that significantly decreased LDL particle number, small dense LDL cholesterol and LDL/HDL ratio, Many experts think that these parameters are better indicators of hearts disease risk than LDL cholesterol levels.

Do avocados lower cholesterol?  The short answer is yes, eating an avocado a day can lower cholesterol levels and might possibly lower heart disease risk. But to understand the true implications of this study we need to dig a little deeper.

What Is the Significance of This Study?

This study has one important take home lesson and raises two important questions.

Take Home Lesson: Foods Are More Important Than Fats We often hear about the benefits of including more monounsaturated fats in our diet, but when you actually make a direct comparison, such as was done in this study, it turns out that it is the foods that contain monounsaturated fats that make the difference, not the monounsaturated fats themselves. The oleic acid diet was only marginally better than the low fat diet at lowering total and LDL cholesterol.

This was the major conclusion of the authors of the study. Everything else was made up by the non-experts who write the articles that you see in the papers and on the internet. It is yet one more example of the headlines getting ahead of the science.

The authors admitted that we have no idea why avocados are more effective at lowering cholesterol than an equivalent amount of oleic acid. They speculated that it could be due to the high content of phytosterols in avocados. However, while the 114 mg of plant sterols in an avocado makes it an excellent source of plant sterols, it is far below the 2,000 mg of plant sterols that the NIH considers optimal for lowering cholesterol levels.

The authors also mentioned soluble fiber and specialized sugars in an avocado, but none of those was present in sufficient quantities to explain the cholesterol-lowering effect of avocados by itself. It is likely that all of those constituents plus others that we have not yet identified are what make avocados more effective than oleic acid at lowering cholesterol.

Question 1: Do We Really Want To Eat An Avocado a Day?

We need to keep in mind that a single avocado weighs in at around 234 calories. That is:

  • 2.5 times the calories in an apple
  • 4.7 times the calories in a peach or a cup of strawberries
  • 5.7 times the calories in a half cup of blueberries
  • 7.3 times the calories in a half cup of raspberries or blackberries

You get the point. What made this study so effective is that all three diets were designed to provide exactly the same number of calories so that nobody gained or lost weight. If you are thinking of adding an avocado a day to your diet, you are going to need to significantly cut back on calories somewhere else, or your weight gain will drive your cholesterol levels in the wrong direction.

Question 2: What Are The Long Term Implications of This Study?

The bottom line is that this and previous studies suggest that avocados should rightfully be included along with olive oil and nuts as healthy sources of monounsaturated fats that can help you lower cholesterol levels and may reduce your risk of heart disease.

However, we need to keep in mind that while a major clinical study has shown that adding either olive oil or nuts to your diet can reduce heart disease risk, we don’t have a comparable study showing that adding avocados to your diet will have the same benefit. It is plausible, but has not yet been demonstrated.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent clinical study has shown that eating an avocado a day was more effective at lowering bad cholesterol than adding an equivalent amount of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid to the diet. This suggests that it is the foods that contain the monounsaturated fats that make the difference, not the monounsaturated fats themselves.
  • This and previous studies suggest that avocados should rightfully be included along with olive oil and nuts as healthy sources of monounsaturated fats that can help you lower cholesterol levels and may reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • However, we need to keep in mind that while a major clinical study has shown that adding either olive oil or nuts to your diet can reduce heart disease risk, we don’t have a comparable study showing that adding avocados to your diet will have the same benefit. It is plausible, but has not yet been demonstrated.
  • You also need to keep in mind that a single avocado contains 234 calories. What made this study work so well is that each diet was carefully designed to provide exactly the same number of calories. If you are thinking of adding an avocado a day to your diet, you are going to need to significantly cut back on calories somewhere else, or your weight gain will drive your cholesterol levels in the wrong direction.
  • Finally, the American Heart Association Guidelines are to reduce saturated fats to no more than 6-7% of total calories. So while the low-carbohydrate, butter, bacon, and steak diet may give you temporary weight loss, it is definitely NOT recommended if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease. For more on this important topic, see my previous health tip “Are Saturated Fats Good For You?

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (4)

  • Merlena Cushing

    |

    Good article…helpful, as usual. Please tell me if I needed to sign up again for these weekly updates. Nothing came through today – even checked my SPAM filter – so I came to your site and VIOLA! Here is today’s article.

