The science around heart health changes all the time as researchers discover more about how what we eat and what we do affects our cardiovascular system. But you might still be following these outdated practices that were popularized in the past. Elizabeth Juneman, MD, a cardiologist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ, helped debunk some myths surrounding heart health.
1. The myth: Cutting back on fat is best for your heart.
The truth: Not all dietary fat is bad for you. It’s true that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fats to less than 7% of your daily calories. You’ll find these fats, which are solid at room temperature, in butter, lard, full-fat cheese and high-fat meat. They may increase your risk of stroke and heart attacks.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats, which tend to be liquid at room temperature, may boost your heart health, improve cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. You’ll find these fats in vegetable oils, fish and nuts. The Mediterranean diet, which reduces cardiovascular risk and can even prevent premature death, includes fats in olive oil, nut oils, avocados, nuts and fatty fish such as salmon, herring and sardines.
“A diet based on minimally processed plant-based foods, rich in unsaturated fat from olive oil, but lower in saturated fat, meats and dairy products, seems like an ideal model for heart health,” Dr. Juneman said.
2. The myth: When it comes to good cholesterol, there’s no upper limit.
The truth: High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is called the “good” cholesterol since it helps to remove other “bad” forms of cholesterol from the body. You can raise good cholesterol levels by exercising, quitting tobacco and following the Mediterranean diet. But HDL levels above 100 mg/dL have been shown to increase risk of heart disease. “Ideally, people should aim to have HDL above 60 mg/dL and below 100 mg/dL,” Dr. Juneman said.
3. The myth: You should take an aspirin every day.
The truth: Whether you need a daily aspirin depends on your age, health and history of heart disease. Aspirin is recommended for people who have already had a heart attack or stroke or who are at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next ten years.
There’s a risk of bleeding with aspirin. So, in people at low risk of heart attack or at higher risk of bleeding from other causes, the risk of bleeding could outweigh the benefits. Plus, people over 60 with no heart disease may not need a daily aspirin.
4. The myth: You should walk 10,000 steps a day however you can.
The truth: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking. That’s a lot less than 10,000 steps a day.
It’s true that walking 10,000 steps a day, or four to five miles, is linked to less cardiovascular disease. Walking faster, and doing all your walking at once, amps up the benefits for your heart and leads to the most weight loss.
5. The myth: It’s fat, not sugar, that affects your heart health.
The truth: High sugar intake is linked to high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, and higher levels of triglycerides and “bad” cholesterol. These health conditions can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It’s added sugar that’s problematic, not natural sugars like you find in fruit. The AHA recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories for men.
6. The myth: Sea salt is better for your blood pressure than table salt.
The truth: Sea salt and table salt have the same nutritional value and amount of sodium by weight. This myth may stem from the fact that sea salt has larger crystals, so a tablespoon of sea salt could contain less sodium than a tablespoon of table salt. The smaller table salt crystals sit closer together, so there is more sodium in a tablespoon.
7. The myth: Eat the egg whites, not the yolks.
The truth: Contrary to popular belief, the high cholesterol levels in egg yolks don’t raise your blood cholesterol levels. And both parts of the egg give you nutrients. “How an egg is cooked is more important,” Dr. Juneman said. Eggs fried in butter, oil or animal fat are worse for your heart health than eggs that are poached or steamed.
8. The myth: Coconut oil is better for your heart than butter.
The truth: Coconut oil may be plant-based, but like butter, it’s loaded with saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil has more saturated fat per serving than butter. And both affect your cholesterol levels. “Research suggests that coconut oil is not better than butter in preventing cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Juneman said. It’s best to use both in moderation and to cook with unsaturated fats like olive oil.
9. The myth: If you smoke, you should switch to vaping.
The truth: Smoking and vaping are both bad for your heart compared to non-use. They both damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease, but they cause harm in different ways. Using them together may be a bigger risk than using either alone.
10. The myth: Decaf is better for your heart than caffeinated coffee.
The truth: Caffeine does not increase your risk of heart disease, and one to four cups of caffeinated coffee a day could lower your risk of stroke. Caffeine can slightly raise your blood pressure, though, so if you have high blood pressure, you should be mindful of large doses of caffeine.
11. The myth: A glass or two of red wine every day is good for your heart.
The truth: There is no research that drinking alcohol is better for heart health. The American Heart Association states that alcohol consumption in moderation may be beneficial. Moderate alcohol consumption could increase your good cholesterol, but exercise and following the Mediterranean diet are more effective. And excessive drinking or binge drinking could cause high blood pressure, heart failure, arrhythmias and stroke.
The bottom line
The news around heart health is constantly shifting, but the tried-and-true techniques of choosing a healthy diet and getting regular exercise come out on top over and over again. If you would like to consult with a health care professional to learn more about how to keep your heart healthy for life, reach out to Banner Health.
Interested in learning more about your heart health and risk for heart disease? Take our free heart health risk assessment.