The cardiovascular benefits of avocado

The cardiovascular benefits of avocado

OVERVIEW

  • Avocado is an exceptional source of monounsaturated fat, with content similar to that of olive oil.
  • These monounsaturated fats improve the lipid profile, in particular by raising HDL-cholesterol levels, a phenomenon associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • A recent study confirms this cardioprotective potential of avocado, with a 20% reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease observed in regular consumers (2 or more servings per week).

There is currently a consensus in the scientific community on the importance of favouring dietary sources of unsaturated fats (especially monounsaturated and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats) to significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality (see our article on this subject). With the exception of fatty fish rich in omega-3 (salmon, sardines, mackerel), plant-based foods are the main sources of these unsaturated fats, particularly oils (olive oil and those rich in omega-3 like canola oil), nuts, certain seeds (flax, chia, hemp) as well as fruits such as avocado. Regular consumption of these foods high in unsaturated fats has repeatedly been associated with a marked decrease in the risk of cardiovascular events, a cardioprotective effect that is particularly well documented for extra-virgin olive oil and nuts.

A unique nutritional profile
Although the impact of avocado consumption has been less studied than that of other plant sources of unsaturated fat, it has been suspected for several years that this fruit also exerts positive effects on cardiovascular health. On the one hand, avocado stands out from other fruits for its exceptionally high monounsaturated fat content, with a content (per serving) similar to that of olive oil (Table 1). On the other hand, a serving of avocado contains very high amounts of fibre (4 g), potassium (350 mg), folate (60 µg), and several other vitamins and minerals known to participate in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Table 1. Comparison of the lipid profile of avocado and olive oil. The data corresponds to the amount of fatty acids contained in half of a Haas avocado, the main variety consumed in the world, or olive oil (1 tablespoon or 15 mL). Taken from USDA. FoodData Central.

Fatty acidsAvocado (68 g)Olive oil (15 mL)
Total10 g12.7 g
Monounsaturated6.7 g9.4 g
Polyunsaturated1.2 g1.2 g
Saturated1.4 g2.1 g

This positive impact on the heart is also suggested by the results of intervention studies that examined the impact of avocado on certain markers of good cardiovascular health. For example, a meta-analysis of 7 studies (202 participants) indicates that the consumption of avocado is associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol and a decrease in the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, a parameter which is considered to be a good predictor of coronary heart disease mortality. A decrease in triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels associated with the consumption of avocado has also been reported, but is, however, not observed in all studies. Nevertheless, the increase in HDL cholesterol observed in all the studies is very encouraging and strongly suggests that avocado could contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

A cardioprotective fruit
This cardioprotective potential of avocado has just been confirmed by the results of a large-scale epidemiological studycarried out among people enrolled in two large cohorts headed by Harvard University, namely the Nurses’ Health Study (68,786 women) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (41,701 men). Over a period of 30 years, researchers periodically collected information on the dietary habits of participants in both studies and subsequently examined the association between avocado consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The results obtained are very interesting: compared to people who never or very rarely eat them, regular avocado consumers have a risk of coronary heart disease reduced by 16% (1 serving per week) and 21% (2 servings or more per week) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Association between the frequency of avocado consumption and the risk of coronary heart disease. The quantities indicated refer to one serving of avocado, corresponding to approximately half of the fruit. Taken from Pacheco et al. (2022).

There are therefore only benefits to integrating avocado into our eating habits, especially if its monounsaturated fats replace other sources of fats that are less beneficial to health. According to the researchers’ calculations, replacing half a serving of foods rich in saturated fat (butter, cheese, deli meats) with an equivalent quantity of avocado would reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by approximately 20%.

Avocados are increasingly popular, especially among young people, and are even predicted to become the 2nd most traded tropical fruit by 2030 globally, just behind bananas. In light of the positive effects of these fruits on cardiovascular health, we can only welcome this new trend.

Obviously, the high demand for avocado creates strong pressures on the fruit’s production systems, particularly in terms of deforestation for the establishment of new crops and increased demand for water. However, it is important to note that the water footprint (the amount of water required for production) of avocado is much lower than that of all animal products, especially beef (Table 2). In addition, as is the case for all plants, the carbon footprint of avocado is also much lower than that of animal products, the production of an avocado generating approximately 0.2 kg of CO2-eq compared to 4 kg for beef.

Table 2. Comparison of the water footprint of avocado and different foods of animal origin. Taken from UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education (2010) 

FoodWater footprint
(m3/ton)
Beef15,400
Lamb and sheep10,400
Porc6,000
Chicken4,300
Eggs3,300
Avocado1,981

Childhood obesity, a ticking time bomb for cardiometabolic diseases

Childhood obesity, a ticking time bomb for cardiometabolic diseases

OVERVIEW

  • Obesity rates among Canadian children and teens have more than tripled over the past 40 years.
  • Childhood obesity is associated with a marked increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adulthood, which can significantly reduce healthy life expectancy.
  • Policies to improve the diet of young people are key to reversing this trend and preventing an epidemic ofcardiometabolic diseases affecting young adults in the coming years.

One of the most dramatic changes to have occurred in recent years is undoubtedly the marked increase in the number of overweight children. For example, obesity rates among Canadian children and adolescents have more than tripled over the past 40 years. Whereas in 1975, obesity was a fairly rare problem affecting less than 3% of children aged 5–19, the prevalence of obesity has made a gigantic leap since that time, affecting nearly 14% of boys and 10% of girls in 2016 (Figure 1). If data on overweight is added to these figures, then approximately 25% of young Canadians are overweight (a similar trend is observed in Quebec). This prevalence of obesity appears to have plateaued in recent years, but recent US surveys suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused an upsurge in the number of overweight young people, particularly among 5-11-year-olds.

Figure 1. Increase in the prevalence of obesity among Canadian children over the past 40 years. From NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (2017).

Measuring childhood obesity
Although not perfect, the most common measure used to determine the presence of overweight in young people under the age of 19 is the body mass index (BMI), calculated by dividing the weight by the square of height (kg/m²). However, the values obtained must be adjusted according to age and sex to take into account changes in body composition during growth, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. WHO growth standards for boys aged 5–19 living in Canada. Data comes from WHO (2007).

Note that a wide range of BMI on either side of the median (50th percentile) is considered normal. Overweight children have a BMI higher than that of 85–95% of the population of the same age (85th-95th percentile), while the BMI of obese children is higher than that of 97% of the population of the same age (97th percentile and above). Using z-scores is another way to visualize childhood overweight and obesity. This measurement expresses the deviation of the BMI from the mean value, in standard deviation. For example, a z-score of 1 means that the BMI is one standard deviation above normal (corresponding to overweight), while z-scores of 2 and 3 indicate, respectively, the presence of obesity and severe obesity.

This marked increase in the proportion of overweight children, and particularly obese children, is a worrying trend that bodes very badly for the health of future generations of adults. On the one hand, it is well established that obesity during childhood (and especially during adolescence) represents a very high risk factor for obesity in adulthood, with more than 80% of obese adults who were already obese during their childhood. This obesity in adulthood is associated with an increased risk of a host of health problems, both from a cardiovascular point of view (hypertension, dyslipidemia, ischemic diseases) and the development of metabolic abnormalities (hyperglycemia, resistance to insulin, type 2 diabetes) and certain types of cancer. Obesity can also cause discrimination and social stigma and therefore have devastating consequences on the quality of life, both physically and mentally.