    Thanks for letting me know if I need to do sign up again.

    Reply

  • Sheri

    |

    Hi, thanks for that important info. 2 ?? I heard that beef from cows that are grass fed & not given growth hormones etc don’t have healthier saturated fat than those that are not. I take a flax seed supplement because I read that in addition to omega 3 fats it also has omega 6 & 9 both said to be beneficial. are there studies on that? Thanks Sheri

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Sheri,

      Those are very interesting questions and illustrate the incorrect information that abounds on the internet. It may be true that the saturated fat in grass fed beef is no healthier than corn fed beef, but the levels of omega-3 fatty acids are significantly higher so grass fed beef is a bit better for you.

      As for flax seeds, they are a healthy food, but they are no miracle food. Let’s look at each of the fatty acids in flax seed supplements individually. The American diet is generally deficient in omega-3s so they are an important component of the supplement. Unfortunately, the omega-3s in flax seed are short chain, most of the health benefits are from the long chain omega-3s, and conversion of short chain omega-3s to long chain omega-3s in the body is only around 10%. Fish oil supplements are a much better source of omega-3s because they provide predominantly long chain. In contrast, Americans generally get plenty of omega-6 fatty acids. They are found in seeds and most vegetable oils. Omega-9s are the monounsaturated fatty acids. They are found in avocados, nuts, nut oils, nut butters and olive oil. Our bodies can also make them from saturated fats. We get lots of them from our diet. A little more wouldn’t hurt, but the amount we get from a flax seed supplement is fairly insignificant compared to what we already get from our diet.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Does Magnesium Optimize Vitamin D Levels?

Posted February 12, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

The Case For Holistic Supplementation

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Does magnesium optimize vitamin D levels?

magnesium optimize vitamin dOne of the great mysteries about vitamin D is the lack of correlation between vitamin D intake and blood levels of its active metabolite, 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Many people who consume RDA levels of vitamin D from foods and/or supplements end up with low blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. The reason(s) for this discrepancy between intake of vitamin D and blood levels of its active metabolite are not currently understood.

Another great mystery is why it has been so difficult to demonstrate benefits of vitamin D supplementation. Association studies show a strong correlation between optimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. However, placebo-controlled clinical trials of vitamin D supplementation have often come up empty. Until recently, many of those studies did not measure 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Could it be that optimal levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were not achieved?

The authors of the current study hypothesized that optimal magnesium status might be required for vitamin D conversion to its active form. You are probably wondering why magnesium would influence vitamin D metabolism. I had the same question.

The authors pointed out that:

  • Magnesium status affects the activities of enzymes involved in both the synthesis and degradation of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • Some clinical studies have suggested that magnesium intake interacts with vitamin D intake in affecting health outcomes.
  • If the author’s hypothesis is correct, it is a concern because magnesium deficiency is prevalent in this country. In their “Fact Sheet For Health Professionals,” the NIH states that “…a majority of Americans of all ages ingest less magnesium from food than their respective EARs [Estimated Average Requirement]; adult men aged 71 years and older and adolescent females are most likely to have low intakes.” Other sources have indicated that magnesium deficiency may approach 70-80% for adults over 70.

If the author’s hypothesis that magnesium is required for vitamin D activation is correct and most Americans are deficient in magnesium, this raises some troubling questions.

  • Most vitamin D supplements do not contain magnesium. If people aren’t getting supplemental magnesium from another source, they may not be optimally utilizing the vitamin D in the supplements.
  • Most clinical studies involving vitamin D do not also include magnesium. If most of the study participants are deficient in magnesium, it might explain why it has been so difficult to show benefits from vitamin D supplementation.

Thus the authors devised a study (Q Dai et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1249-1258, 2018 ) to directly test their hypothesis.

 

How Was The Study Designed?

magnesium optimize vitamin d studyThe authors recruited 180 volunteers, aged 40-85, from an ongoing study on the prevention of colon cancer being conducted at Vanderbilt University. The duration of the study was 12 weeks. Blood was drawn at the beginning of the study to measure baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Three additional blood draws to determine 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were performed at weeks 1, 6, and 12.

