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 Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

Posted May 15, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

How Do You Gain Muscle Mass & Lose Fat Mass?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

protein supplement timingMost of what you read about protein supplements on the internet is wrong. That is because most published studies on protein supplements:

  • Are very small
  • Are not double blinded.
    • Both the subjects and the investigators knew who got the protein supplement.
  • Are done by individual companies with their product.
    • You have no idea which ingredients are in their product are responsible for the effects they report.
    • You have no idea how their product compares with other protein products.
    • There is no standardization with respect to the amount or type of protein or the addition of non-protein ingredients.

Because of these limitations there is a lot of misleading information on the benefits of protein supplements timing and maximal benefit. Let’s start by looking at why people use protein supplements. Let’s also look at what is generally accepted as true with respect to the best supplement timing.

There are 4 major reasons people consume protein supplements:

  • Enhance the muscle gain associated with resistance training: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed concurrently with the workout.
  • Preserve muscle and accelerate fat loss while on a weight loss diet: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals or as meal replacements.
  • Provide a healthier protein source. In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals in place of meat protein.
  • Prevent muscle loss associated with aging or illness. There is no customary pattern associated with this use of protein supplements.

How good are the data supporting the customary timing of protein supplementation? The answer is: Not very good. The timing is based on a collection of weak studies which do not always agree with each other.

The current study  (J.L. Hudson et al, Nutrition Reviews, 76: 461-468, 2018 ) was designed to fill this void in our knowledge. It is a meta-analysis that compares all reasonably good studies that have looked at the effect of protein supplement timing on weight gain or loss, lean muscle mass gain, fat loss, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

How Was The Study Done?

The authors started by doing a literature search of all studies that met the following criteria:

  • The study was a randomized control trial with parallel design. This means that study contained a control group. It does not mean that the investigators or subjects were blinded with respect to which subjects used a protein supplement and which did not.
  • The subjects were engaged in resistance training.
  • The study lasted 6 weeks or longer.
  • Reliable methods were used to measure body composition (lean muscle mass and fat mass).
  • The subjects were healthy and at least 19 years old.
  • There was no restriction on the food the subjects consumed.

The authors started with 2074 published studies and ended up with 34 that met all their criteria. They then separated the studies into two groups – those in which the protein supplements were used with meals and those in which the protein supplements were used between meals.

Both groups were diverse.

  • Group 1 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement with their meal and those who consumed their protein supplement as a meal replacement.
  • Group 2 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement concurrent with exercise (usually immediately after exercise) and those who consumed their protein supplement at a fixed time of day not associated with exercise.

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

 

protein supplement timing workoutsBecause the individual studies were very diverse in the way they were designed, the authors could not calculate a reliable estimate of how much lean muscle mass was increased or fat mass was decreased. Instead, they calculated the percentage of studies showing an increase in lean muscle mass or a decrease in fat mass.

When the authors compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals:

  • Weight gain was observed in 56% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 72% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • An increase in lean muscle mass was observed in 94% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 90% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • A loss of fat mass was observed in 87% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 59% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • An increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass was observed in 100% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 87% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In short, protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

The following seem to suggest protein supplement timing matters:

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when protein supplements are consumed with a meal they displace some of the calories that otherwise would have been consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors stated that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

The others concluded: “Concurrently with resistance training, consuming protein supplements with meals, rather than between meals, may more effectively promote weight control and reduce fat mass without influencing improvements in lean [muscle] mass.”

What Are The Limitations Of The Study?

Meta-analyses such as this one, are only as good as the studies included in the meta-analysis. Unfortunately, most sports nutrition studies are very weak studies. Thus, this meta-analysis is a perfect example of the “Garbage In: Garbage Out (GI:GO)” phenomenon.

For example, let’s start by looking at what the term “protein supplement” meant.

  • Because the studies were done by individual companies with their product, the protein supplements in this meta-analysis:
    • Included whey, casein, soy, bovine colostrum, rice or combinations of protein sources.
    • Were isolates, concentrates, or hydrolysates.
    • Contained various additions like creatine, amino acids, and carbohydrate.
  • As I discuss in my book, Slaying the Food Myths, previous studies have shown that optimal protein and leucine levels are needed to maximize the increase in muscle mass and decrease in fat mass associated with resistance exercise. However, neither protein nor leucine levels were standardized in the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.
  • Previous studies have shown that protein supplements that have little effect on blood sugar levels (have a low glycemic index) are more likely to curb appetite. However, glycemic index was not standardized for the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.

protein supplement timing workout peopleIn short, the conclusions of this study might be true for some protein supplements, but not for others. We have no way of knowing.

We also need to consider the composition of the two groups.

  • Protein supplements used as meal replacements are more likely to decrease weight and fat mass than protein supplements consumed with meals. Yet, both were included in group 1.
  • Some studies suggest that protein supplements consumed concurrent with resistance exercise are more likely to increase muscle mass than protein supplements consumed another time of day. Yet, both are included in group 2. We also have no idea whether the meals with protein supplements in group 1 were consumed shortly after exercise or at an entirely different time of day.

This was the most glaring weakness of the study because it was completely avoidable. The authors could have grouped the studies into categories that made more sense.

In other words, there are multiple weaknesses that limit the predictive power of this study.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

Despite its many limitations, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, most of us are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio. Simply put, we are either trying to lean out (shape up) or lose weight. And, we want to lose that weight primarily by getting rid of excess fat. For us, calories do matter. With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the optimal timing of protein supplements consumed by subjects who were engaged in resistance exercise. Specifically, the study compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals on weight, lean muscle mass, fat mass, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass. The study reported:

  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • Timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean mass to fat mass.

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when a protein supplement was consumed with a meal it displaces some of the calories that would have been otherwise consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors said that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

As discussed in the article above, the study has major weaknesses. However, despite its many weaknesses, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, for those of us who are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio, calories do matter.  With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

For more details, 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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