Another very damaging aspect of childhood obesity, which is rarely mentioned, is the dramatic acceleration of the development of all the diseases associated with overweight. In other words, obese children are not only at higher risk of suffering from the various pathologies caused by obesity in adulthood, but these diseases can also affect them at an early age, sometimes even before reaching adulthood, and thus considerably reduce their healthy life expectancy. These early impacts of childhood obesity on the development of diseases associated with overweight are well illustrated by the results of several recent studies on type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Early diabetes
Traditionally, type 2 diabetes was an extremely rare disease among young people (it was even called “adult diabetes” at one time), but its incidence has increased dramatically with the rise in the proportion of obese young people. For example, recent US statistics show that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in children aged 10–19 has increased from 0.34 per 1000 children in 2001 to 0.67 in 2017, an increase of almost 100% since the beginning of the millennium.

The main risk factors for early diabetes are obesity, especially severe obesity (BMI greater than 35) or when the excess fat is mainly located in the abdomen, a family history of the disease, and belonging to certain ethnic groups. However, obesity remains the main risk factor for type 2 diabetes: in obese children (4–10 years) and adolescents (11–18 years), glucose intolerance is frequently observed during induced hyperglycemia tests, a phenomenon caused by the early development of insulin resistance. A characteristic of type 2 diabetes in young people is its rapid development. Whereas in adults, the transition from a prediabetic state to clearly defined diabetes is generally a gradual process, occurring over a period of 5–10 years, this transition can occur very quickly in young people, in less than 2 years. This means that the disease is much more aggressive in young people than in older people and can cause the early onset of various complications, particularly at the cardiovascular level.

A recent study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, clearly illustrates the dangers that arise from early-onset type 2 diabetes, appearing during childhood or adolescence. In this study, the researchers recruited extremely obese children (BMI ≥ 35) who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in adolescence and subsequently examined for ten years the evolution of different risk factors and pathologies associated with this disease.

The results are very worrying, because the vast majority of patients in the study developed one or more complications during follow-up that significantly increased their risk of developing serious health problems (Figure 3). Of particular note is the high incidence of hypertension, dyslipidemia (LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride levels too high), and kidney (nephropathies) and nerve damage (neuropathies) in this population, which, it should be remembered, is only 26 years on average. Worse still, almost a third of these young adults had 2 or more complications, which obviously increases the risk of deterioration of their health even more. Moreover, it should be noted that 17 serious cardiovascular accidents (infarction, heart failure, stroke) occurred during the follow-up period, which is abnormally high given the young age of the patients and the relatively small number of people who participated in the study (500 patients).

Figure 3. Incidence of different complications associated with type 2 diabetes in adolescents. From TODAY Study Group (2021).

It should also be noted that these complications occurred despite the fact that the majority of these patients were treated with antidiabetic drugs such as metformin or insulin. This is consistent with several studies showing that type 2 diabetes is much harder to control in young people than in middle-aged people. The mechanisms responsible for this difference are still poorly understood, but it seems that the development of insulin resistance and the deterioration of the pancreatic cells that produce this hormone progress much faster in young people than in older people, which complicates blood sugar control and increases the risk of complications.

This difficulty in effectively treating early type 2 diabetes means that young diabetics are much more at risk of dying prematurely than non-diabetics (Figure 4). For example, young people who develop early diabetes, before the age of 30, have a mortality rate 3 times higher than the population of the same age who is not diabetic. This increase remains significant, although less pronounced, until about age 50, while cases of diabetes that appear at older ages (60 years and over) do not have a major impact on mortality compared to the general population. It should be noted that this increase in mortality affecting the youngest diabetics is particularly pronounced at a young age, around 40 years of age.

These results therefore show how early type 2 diabetes can lead to a rapid deterioration in health and take decades off life, including years that are often considered the most productive of life (forties and fifties). For all these reasons, type 2 diabetes must be considered one of the main collateral damages of childhood obesity.

Figure 4. Age-standardized mortality rates for diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Standardized mortality rates represent the ratio of mortality observed in individuals with diabetes to anticipated mortality for each age group. From Al-Saeed et al. (2016).

Cardiovascular disease
In recent years, there has been an upsurge in the incidence of cardiovascular disease in young adults. This new trend is surprising given that mortality from cardiovascular diseases has been in constant decline for several years in the general population (thanks in particular to a reduction in the number of smokers and improved treatments), and one might have expected that young people would also benefit from these positive developments.

The data collected so far strongly suggests that the increase in the prevalence of obesity among young people contributes to this upsurge of premature cardiovascular diseases, before the age of 55. On the one hand, it has been shown that a genetic predisposition to develop overweight during childhood is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (and type 2 diabetes) in adulthood. On the other hand, this increased risk has also been observed in long-term studies examining the association between the weight of individuals during childhood and the incidence of cardiovascular events once they have reached adulthood. For example, a large Danish study of over 275,000 school-aged children (7–13 years old) showed that each one-unit increase in BMI z-score at these ages (see legend to Figure 2 for the definition of the z-score) was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood, after 25 years (Figure 5).

This increased risk is directly proportional to the age at which children are overweight, i.e., the more a high BMI is present at older ages, the greater the risk of suffering a cardiovascular event later in adulthood. For example, an increase of 1 in the z -score of 13-year-old children is associated with twice as much of an increase in risk in adulthood as a similar increase in a 7-year-old child (Figure 5). Similar results are observed for girls, but the increased risk of cardiovascular disease is lower than for boys.


Figure 5. Relationship between body mass index in childhood and the risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood. The values represent the risks associated with a 1-unit increase in BMI z-score at each age. From Baker et al. (2007).

Early atherosclerosis
Several studies suggest that the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood observed in overweight children is a consequence of the early development of several risk factors that accelerate the process of atherosclerosis. Autopsy studies of obese adolescents who died of non-cardiovascular causes (e.g., accidents) revealed that fibrous atherosclerotic plaques were already present in the aorta and coronary arteries, indicating an abnormally rapid progression of atherosclerosis.

As mentioned earlier, type 2 diabetes is certainly the worst risk factor that can generate this premature progression, because the vast majority of diabetic children and adolescents very quickly develop several abnormalities that considerably increase the risk of serious damage to blood vessels (Figure 3). But even without the presence of early diabetes, studies show that several risk factors for cardiovascular disease are already present in overweight children, such as hypertension, dyslipidemia, chronic inflammation, glucose intolerance or even vascular abnormalities (thickening of the internal wall of the carotid artery, for example). Exposure to these factors that begins in childhood therefore creates favourable conditions for the premature development of atherosclerosis, thereby increasing the risk of cardiovascular events in adulthood.

It should be noted, however, that the negative impact of childhood obesity on health in adulthood is not irreversible. Indeed, studies show that people who were overweight or obese during childhood, but who had a normal weight in adulthood, have a risk of cardiovascular disease similar to that of people who have been thin all their lives. However, obesity is extremely difficult to treat, both in childhood and in adulthood, and the best way to avoid prolonged chronic exposure to excess fat and damage to cardiovascular health (and health in general) which results from it is obviously to prevent the problem at the source by modifying lifestyle factors, which are closely associated with an increased risk of developing overweight, in particular the nature of the diet and physical activity (psychosocial stress may also play a role). Given the catastrophic effects of childhood obesity on health, cardiovascular health in particular, the potential for this early preventive approach (called “primordial prevention”) is immense and could help halt the current rise in diabetes and premature mortality affecting young adults.