Because high blood calcium levels increase excretion of magnesium, the authors individualized magnesium intake based on “optimizing” the calcium to magnesium ratio in the diet rather than giving everyone the same amount of magnesium. The dietary calcium to magnesium ratio for most Americans is 2.6 to 1 or higher. Based on their previous work, they considered an “ideal” calcium to magnesium ratio to be 2.3 to 1. The mean daily dose of magnesium supplementation in this study was 205 mg, with a range from 77 to 390 mg to achieve the “ideal” calcium to magnesium ratio. The placebo was an identical gel capsule containing microcrystalline cellulose.

Two 24-hour dietary recalls were conducted at baseline to determine baseline dietary intake of calcium and magnesium. Four additional 24-hour dietary recalls were performed during the 12-week study to assure that calcium intake was unchanged and the calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.3 to 1 was achieved.

In short this was a small study, but it was very well designed to test the author’s hypothesis.

 

Does Magnesium Optimize Vitamin D Levels?

 

does magnesium optimize vitamin d levelsThis was a very complex study, so I am simplifying it for this discussion. For full details, I refer you to the journal article (Q Dai et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1249-1258, 2018).

The most significant finding was that magnesium supplementation did affect blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. However, the effect of magnesium supplementation varied depending on the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D level at the beginning of the study.

  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D was 20 ng/ml or less (which the NIH considers inadequate), magnesium supplementation had no effect on 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.
  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D was 20-30 ng/ml (which the NIH considers the lower end of the adequate range), magnesium supplementation increased 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.
  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D level approached 50 ng/ml (which the NIH says may be “associated with adverse effects”), magnesium supplementation lowered 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

The simplest interpretation of these results is:

  • When vitamin D intake is inadequate, magnesium cannot magically create 25-hydroxyvitamin D from thin air.
  • When vitamin D intake is adequate, magnesium can enhance the conversion of vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • When vitamin D intake is too high, magnesium can help protect you by lowering 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that optimal magnesium status may be important for optimizing 25-hydroxyvitamin D status. Further dosing studies are warranted…”

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

magnesium optimize vitamin d for youThis was a groundbreaking study that has provided novel and interesting results.

  • It provides the first evidence that optimal magnesium status may be required for optimizing the conversion of vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • It suggests that optimal magnesium status can help normalize 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels by increasing low levels and decreasing high levels.

However, this was a small study and, like any groundbreaking study, has significant limitations. For a complete discussion of the limitations and strengths of this study I refer you to the editorial (S Lin and Q Liu, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1159-1161, 2018) that accompanied the study.

In summary, this study needs to be replicated by larger clinical studies with a more diverse study population. In order to provide meaningful results, those studies would need to carefully control and monitor calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D intake. There is also a need for mechanistic studies to better understand how magnesium can both increase low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and decrease high 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

However, assuming the conclusions of this study to be true, it has some interesting implications:

  • If you are taking a vitamin D supplement, you should probably make sure that you are also getting the DV (400 mg) of magnesium from diet plus supplementation.
  • If you are taking a calcium supplement, you should check that it also provides a significant amount of magnesium. If not, change supplements or make sure that you get the DV for magnesium elsewhere.
  • I am suggesting that you shoot for the DV (400 mg) of magnesium rather than reading every label and calculating the calcium to magnesium ratio. The “ideal” ratio of 2.3 to 1 is hypothetical at this point. A supplement providing the DV of both calcium and magnesium would have a calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.5, and I would not fault any manufacturer for providing you with the DV of both nutrients.
  • If you are taking high amounts of calcium, I would recommend a supplement that has a calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.5 or less.
  • If you are considering a magnesium supplement to optimize your magnesium status, you should be aware that magnesium can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. I would recommend a sustained release magnesium supplement.
  • Finally, whole grains and legumes are among your best dietary sources of magnesium. Forget those diets that tell you to eliminate whole food groups. They are likely to leave you magnesium-deficient.

Even if the conclusions of this study are not confirmed by subsequent studies, we need to remember that magnesium is an essential nutrient with many health benefits and that most Americans do not get enough magnesium in their diet. The recommendations I have made for optimizing magnesium status are common-sense recommendations that apply to all of us.

