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The real superfood? Olive oil
People love to claim that such-and-such ingredient is a "superfood", from kale to eggs to omega-3 fatty acids, acai juice, and wheatgrass. While "superfood" is a marketing term and not a term nutrition experts use with any seriousness, if we were inclined to enthrone an ingredient with the term, it might have to be olive oil.

Evidence for 5 a day
Your mother probably told you to eat your vegetables. And she was right. The question many people have, however, is "Just how much?" In the 1990's the USA had the 5-a-day campaign, which was softened to "Fruit and Veggies - More Matters" in 2007, although the 2015-2020 guidelines for Americans suggests 2 1/2 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit per day.

Avocados make it more satisfying
One of the approaches we in nutrition are taking in the so-called "obesity crisis" is to look at ways to help people more successfully manage their food intake: what makes people feel more satisfied with what they eat so that they don't eat too much?

Health & Nutrition Bites

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An especially delicious way to prevent heart disease

avocado toast

There was a time not too long ago when avocados were considered bad for you: full of fat and calories and most often served with Mexican food, which also is too often lumped with all fast foods as junk.

We now know that not all fats are bad for you, and some are in fact very good for you (we also know that Mexican food is not necessarily bad for you either).

One serving of avocado - about half a medium avocado - has about 160 calories, 2 grams of protein, 14.7 grams of total fat, and 6.7 grams of fiber. Of those fats, there are 9.8 grams of monounsaturated fats - the fats that can help improve your HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and 1.8 grams of polyunsaturated fat, leaving only about 3.1 grams of saturated fat.

They're also a great source of potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants, and we know that a diet higher in good fats and antioxidants can help contribute to a lower risk of heart disease. With that in mind, researchers associated with Harvard University and its association medical school and hospitals sought to find out if avocados specifically might be associated with that lower risk of heart disease (J Am Heart Assoc 2022;11:e024014 doi:10.1161/JAHA.121024014).

The authors analyzed data gathered for the Nurses Health Study (NHS)(all female participants) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS)(all male participants), both long-term, large-scale observational studies of health professionals in the United States. Both groups respond to surveys regarding their health, demographics, and lifestyle factors every 2 years and fill out detailed dietary questionnaires every 4 years. After excluding those participants who reported having heart disease, stroke, or cancer at the start of the study, the authors included over 62,000 women and over 41,000 men in their analysis.

Just one question in the dietary questionnaire asked about avocado consumption, but possible answers ranged from less than one serving per month to up to 6 or more servings per day. The authors thus grouped the responses into just 4 categories: never or less than 1 serving per month, 1-3 servings per month, 1 serving per week, and 2 or more servings per week. Other common sources of fats were also analyzed, including butter, margarine, olive oil, other plant oils, mayonnaise, and dairy products.

In performing their analysis the authors took into account Body Mass Index, education, physical activity, smoking status, ethnicity, aspirin and other medication use, menopausal status (when relevant) and any other chronic diseases the participant might have reported at any point since the studies' start in 1986.

They also took into account how much red or processed meats the participants consumed, as well as their intake of trans fats, fruits and vegetables (other than avocados), nuts, tortillas (!!), eggs, and cheeses.

The authors note that at the start of the study the average intake of avocado in the HPFS was about 0.2 servings per week (1/2 an avocado is a serving) and about 0.1 servings per week for the NHS. In 2014, however, the average for each study doubled. At the same time the consumption of margarine, mayonnaise, dairy products, and non-avocado plant oils decreased.

Compared to those who didn't consume avocados, those who consumed at least 2 servings of avocado per week were 16% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and 21% less likely to develop coronary heart disease. No association, however, was observed for stroke.

The authors also modeled what would happen if participants substituted a half serving of avocado (1/4 of a whole avocado) for the equivalent amount of other fats. For example, having avocado instead of margarine meant a 16% lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while substituting avocado for butter reduced that same risk by 22%. Similar results were seen for egg, cheese, processed meats, and yogurt, but not for olive oil, nuts, or other plant oils.

What this means for you

This doesn't mean you can eat a whole bowl of guacamole every day. As with other fats, avocado does have calories, and it's important to look at what you're eating those avocados with - is it a big plate of nachos covered with ground beef and cheese? Or are you adding your avocado slices to a sandwich on whole grain bread, with sliced leftover chicken and a bunch of vegetables?

Remember also that the highest intake threshold for these participants was at 2 servings or more per week - and 2 servings is just 1 avocado per week, not per day.

Here are some great ways to substitute avocado for other fats:
Chicken Salad with Avocado
Egg Salad with Avocado
Avocado Potato Salad

Also try these great avocado recipes:
Avocado Toast with Grilled Tomatoes and Capers
Avocado Toast with Caramelized Shallot and Feta
Avocado Toast with Roasted Balsamic Mushrooms
Avocado Toast with Smoky Black Beans
Avocado Salad Dressing
Crab, Avocado and Mango Salad

First posted: March 30, 2022