Ideal cardiovascular health
A recent study shows how this primordial prevention approach can have an extraordinary impact on cardiovascular health. In this study, researchers determined the ideal cardiovascular health score, as defined by the American Heart Association (Table 1), of more than 3 million South Koreans with an average age of 20–39 years. Excess weight is a very important element of this score because of its influence on other risk factors also used in the score such as hypertension, fasting hyperglycemia and cholesterol.

Participants were followed for a period of approximately 16 years, and the incidence of premature cardiovascular disease (before age 55) was assessed using as the primary endpoint a combination of hospitalization for infarction, stroke, cardiac insufficiency, or sudden cardiac death.

Table 1. Parameters used to define the ideal cardiovascular health score. Since there is 1 point for each target reached, a score of 6 reflects optimal cardiovascular health. Adapted from Lloyd-Jones et al. (2010), excluding dietary factors that were not assessed in the Korean study.

As shown in Figure 6, cardiovascular health in early adulthood has a decisive influence on the risk of cardiovascular events that occur prematurely, before the age of 55. Compared to participants in very poor cardiovascular health at the start (score of 0), each additional target reached reduces the risk of cardiovascular events, with maximum protection of approximately 85% in people whose lifestyle allows achieving 5 or more ideal heart health targets (scores of 5 and 6). Similar results were obtained in the United States and show how early health, from childhood through young adulthood, plays a key role in preventing the development of cardiovascular disease during aging.

Figure 6. Influence of cardiovascular health in young adults on the risk of premature cardiovascular events. From Lee et al. (2021).

Yet our society remains strangely passive in the face of the rise in childhood obesity, as if the increase in body weight of children and adolescents has become the norm and that nothing can be done to reverse this trend. This lack of interest is really difficult to understand, because the current situation is a ticking time bomb that risks causing a tsunami of premature chronic diseases in the near future, affecting young adults. This is an extremely worrying scenario if we consider that our healthcare system, in addition to having to contend with diseases that affect an aging population (1 out of 4 Quebecers will be over 65 in 2030), will also have to deal with younger patients suffering from cardiometabolic diseases caused by overweight. Needless to say, this will be a significant burden on healthcare systems.

This situation is not inevitable, however, as governments have concrete legislative means that can be used to try to reverse this trend. Several policies aimed at improving diet quality to prevent disease can be quickly implemented:

  • Taxing sugary drinks. A simple and straightforward approach that has been adopted by several countries is to introduce a tax on industrial food products, especially soft drinks. The principle is the same as for all taxes affecting other products harmful to health such as alcohol and tobacco, i.e., an increase in prices is generally associated with a reduction in consumption. Studies that have examined the impact of this approach for soft drinks indicate that this is indeed the case, with reductions in consumption observed (among others) in Mexico, Berkeley (California) and Barbados. This approach therefore represents a promising tool, especially if the amounts collected are reinvested in order to improve the diet of the population (subsidies for the purchase of fruit and vegetables, for example).
  • Requiring clear nutrition labels on packaging. We can help consumers make informed choices by clearly indicating on the front of the product whether it is high in sugar, fat or salt, as is the case in Chile (see our article on this subject).
  • Eliminating the marketing of unhealthy foods for children. The example of Chile also shows that severe restrictions can be imposed on the marketing of junk food products by prohibiting the advertising of these products in programs or websites aimed at young people as well as by prohibiting their sale in schools. The United Kingdom plans to take such an approach very soon by eliminating all advertising online and on television of products high in sugar, salt and fat before 9 p.m., while Mexico has gone even further by banning all sales of junk food products to children.

There is no reason Canada should not adopt such approaches to protect the health of young people.

The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

OVERVIEW

  • In addition to being an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, olive oil is the only vegetable oil that contains a significant amount of phenolic compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • These molecules are found in much larger quantities in extra virgin quality oils compared to refined olive oils.
  • Several studies indicate that the presence of these phenolic compounds contributes to the many positive effects of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health.

The traditional Mediterranean diet has several positive effects on cardiovascular health by improving the lipid profile (cholesterol, triglycerides) and by reducing chronic inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and the risk of diabetes. Several studies have clearly established that these effects result in a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the abundant consumption of plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, legumes, nuts, herbs), a moderate intake of fermented dairy products (yogurt, cheese), fish, seafood and red wine as well as a low consumption of red meat and added sugars. It is therefore an exemplary diet, in which complex plant sugars are the main sources of carbohydrates and where the proteins come mainly from fish and legumes instead of red meat.

Another important feature of the Mediterranean diet is the daily use of large amounts (60–80 mL) of olive oil as the main source of fat for cooking. Several studies have reported that countries that are heavy consumers of olive oil have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than those that consume mainly animal fats, suggesting a positive role of olive oil in this protective effect. Traditionally, these beneficial properties of olive oil have been attributed to its very high content (around 80%) of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that contributes to its antioxidant properties. However, and unlike most vegetable oils, olive oil also contains a host of minor compounds (1–3% of the oil) that also play very important roles in its positive effects on cardiovascular health (see below). This is particularly the case for several phenolic compounds found exclusively in olive oil, including phenolic alcohols such as hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol and polyphenols of the secoiridoid family such as oleuropein, ligstroside, oleacein and oleocanthal (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Molecular structures of the main phenolic compounds of olive oil.


One fruit, several types of oils
Most vegetable oils come from seeds that have been extracted with an organic solvent (e.g. hexane) and subsequently heated to a high temperature to evaporate this solvent and remove impurities that give them an undesirable smell and flavour. These drastic procedures are not necessary for olive oil as the olives are simply pressed and the oil in the pulp is extracted by mechanical pressure, without using chemical processes or excessive heat.

Olive oils are classified according to the quality of the oil that is obtained by the pressing procedure (Figure 2). Good quality oils, i.e. those with low acidity (<2% free oleic acid) and that meet certain taste, bitterness and spiciness criteria are called “virgin” olive oils or, if their acidity is less than 0.8%, “extra virgin” olive oils. These oils contain the majority of the polyphenols in the starting olives and, after centrifugation and filtration, can be consumed as is.

On the other hand, some olive varieties give an inferior quality oil due to too high acidity (> 2%) and/or an unpleasant smell and taste that does not meet the established criteria. These oils, which are unfit for consumption, are called “lampantes” (a name which comes from their ancient use as fuel in oil lamps) and must be refined as is done for other vegetable oils, i.e. using different physicochemical procedures (neutralization with soda, high temperature bleaching and deodorization, hexane extraction, etc.). These steps remove the compounds responsible for the excess acidity and the unpleasant taste of the oil and produce a “neutral” olive oil that has lost its acidity and its flaws, but that is now devoid of the smell, flavour, colour and most of the phenolic components of the starting virgin olive oil. To stabilize these oils and improve their taste, a certain proportion (15–20%) of virgin olive oil is subsequently added and the final product, which is a mixture of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil, is what is sold in grocery stores as “pure olive oil” or simply “olive oil”.