 

The Case For Holistic Supplementation

 

magnesium optimize vitamin d case for holistic supplementationThis study is one of many examples showing that a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to a “magic bullet” approach where you take individual nutrients to solve individual problems. For example, in the case of magnesium and vitamin D:

  • If you asked most nutrition experts and supplement manufacturers whether it is important to provide magnesium along with vitamin D, their answer would likely be “No”. Even if they are focused on bone health, they would be more likely to recommend calcium along with vitamin D than magnesium along with vitamin D.
  • If your doctor has tested your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and recommended a vitamin D supplement, chances are they didn’t also recommend that you optimize your magnesium status.
  • Clinical studies investigating the benefits of vitamin D supplementation never ask whether magnesium intake is optimal.

That’s because most doctors and nutrition experts still think of nutrients as “magic bullets.” I cover holistic supplementation in detail in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”  Other examples that make a case for holistic supplementation that I cover in my book include:

  • A study showing that omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins may work together to prevent cognitive decline. Unfortunately, most studies looking at the effect of B vitamins on cognitive decline have not considered omega-3 status and vice versa. No wonder those studies have produced inconsistent results.
  • Studies looking at the effect of calcium supplementation on loss of bone density in the elderly have often failed to include vitamin D, magnesium, and other nutrients that are needed for building healthy bone. They have also failed to include exercise, which is essential for building healthy bone. No wonder some of those studies have failed to find an effect of calcium supplementation on bone density.
  • A study reported that selenium and vitamin E by themselves might increase prostate cancer risk. Those were the headlines you might have seen. The same study showed Vitamin E and selenium together did not increase prostate cancer risk. Somehow that part of the study was never mentioned.
  • A study reported that high levels of individual B vitamins increased mortality slightly. Those were the headlines you might have seen. The same study showed that when the same B vitamins were combined in a B complex supplement, mortality decreased. Somehow that observation never made the headlines.
  • A 20-year study reported that a holistic approach to supplementation produced significantly better health outcomes.

In summary, vitamins and minerals interact with each other to produce health benefits in our bodies. Some of those interactions we know about. Others we are still learning about. When we take high doses of individual vitamins and minerals, we create potential problems.

  • We may not get the full benefit of the vitamin or mineral we are taking because some other important nutrient(s) may be missing from our diet.
  • Even worse, high doses of one vitamin or mineral may interfere with the absorption or enhance the excretion of another vitamin or mineral. That can create deficiencies.

The same principles apply to our diet. I mentioned earlier that whole grains and legumes are among the best dietary sources of magnesium. Eliminating those two foods from the diet increases our risk of becoming magnesium deficient. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any time you eliminate foods or food groups from the diet, you run the risk of creating deficiencies of nutrients, phytonutrients, specific types of fiber, and the healthy gut bacteria that use that fiber as their preferred food source.

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study suggests that optimal magnesium status may be important for optimizing 25-hydroxyvitamin D status. This is one of many examples showing that a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to a “magic bullet” approach where you take individual nutrients to solve individual problems. For example, in the case of magnesium and vitamin D:

  • If you asked most nutrition experts and supplement manufacturers whether it is important to provide magnesium along with vitamin D, their answer would likely be “No.”  Even if they are focused on bone health, they would be more likely to recommend calcium along with vitamin D than magnesium along with vitamin D.
  • If your doctor has tested your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and recommended a vitamin D supplement, chances are he or she did not also recommend that you optimize your magnesium status.
  • Clinical studies investigating the benefits of vitamin D supplementation never ask whether magnesium intake is optimal. That may be why so many of those studies have failed to find any benefit of vitamin D supplementation.

I cover holistic supplementation in detail in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths” and provide several other examples where a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to taking individual supplements.

In summary, vitamins and minerals interact with each other to produce health benefits in our bodies. Some of those interactions we know about. Others we are still learning about. Whenever we take high doses of individual vitamins and minerals, we create potential problems.

  • We may not get the full benefit of the vitamin or mineral we are taking because some other important nutrient(s) may be missing from our diet.
  • Even worse, high doses of one vitamin or mineral may interfere with the absorption or enhance the excretion of another vitamin or mineral. That can create deficiencies.

The same principles apply to what we eat. For example, whole grains and legumes are among the best dietary sources of magnesium. Eliminating those two foods from the diet increases our risk of becoming magnesium deficient. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any time you eliminate foods or food groups from the diet, you run the risk of creating deficiencies.

For more details about the current study and what it means to you read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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