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January 13, 2015

Avocados: Beyond Guacamole

Avocados help your body process fats, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis.

If your consumption of avocados is restricted to guacamole, you may want to plan on becoming better acquainted with this luscious fruit. In spite of the fact that 85 percent of the calories in an avocado come from fat, eating an avocado a day lowers your bad cholesterol, a very good thing for heart health.

Low density lipoproteins, the LDL part of a cholesterol reading, are proteins that carry fat molecules and tend to stick to the walls of blood vessels, causing the blockages of atherosclerosis. That's why they are known as the “bad” cholesterol.

Higher LDL levels put you at greater risk for a heart attack from a sudden blood clot in an artery narrowed by atherosclerosis.

MUFA-Powered Avocados

Avocados have long been known to be high in MUFAs, monounsaturated fatty acids, that raise the high density lipoproteins, the beneficial type of fat-carrying protein that is also known as “good” cholesterol.

One group ate a lower fat diet that did not include avocado. A second group ate a moderate-fat diet with no avocado; and a third group ate a moderate-fat diet in which one avocado was consumed each day.

One group ate a lower fat diet that did not include avocado. A second group ate a moderate-fat diet with no avocado; and a third group ate a moderate-fat diet in which one avocado was consumed each day.

HDL is a scavenger that removes harmful bad cholesterol from the bloodstream as it circulates. High HDL levels reduce the risk for heart disease — but low levels increase the risk. So, by raising HDL, avocados and other foods high in MUFA lower your risk of atherosclerosis.

The benefits of avocados, particularly the Hass variety common in the US, have not been studied much. A new American Heart Association study highlights how beneficial they are.

The Study
Forty-five healthy but overweight or obese adults participated in the study. For two weeks before the study began, they ate an average American diet with 51 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 34 percent of calories from fats, and 16 percent of calories from proteins.

Then the researchers assigned each person to one of three test diets for five weeks.

The diet that included an avocado every day had the most impressive result, reducing LDL almost twice as much as fat-lowering diets alone.

One group ate a lower fat diet that did not include avocado. A second group ate a moderate-fat diet with no avocado; and a third group ate a moderate-fat diet in which one avocado was consumed each day.

The lower fat diet provided 24 percent of calories from fat with 11 percent from monounsaturated fat, while the moderate-fat diets each contained 34 percent of calories from fat with 17 percent coming from monounsaturated fat.

The Findings
All of the diets reduced LDL or “bad cholesterol,” but the moderate-fat diet that included an avocado every day had the most impressive result, reducing LDL by 13.5 mg/dL — almost twice the reduction achieved by the other diets. The moderate-fat diet without avocado reduced LDL by 8.3 mg/dL, and the lower fat diet by 7.4 mg/dL.

Other blood measurements considered to be cardio-metabolic risk factors also improved with daily avocado intake, including total cholesterol, Triglycerides, non-HDL cholesterol, and small dense LDL.

Information to Take to the Grocery Store

So the next time you go to the grocery store, look around for avocados. The Hass variety turns darker as it ripens. You want them to be slightly soft, giving a little to the touch, before eating them. They can be stored in the refrigerator. Leave the pit in and cover the flesh once they are cut to prevent them from turning brown.

Avocados can be added to salads, sandwiches, and wraps; they fit right into a breakfast burrito; or they can be used to make avocado soup. They can be a creamy sauce to top chicken enchiladas or a smoothie with other fruits.

“This was a controlled feeding study, but that is not the real-world — so it is a proof-of-concept investigation. We need to focus on getting people to eat a heart-healthy diet that includes avocados and other nutrient-rich food sources of better fats,” said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, senior study author and a Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement.

Tasty Ways to Enjoy Avocados' Benefits
Along with the high concentration of monounsaturated fat, the Hass avocados used in the study are also good sources of fiber, phytosterols, and other bioactive compounds that could have contributed to the improved LDL levels in the study participants. Over half of the fat in an avocado is in the form of oleic acid which helps increase the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients and compounds like carotenoids, a class of phytochemicals linked to a lower risk of heart disease.

“In the United States avocados are not yet a mainstream food, and they can be expensive at certain times of the year. [Most] people do not really know how to incorporate them in their diet except for making guacamole,” Kris-Etherton added.

The options, however, for using avocados are endless. They can be added to salads, sandwiches, and wraps; they fit right into a breakfast burrito; or they can be used to make avocado soup. The creamy fruit can be a sauce to top chicken enchiladas or a smoothie with other fruits. Or you can just peel it, remove the seed, and eat it for a snack.

The entire study can be found in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

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