In short, there are three main types of olive oil on the market: virgin olive oil (VOO), extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and regular olive oil (OO).

Figure 2. The different types of olive oil. From Gorzynik-Debicka et al. (2018).

 

These manufacturing differences obviously have a huge impact on the amount of polyphenols present in virgin, extra virgin, and refined oils (Table 1). For OO-type olive oils (which contain refined oils), the polyphenols come exclusively from virgin olive oil that has been added to restore a minimum of taste and colour (from yellow to greenish) to the chemically treated oil. The amount of these polyphenols is therefore necessarily less than in VOO and EVOO and, as a general rule, does not exceed 25–30% of the content of these two oils. This difference is particularly striking for certain polyphenols of the secoiridoid family (oleuropein, oleocanthal, oleacein and ligstroside) whose concentrations are 3 to 6 times greater in EVOO than in OO (Table 1). It should be noted, however, that these values ​​can vary greatly depending on the origin and cultivar of the olives; for example, some extra virgin olive oils have been found to contain up to 10 times more hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol than regular olive oils. The same goes for other polyphenols like oleocanthal: an analysis of 175 distinct extra virgin olive oils from Greece and California revealed dramatic variations between the different oils, with concentrations of the molecule ranging from 0 to 355 mg/kg.

It should also be mentioned that even if the quantities of phenolic compounds in regular olive oil are lower than those found in virgin and extra virgin oils, they nevertheless largely exceed those present in other vegetable oils (sunflower, peanut, canola, soy), which contain very little or none at all.

FamilyMoleculesOO (mg/kg)VOO (mg/kg)EVOO (mg/kg)
Secoiridoidsoleocanthal38.95 ± 9.2971.47 ± 61.85142.77 ± 73.17
oleacein57.37 ± 27.0477.83 ± 256.09251.60 ± 263.24
oleuropein (aglycone)10.90 ± 0.0095.00 ± 116.0172.20 ± 64.00
ligstroside (aglycone)15.20 ± 0.0069.00 ± 69.0038.04 ± 17.23
Phenolic alcoholshydroxytyrosol6.77 ± 8.263.53 ± 10.197.72 ± 8.81
tyrosol4.11 ± 2.245.34 ± 6.9811.32 ± 8.53
Flavonoidsluteolin1.17 ± 0.721.29 ± 1.933.60 ± 2.32
apigenin0.30 ± 0.170.97 ± 0.7111.68 ± 12.78
Phenolic acidsp-coumaric -0.24 ± 0.810.92 ± 1.03
ferulic -0.19 ± 0.500.19 ± 0.19
cinnamic - -0.17 ± 0.14
caffeic -0.21 ± 0.630.19 ± 0.45
protocatechuic -1.47 ± 0.56 -
Table 1. Comparison of the content of phenolic compounds in olive oil (OO), virgin olive oil (VOO) and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Please note that the large standard deviations of the mean values reflect the huge variations in polyphenol content depending on the region, cultivar, degree of fruit ripeness, and olive oil manufacturing process. Adapted from Lopes de Souza et al. (2017).

 

Anti-inflammatory spiciness
The amounts of polyphenols contained in a bottle of olive oil are not indicated on its label, but it is possible to detect their presence simply by tasting the oil. The polyphenols in olive oil are indeed essential to the organoleptic sensations so characteristic of this oil, in particular the sensation of tickling or stinging in the throat caused by good quality extra virgin oils, what connoisseurs call “ardour”. Far from being a defect, this ardour is considered by experts as a sign of a superior quality oil and, in tasting competitions, the “spiciest” oils are often those that receive the highest honours.

It is interesting to note that it is by tasting different olive oils that a scientist succeeded, by coincidence, in identifying the molecule responsible for the sensation of spiciness caused by extra virgin olive oil (see box).

Plant ibuprofen

Chance often plays a role in scientific discoveries, and this is especially true when it comes to the discovery of the molecule responsible for the typical irritation caused by olive oil. On a trip to Sicily (Italy) to attend a conference on the organoleptic properties of different foods, Dr. Gary Beauchamp and his colleagues were invited by the organizers of the event to a meal where guests were encouraged to taste extra virgin olive oil from olive trees cultivated on their estate. Even though it was the first time he had tasted this type of olive oil, Dr. Beauchamp was immediately struck by the tingling sensation in his throat, which was similar in every way to that caused by ibuprofen, and that he had experienced multiple times as part of his work to replace acetaminophen (paracetamol) with ibuprofen in cough syrups. Suspecting that olive oil contained a similar anti-inflammatory drug, Dr. Beauchamp and his team subsequently managed to isolate the molecule responsible for this irritation, a polyphenol they called “oleocanthal”. They subsequently discovered that oleocanthal had, like ibuprofen, a powerful anti-inflammatory action and that regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil, rich in oleocanthal, provided an intake equivalent to about 10 mg of ibuprofen and therefore may contribute to the well-documented anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet. 

But why is the stinging sensation of olive oil only felt in the throat? According to work carried out by the same group, this exclusive localization is due to a specific interaction of oleocanthal (and ibuprofen, for that matter) with a subtype of heat-sensitive receptor (TRPA1). Unlike other types of heat receptors, which are evenly distributed throughout the oral cavity (the TRPV1 receptor activated by the capsaicin of chili peppers, for example, and which causes the burning sensation of some particularly hot dishes), the TRPA1 receptor is located only in the pharynx and its activation by oleocanthal causes a nerve impulse signalling the presence of an irritant only in this region. In short, the more an olive oil stings in the back of the throat, the more oleocanthal it contains and the more anti-inflammatory properties it has. As a general rule, extra virgin olive oils contain more oleocanthal (and polyphenols in general) than virgin olive oils (see Table 1) and are therefore considered superior, both in terms of taste and their positive effects on health.

The superiority of extra virgin olive oil
Several studies have shown that the higher polyphenol content in extra virgin olive oil is correlated with a greater positive effect on several parameters of cardiovascular health than that observed for regular olive oil (see Table 2). For example, epidemiological studies carried out in Spain have reported a decrease of about 10–14% in the risk of cardiovascular disease among regular consumers of extra virgin olive oil, while regular consumption of olive oil had no significant effect. A role of phenolic compounds is also suggested by the EUROLIVE study where the effect of daily ingestion, over a period of 3 weeks, of 25 mL of olive oils containing small (2.7 mg/kg), medium (164 mg/kg), or high (366 mg/kg) amounts of polyphenols was compared. The results show that an increased intake of polyphenols is associated with an improvement in two important risk factors for cardiovascular disease: an increase in the concentration of HDL cholesterol and a decrease in oxidized LDL cholesterol levels. Collectively, the data gathered from the intervention studies indicate that the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil play an extremely important role in olive oil’s positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Measured parameterResultsSources
Incidence of cardiovascular disease10% reduction in risk for every 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Guasch-Ferré et al. (2014)
14% reduction in risk for each 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Buckland et al. (2012)
Lipid profileLinear increase in HDL cholesterol as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Increase in HDL cholesterol only observed with EVOO.Estruch et al. (2006)
Blood glucoseEVOO improves postprandial glycemic profile (decrease in glucose levels and increased insulin).Violo et al. (2015)
Polyphenol-rich EVOO reduces fasting blood glucose and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels in diabetic patients.Santagelo et al. (2016)
InflammationEVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in inflammatory markers (TXB(2) and LTB(4)).Bogani et al. (2017)
EVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in IL-6 and CRP.Fitó et al. (2007)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases the expression of several inflammatory genes.Camargo et al. (2010)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases levels of inflammatory markers sICAM-1 and sVCAM-1.Pacheco et al. (2007)
Oxidative stressStrong in vitro antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds of olive oil.Owen et al. (2000)
Linear decrease in oxidized LDL levels as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Lower levels of oxidized LDL after ingestion of EVOO compared to OO.Ramirez-Tortosa et al. (1999)
EVOO phenolic compounds bind to LDL particles and protect them from oxidation.de la Torre-Carbot et al. (2010)
EVOO induces the production of neutralizing antibodies against oxidized LDL.Castañer et al. (2011)
EVOO decreases urinary levels of 8-isoprostane, a marker of oxidative stress.Visioli et al. (2000)
EVOO positively influences the oxidative/antioxidant status of blood plasma.Weinbrenner et al. (2004)
Blood pressureEVOO causes a decrease in systolic and diastolic pressures in hypertensive women.Ruíz-Gutiérrez et al. (1996)
EVOO, but not OO, causes a decrease in systolic pressure in hypertensive coronary patients.Fitó et al. (2005)
EVOO improves postprandial endothelial dilation.Ruano et al. (2005)
EVOO increases the NO vasodilator and decreases systolic and diastolic pressures.Medina-Remón et al. (2015)
EVOO, but not OO, improves vessel dilation in pre-diabetic patients.Njike et al. (2021)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases systolic pressure by 2.5 mmHg in healthy volunteers.Sarapis et al. (2020)
Table 2. Examples of studies comparing the effect of EVOO and OO on several cardiovascular health parameters.

 

In addition to its multiple direct actions on the heart and vessels, it should also be noted that extra virgin olive oil could also exert an indirect beneficial effect, by blocking the formation of the metabolite trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) by intestinal bacteria. Several studies have shown that TMAO accelerates the development of atherosclerosis in animal models and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events in clinical studies. Extra virgin olive oils (but not regular olive oils) contain 3,3-dimethyl-1-butanol (DMB), a molecule that blocks a key enzyme involved in TMAO production and prevents development of atherosclerosis in animal models fed a diet rich in animal protein. Taken together, these observations show that there are only advantages to favouring the use of extra virgin olive oil, both for its superior taste and its positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Some people may dislike the slightly peppery taste that extra virgin olive oil leaves in the back of the throat, but interestingly, this irritation is greatly reduced when the oil is mixed with other foods. According to a recent study, this attenuation of the pungent taste is due to the interaction of the polyphenols in the oil with the proteins in food, which blocks the activation of the heat receptors that are normally activated by these polyphenols. People who hesitate to use extra virgin olive oil because of its irritant side can therefore get around this problem and still enjoy the benefits of these oils simply by using it as the main fat when preparing a meal.

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

OVERVIEW

  • Twenty volunteers were fed a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet in turn for two weeks.
  • Participants on the low-fat diet consumed an average of nearly 700 fewer calories per day than with the low-carbohydrate diet, a decrease correlated with a greater loss of body fat.
  • Compared to the low-carbohydrate diet, the low-fat diet also led to lower cholesterol levels, reduced chronic inflammation, and lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Overall, these results suggest that a diet mainly composed of plants and low in fat is optimal for cardiovascular health, both for its superiority in reducing calorie intake and for its positive impact on several risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

It is estimated that there are currently around 2 billion overweight people in the world, including 600 million who are obese. These statistics are truly alarming because it is clearly established that excess fat promotes the development of several diseases that decrease healthy life expectancy, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer. Identifying the factors responsible for this high prevalence of overweight and the possible ways to reverse this trend as quickly as possible is therefore essential to improve the health of the population and avoid unsustainable pressures on public health systems in the near future.

Energy imbalance
The root cause of overweight, and obesity in particular, is a calorie intake that exceeds the body’s energy needs. To lose weight, therefore, it is essentially a matter of restoring the balance between the calories ingested and the calories expended.

It might seem simple in theory, but in practice most people find it extremely difficult to lose weight. On the one hand, it is much easier to gain weight than to lose weight. During evolution, we have had to deal with periods of prolonged food shortages (and even starvation, in some cases) and our metabolism has adapted to these deficiencies by becoming extremely efficient at accumulating and conserving energy in the form of fat. On the other hand, the environment in which we currently live strongly encourages overconsumption of food. We are literally overwhelmed by an endless variety of attractive food products, which are often inexpensive, easily accessible, and promoted by very aggressive marketing that encourages their consumption. The current epidemic of overweight and obesity thus reflects our biological predisposition to accumulate reserves in the form of fat, a predisposition that is exacerbated by the obesogenic environment that surrounds us.

Eating less to restore balance
The body’s innate tendency to keep energy stored in reserve as fat makes it extremely difficult to lose weight by “burning” those excess calories by increasing the level of physical activity. For example, a person who eats a simple piece of sugar pie (400 calories) will have to walk about 6.5 km to completely burn off those calories, which, of course, is difficult to do on a daily basis. This does not mean that exercise is completely useless for weight loss. Research in recent years shows that exercise can specifically target certain fat stores, especially in the abdominal area. Studies also show that regular physical activity is very important for long-term maintenance of the weight lost from a low-calorie diet. However, there is no doubt that it is first and foremost the calories consumed that are the determining factors in weight gain. Moreover, contrary to what one might think, levels of physical activity have hardly changed for the last thirty years in industrialized countries, and the phenomenal increase in the number of overweight people is therefore mainly a consequence of overconsumption of food. Exercise is essential for the prevention of all chronic diseases and for the maintenance of general good health, but its role in weight loss is relatively minor. For overweight people, the only realistic way to lose weight significantly, and especially to maintain these losses over prolonged periods, is thus to reduce calorie intake.

Less sugar or less fat?
How do we get there? First, it’s important to realize that the surge in the number of overweight people has coincided with a greater availability of foods high in sugar or fat (and sometimes both). All countries in the world, without exception, that have adopted this type of diet have seen their overweight rates skyrocket, so it is likely that this change in eating habits plays a major role in the current obesity epidemic.

However, the respective contributions of sugar and fat to this increase in caloric intake and overweight are still the subjectof vigorous debate:

1) On the one hand, it has been proposed that foods high in fat are particularly obesogenic, since fats are twice as high in calories as carbohydrates, are less effective in causing a feeling of satiety, and improve the organoleptic properties of foods, which generally encourages (often unconscious) overconsumption of food. Therefore, the best way to avoid overeating and becoming overweight would be to reduce the total fat intake (especially saturated fat due to its negative impact on LDL-cholesterol levels) and replace it with complex carbohydrates (vegetables, legumes, whole-grain cereals). This is colloquially called the low-fat approach, advocated for example by the Ornish diet.

2) On the other hand, the exact opposite is proposed, i.e. that it would be mainly carbohydrates that would contribute to overconsumption of food and to the increase in the incidence of obesity. According to this model, carbohydrates in foods in the form of free sugars or refined flours cause insulin levels to rise markedly, causing massive energy storage in adipose tissue. As a result, fewer calories remain available in the circulation for use by the rest of the body, causing increased appetite and overeating to compensate for this lack. In other words, it wouldn’t be because we eat too much that we get fat, but rather because we are too fat we eat too much.

3) By preventing excessive fluctuations in insulin levels, a diet low in carbohydrates would thus limit the anabolic effect of this hormone and, therefore, prevent overeating and the accumulation of excess fat.

Less fat on the menu, fewer calories ingested
To compare the impact of low-carb and low-fat diets on calorie intake, Dr. Kevin Hall’s group (NIH) recruited 20 volunteers who were fed each of these diets in turn for two weeks. The strength of this type of cross-study is that each participant consumes both types of diets and that their effects can therefore be compared directly on the same person.

As shown in Figure 1, the two diets studied were completely opposite of each other, with 75% of the calories in the low-fat (LF) diet coming from carbohydrates versus only 10% from fat, while in the low-carb (LC) diet, 75% of calories were in the form of fat, compared to only 10% from carbohydrates. The LF diet under study consisted exclusively of foods of plant origin (fruits, vegetables, legumes, root vegetables, soy products, whole grains, etc.), while the LC diet contained mainly (82%) animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products).

Figure 1. Comparison of the amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins present in the low-carbohydrate (LC) and low-fat (LF) diets consumed by study participants. Adapted from Hall et al. (2021).

The study shows that there is indeed a big difference between the two types of diets in the number of calories consumed by participants (Figure 2). Over a two-week period, participants who ate an LF (low-fat) diet consumed an average of nearly 700 calories (kcal) per day less than an LC (low-carbohydrate) diet. This difference in calorie intake is observed for all meals, both at breakfast (240 calories less for the LF diet), at lunch (143 calories less), at dinner (195 calories less), and during snacks taken between meals (128 calories less). This decrease is not caused by a difference in the appreciation of the two diets by the participants, as parallel analyses did not find any difference in the level of appetite of the participants, nor in the degree of satiety and satisfaction generated by the consumption of either diet. However, the LF diet was composed exclusively of plant-based foods and therefore much richer in non-digestible fibres (60 g per day compared to only 20 g for the LC diet), which greatly reduce the energy density of meals (quantity of calories per g of food) compared to the high-fat LC diet. It is therefore very likely that this difference in energy density contributes to the lower calorie intake observed for the low-fat diet.

Overall, these results indicate that a diet consisting of plants, and thus low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates, is more effective than a diet consisting mainly of animal products, high in fat and low in carbohydrates, to limit calorie intake.

Figure 2. Comparison of the daily calorie intake of participants on a low-carbohydrate (LC) or low-fat (LF) diet. From Hall et al. (2021).

Weight loss
Despite the significant difference in calorie intake observed between the two diets, their respective impact on short-term weight loss is more nuanced. At first glance, the LC diet appeared to be more effective than the LF diet in causing rapid weight loss, with about 1 kg lost on average in the first week and almost 2 kg after two weeks, compared to only 1 kg after two weeks of the LF diet (Figure 3). However, further analysis revealed that the weight loss caused by the LC diet was mainly in the form of lean mass (protein, water, glycogen), while this diet had no significant impact on fat loss during this period. Conversely, the LF diet had no effect on this lean body mass, but did cause a significant decrease in body fat, to around 1 kg after two weeks. In other words, only the LF diet caused a loss of body fat during the study period, which strongly suggests that the decrease in calorie intake made possible by this type of diet may facilitate the maintenance of astable body weight and could even promote weight loss in overweight people.

Figure 3. Comparison of changes in body weight (top), lean mass (middle), and body fat (bottom) caused by low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. From Hall et al. (2021).

Cardiovascular risk factors
In addition to promoting lower calorie intake and fat loss, the LF diet also appears to be superior to the LC diet in terms of its impact on several cardiovascular risk factors (Table 1):

Cholesterol. It is well established that LDL cholesterol levels increase in response to a high intake of saturated fat (see our article on the issue). It is therefore not surprising that the LF diet, which contains only 2% of all calories as saturated fat, causes a significant decrease in cholesterol, both in terms of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. At first glance, the high-fat LC diet (containing 30% of the daily calorie intake as saturated fat) does not appear to have a major effect on LDL cholesterol; however, it should be noted that this diet significantly modifies the distribution of LDL cholesterol particles, in particular with a significant increase in small and dense LDL particles. Several studies have reported that these small, dense LDL particles infiltrate artery walls more easily and also appear to oxidize more easily, two key events in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. In sum, just two weeks of a high-fat LC diet was enough to significantly (and negatively) alter the atherogenic profile of participants, which may raise doubts about the long-term effects of this type of diet on cardiovascular health.

Table 1. Variations in certain risk factors for cardiovascular disease following a diet low in carbohydrates or low in fat. From Hall et al. (2021).

Branched-chain amino acids. Several recent studies have shown a very clear association between blood levels of branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, two very important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. In this sense, it is very interesting to note that the levels of these amino acids are almost twice as high after two weeks of the LC diet compared to the LF diet, suggesting a positive effect of a diet rich in plants and poor in fats in the prevention of these disorders.

Inflammation. Chronic inflammation is actively involved in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries and can lead to the development of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke. Clinically, this level of inflammation is often determined by measuring levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), a protein made by the liver and released into the blood in response to inflammatory conditions. As shown in Table 1, the LF diet significantly decreases the levels of this inflammatory marker, another positive effect that argues in favour of a plant-rich diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to these laboratory data, the researchers noted that participants who were fed the LF diet had a slower heart rate (73 vs. 77 beats/min) as well as lower blood pressure (112/67 vs. 116/69 mm Hg) than observed following the LC diet. In the latter case, this difference could be related, at least in part, to the much higher sodium consumption in the LC diet compared to the LF diet (5938 vs. 3725 mg/day).

All of these results confirm the superiority of a diet mainly composed of plants on all the factors involved in cardiovascular health, whether in terms of lipid profile, chronic inflammation, or adequate control of calorie intake necessary to maintain body weight.

To prevent cardiovascular disease, medication should not be a substitute for improved lifestyle

To prevent cardiovascular disease, medication should not be a substitute for improved lifestyle

OVERVIEW

  • Cardiovascular disease dramatically increases the risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19, again highlighting the importance of preventing these diseases in order to live long and healthy lives.
  • And it is possible! Numerous studies clearly show that more than 80% of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by simply adopting 5 lifestyle habits (not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, eating a lot of vegetables, exercising regularly, and drinking alcohol moderately).

The current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed two major vulnerabilities in our society. The first is, of course, the fragility of our health care system, in particular everything related to the care of the elderly with a loss of autonomy. The pandemic has highlighted serious deficiencies in the way this care is delivered in several facilities, which has directly contributed to the high number of elderly people who have died from the disease. Hopefully, this deplorable situation will have a positive impact on the ways of treating this population in the future.

A second vulnerability highlighted by the pandemic, but much less talked about, is that COVID-19 preferentially affects people who present pre-existing conditions at the time of infection, in particular cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. These comorbidities have a devastating impact on the course of the disease, with increases in the death rate of 5 to 10 times compared to people without pre-existing conditions. In other words, not only does poor metabolic health have a disastrous impact on healthy life expectancy, it is also a significant risk factor for complications from infectious diseases such as COVID-19. We are therefore not as helpless as we might think in the face of infectious agents such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus: by adopting a healthy lifestyle that prevents the development of chronic diseases and their complications, we simultaneously greatly improve the probability of effectively fighting infection with this type of virus.

Preventing cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is one of the main comorbidities associated with severe forms of COVID-19, so prevention of these diseases can therefore greatly reduce the impact of this infectious disease on mortality. It is now well established that high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol are two important risk factors for cardiovascular disease. As a result, the standard medical approach to preventing these diseases is usually to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels with the help of drugs, such as antihypertensive drugs and cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins). These medications are particularly important in secondary prevention, i.e. to reduce the risk of heart attack in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease, but they are also very frequently used in primary prevention, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events in the general population.

The drugs actually manage to normalize cholesterol and blood pressure in the majority of patients, which can lead people to believe that the situation is under control and that they no longer need to “pay attention” to what they eat or be physically active on a regular basis. This false sense of security associated with taking medication is well illustrated by the results of a recent study, conducted among 41,225 Finns aged 40 and over. By examining the lifestyle of this cohort, the researchers observed that people who started medication with statins or antihypertensive drugs gained more weight over the next 13 years, an excess weight associated with an 82% increased risk of obesity compared to people who did not take medication. At the same time, people on medication reported a slight decrease in their level of daily physical activity, with an increased risk of physical inactivity of 8%.

These findings are consistent with previous studies showing that statin users eat more calories, have a higher body mass index than those who do not take this class of drugs, and do less physical activity (possibly due to the negative impact of statins on muscles in some people). My personal clinical experience points in the same direction; I have lost count of the occasions when patients tell me that they no longer have to worry about what they eat or exercise regularly because their levels of LDL cholesterol have become normal since they began taking a statin. These patients somehow feel “protected” by the medication and mistakenly believe that they are no longer at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This is unfortunately not the case: maintaining normal cholesterol levels is, of course, important, but other factors such as smoking, being overweight, sedentary lifestyle, and family history also play a role in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have shown that between one third and one half of heart attacks occur in people with LDL-cholesterol levels considered normal. The same goes for hypertension as patients treated with antihypertensive drugs are still 2.5 times more likely to have a heart attack than people who are naturally normotensive (whose blood pressure is normal without any pharmacological treatment) and who have the same blood pressure.

In other words, although antihypertensive and cholesterol-lowering drugs are very useful, especially for patients at high risk of cardiovascular events, one must be aware of their limitations and avoid seeing them as the only way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

Superiority of lifestyle
In terms of prevention, much more can be done by addressing the root causes of cardiovascular disease, which in the vast majority of cases are directly linked to lifestyle. Indeed, a very large number of studies have clearly shown that making only five lifestyle changes can very significantly reduce the risk of developing these diseases (see Table below).

The effectiveness of these lifestyle habits in preventing myocardial infarction is quite remarkable, with an absolute risk drop to around 85% (Figure 1). This protection is seen both in people with adequate cholesterol levels and normal blood pressure and in those who are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to high cholesterol and hypertension.

Figure 1. Decreased incidence of myocardial infarction in men combining one or more protective factors related to lifestyle. The comparison of the incidences of infarction was carried out in men who did not have cholesterol or blood pressure abnormalities (upper figure, in blue) and in men with high cholesterol levels and hypertension (lower figure, in orange). Note the drastic drop in the incidence of heart attacks in men who adopted all 5 protective lifestyle factors, even in those who were hypertensive and hypercholesterolemic. Adapted from Åkesson (2014).

Even people who have had a heart attack in the past and are being treated with medication can benefit from a healthy lifestyle. For example, a study conducted by Canadian cardiologist Salim Yusuf’s group showed that patients who modify their diet and adhere to a regular physical activity program after a heart attack have their risk of heart attack, stroke and mortality reduced by half compared to those who do not change their habits (Figure 2). Since all of these patients were treated with all of the usual medications (beta blockers, statins, aspirin, etc.), these results illustrate how lifestyle can influence the risk of recurrence.

Figure 2. Effect of diet and exercise on the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death in patients with previous coronary artery disease. Adapted from Chow et al. (2010).

In short, more than three quarters of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle, a protection that far exceeds that provided by drugs. These medications must therefore be seen as supplements and not substitutes for lifestyle. The development of atherosclerosis is a phenomenon of great complexity, which involves a large number of distinct phenomena (especially chronic inflammation), and no drug, however effective, will ever offer protection comparable to that provided by a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and maintenance of a normal body weight.

Choosing dietary sources of unsaturated fats has many health benefits

Choosing dietary sources of unsaturated fats has many health benefits

OVERVIEW

  • Unsaturated fatty acids, found mainly in vegetable oils, nuts, certain seeds and fatty fish, play several essential roles for the proper functioning of the human body.
  • While saturated fatty acids, found mainly in foods of animal origin, increase LDL cholesterol levels, unsaturated fats lower this type of cholesterol and thereby reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
  • Current scientific consensus is therefore that a reduction in saturated fat intake combined with an increased intake of unsaturated fat represents the optimal combination of fat to prevent cardiovascular disease and reduce the risk of premature mortality.
Most nutrition experts now agree that a reduction in saturated fat intake combined with an increased intake of quality unsaturated fat (especially monounsaturated and polyunsaturated omega-3) represents the optimal combination of fat to prevent cardiovascular disease and reduce the risk of premature death. The current consensus, recently summarized in articles published in the journals Science and BMJ, is therefore to choose dietary sources of unsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils (particularly extra virgin olive oil and those rich in omega-3s such as canola), nuts, certain seeds (flax, chia, hemp) and fatty fish (salmon, sardine), while limiting the intake of foods mainly composed of saturated fats such as red meat. This roughly corresponds to the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that has repeatedly been associated with a decreased risk of several chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease.

Yet despite this scientific consensus, the popular press and social media are full of conflicting information about the impact of different forms of dietary fat on health. This has become particularly striking since the rise in popularity of low-carbohydrate (low-carb) diets, notably the ketogenic diet, which advocates a drastic reduction in carbohydrates combined with a high fat intake. In general, these diets make no distinction as to the type of fat that should be consumed, which can lead to questionable recommendations like adding butter to your coffee or eating bacon every day. As a result, followers of these diets may eat excessive amounts of foods high in saturated fat, and studies show that this type of diet is associated with a significant increase in LDL cholesterol, an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. According to a recent study, a low-carbohydrate diet (<40% of calories), but that contains a lot of fat and protein of animal origin, could even significantly increase the risk of premature death.

As a result, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the effects of different dietary fats on health. To get a clearer picture, it seems useful to take a look at the main differences between saturated and unsaturated fats, both in terms of their chemical structure and their effects on the development of certain diseases.

A little chemistry…
Fatty acids are carbon chains of variable length whose rigidity varies depending on the degree of saturation of these carbon atoms by hydrogen atoms. When all the carbon atoms in the chain form single bonds with each other by engaging two electrons (one from each carbon), the fatty acid is said to be saturated because each carbon carries as much hydrogen as possible. Conversely, when certain carbons in the chain use 4 electrons to form a double bond between them (2 from each carbon), the fatty acid is said to be unsaturated because it lacks hydrogen atoms.

These differences in saturation have a great influence on the physicochemical properties of fatty acids. When saturated, fatty acids are linear chains that allow molecules to squeeze tightly against each other and thus be more stable. It is for this reason that butter and animal fats, rich sources of these saturated fats, are solid or semi-solid at room temperature and require a source of heat to melt.

Unsaturated fatty acids have a very different structure (Figure 1). The double bonds in their chains create points of stiffness that produce a “crease” in the chain and prevent molecules from tightening against each other as closely as saturated fat. Foods that are mainly composed of unsaturated fats, vegetable oils for example, are therefore liquid at room temperature. This fluidity directly depends on the number of double bonds present in the chain of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated fats contain only one double bond and are therefore less fluid than polyunsaturated fats which contain 2 or 3, and this is why olive oil, a rich source of monounsaturated fat, is liquid at room temperature but solidifies in the refrigerator, while oils rich in polyunsaturated fat remain liquid even at cold temperatures.

Figure 1. Structure of the main types of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats. The main food sources for each fat are shown in italics.

Polyunsaturated fats can be classified into two main classes, omega-3 and omega-6. The term omega refers to the locationof the first double bond in the fatty acid chain from its end (omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet). An omega-3 or omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid is therefore a fat whose first double bond is located in position 3 or 6, respectively (indicated in red in the figure).

It should be noted that there is no food that contains only one type of fat. On the other hand, plant foods (especially oils, seeds and nuts) are generally made up of unsaturated fats, while those of animal origin, such as meat, eggs and dairy products, contain more saturated fat. There are, however, exceptions: some tropical oils like palm and coconut oils contain large amounts of saturated fat (more than butter), while some meats like fatty fish are rich sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats such as eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids.

Physiological roles of fatty acids
All fatty acids, whether saturated or unsaturated, play important roles in the normal functioning of the human body, especially as constituents of cell membranes and as a source of energy for our cells. From a dietary point of view, however, only polyunsaturated fats are essential: while our metabolism is capable of producing saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids on its own (mainly from glucose and fructose in the liver), linoleic (omega-6) and linolenic (omega-3) acids must absolutely be obtained from food. These two polyunsaturated fats, as well as their longer chain derivatives (ALA, EPA, DHA), play essential roles in several basic physiological functions, in particular in the brain, retina, heart, and reproductive and immune systems. These benefits are largely due to the degree of unsaturation of these fats, which gives greater fluidity to cell membranes, and at the same time facilitate a host of processes such as the transmission of electrical impulses in the heart or neurotransmitters in the synapses of the brain. In short, while all fats have important functions for the functioning of the body, polyunsaturated fats clearly stand out for their contribution to several processes essential to life.

Impacts on cholesterol
Another major difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids is their respective effects on LDL cholesterol levels. After absorption in the intestine, the fats ingested during the meal (mainly in the form of triglycerides and cholesterol) are “packaged” in structures called chylomicrons and transported to the peripheral organs (the fatty tissue and the muscles, mainly) where they are captured and used as a source of energy or stored for future use. The residues of these chylomicrons, containing the portion of excess fatty acids and cholesterol, are then transported to the liver, where they are taken up and will influence certain genes involved in the production of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which serve to transport cholesterol, as well as their receptors (LDLR), which serve to eliminate it from the blood circulation.

And this is where the main difference between saturated and unsaturated fats lies: a very large number of studies have shown that saturated fats (especially those made up of 12, 14 and 16 carbon atoms) increase LDL production while decreasing that of its receptor, with the result that the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood increases. Conversely, while polyunsaturated fats also increase LDL cholesterol production, they also increase the number and efficiency of LDLR receptors, which overall lowers LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. It has been proposed that this greater activity of the LDLR receptor is due to an increase in the fluidity of the membranes caused by the presence of polyunsaturated fats which would allow the receptor to recycle more quickly on the surface liver cells (and therefore be able to carry more LDL particles inside the cells).

Reduction of the risk of cardiovascular disease
A very large number of epidemiological studies have shown that an increase in LDL cholesterol levels is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Since saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol while unsaturated fat decreases it, we can expect that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat will lower the risk of these diseases. And that is exactly what studies show: for example, an analysis of 11 prospective studies indicates that replacing 5% of caloric intake from saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat was associated with a 13% decrease in the risk of coronary artery disease. A similar decrease has been observed in clinical studies, where replacing every 1% of energy from saturated fat with unsaturated fat reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 2%. In light of these results, there is no doubt that substituting saturated fats with unsaturated fats is an essential dietary change to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A very important point of these studies, which is still poorly understood by many people (including some health professionals), is that it is not only a reduction of saturated fat intake that counts for improving the health of the heart and vessels, but most importantly the source of energy that is consumed to replace these saturated fats. For example, while the substitution of saturated fats by polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats or sources of complex carbohydrates like whole grains is associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, this decrease is completely abolished when saturated fats are replaced by trans fats or poor quality carbohydrate sources (e.g., refined flours and added sugars) (Figure 2). Clinical studies indicate that the negative effect of an increased intake of simple sugars is caused by a reduction in HDL cholesterol (the good one) as well as an increase in triglyceride levels. In other words, if a person decreases their intake of saturated fat while simultaneously increasing their consumption of simple carbohydrates (white bread, potatoes, processed foods containing added sugars), these sugars simply cancel any potential cardiovascular benefit from reducing saturated fat intake.


Figure 2. Modulation of the risk of coronary heart disease following a substitution of saturated fat by unsaturated fat or by different sources of carbohydrates. The values shown correspond to variations in the risk of coronary heart disease following a replacement of 5% of the caloric intake from saturated fat by 5% of the various energy sources. Adapted from Li et al. (2015).

Another implication of these results is that one should be wary of “low-fat” or “0% fat” products, even though these foods are generally promoted as healthier. In the vast majority of cases, reducing saturated fat in these products involves the parallel addition of simple sugars, which counteracts the positive effects of reducing saturated fat.

This increased risk from simple sugars largely explains the confusion generated by some studies suggesting that there is no link between the consumption of saturated fat and the risk of cardiovascular disease (see here and here, for example). However, most participants in these studies used simple carbohydrates as an energy source to replace saturated fat, which outweighed the benefits of reduced intake of saturated fat. Unfortunately, media coverage of these studies did not capture these nuances, with the result that many people may have mistakenly believed that a high intake of saturated fat posed no risk to cardiovascular health.

In conclusion, it is worth recalling once again the current scientific consensus, stated following the critical examination of several hundred studies: replacing saturated fats by unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. As mentioned earlier, the easiest way to make this substitution is to use vegetable oils as the main fatty substance instead of butter and to choose foods rich in unsaturated fats such as nuts, certain seeds and fatty fish (salmon, sardine), while limiting the intake of foods rich in saturated fats such as red meat. It is also interesting to note that in addition to exerting positive effects on the cardiovascular system, recent studies suggest that this type of diet prevents excessive accumulation of fat in the liver (liver steatosis), an important risk factor of insulin resistance and therefore type 2 diabetes. An important role in liver function is also suggested by the recent observation that replacing saturated fats of animal origin by mono- or polyunsaturated fats was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma, the main form of liver cancer. Consequently, there are only advantages to choosing dietary sources of unsaturated fat.