Think about the myriad of images that pop into your head whenever you hear the simple yet overused phrase “heart-healthy.” We see this wording plastered across the packaging of so many products these days that it seems consumers appreciate that they are being marketed foods and other products that will ostensibly help keep their cardiovascular health in tip-top shape. At the end of the day, what is it that makes these things “heart-healthy”?
Here’s the reality people: We are being heavily influenced by some very slick and savvy marketing strategies being used by food, drug, and supplement companies to make their products appear as something worth purchasing all under the guise that they are somehow “heart-healthy.” From a promotional standpoint, this tactic is brilliant. Convince the consumer they need your product by underscoring all the supposed health benefits they will receive from purchasing and consuming it and you’ve got the recipe for a profitable widget. That’s Marketing 101 for any business.
But what if all those so-called “heart-healthy” claims just aren’t true? On what basis are they staking their claim on these assertions about something as important as your cardiovascular health? How can you know if the product you are consuming is actually going to make the health of your heart better or worse? These are critical questions you should be asking yourself before purchasing a product described as “heart-healthy.”
When it comes to these “heart-healthy” claims, it generally boils down to three primary things: the product is low in dietary fat and cholesterol, high in the so-called “good” fiber-based carbohydrates, and/or it tends to lower your LDL and total cholesterol. That’s the honest truth about what most of the companies are saying when they put “heart-healthy” on their products. But could some of these products perhaps be doing more harm than good to your health than you even realize? Absolutely. And that’s why you need to be discerning about separating the marketing from the desired results. I’ll help you do that in this column.
Here are 5 common examples of products widely considered “heart-healthy” that are probably not as good for your ticker as you might think:
1. Turkey Bacon/Lean Meats/Tofu
If you’re purchasing meat or meat substitutes that are very low in fat or using inferior meat replacement ingredients like soy, you probably think you are providing some kind of benefit to your heart by doing so; I hate to break it to you but those foods are not going to make you healthier. When you unnecessarily reduce the amount of fat in your diet by choosing these leaner cuts of meat and meat alternatives, what you are actually doing is robbing your body of the very substance that can raise your HDL cholesterol, lower your triglycerides and make your LDL particles the much more harmless large, fluffy kind. Fat, especially saturated fat, is essential to improving the key parts of your cholesterol panel and your heart health. And yet so many people are trying to cut it out of their diet thinking fat is “clogging” their arteries. There has never been any credible scientific basis for this mode of thinking that unfortunately still pervades our culture. Our fat-phobic society has scared people half to death of eating real whole food sources of full-fat meats and we’ve suffered the consequences of this action. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are more prevalent than ever before. STOP FEARING THE FAT!
2. Whole Grain Bread/Pasta/Cereal/Oatmeal
How many times have we seen a television commercial tell us about all the wonderful virtues that come from eating more “healthy whole grains” in our diet? In fact, the American Heart Association puts their obnoxious heart symbol on the packaging of so many foods, including those that are chock full of these whole grains putting forth the image in the mind of the consumer that grains will somehow improve their heart health. You want to know why they do this? They erroneously believe the dietary fiber you get from consuming whole grains in your diet will somehow lower your blood cholesterol levels and thus lower your risk of heart disease. That would be all well and good if elevated levels of cholesterol were the true culprit in heart disease—but it’s not! What is the cause of heart disease is chronic inflammation in the arterial wall. And you want to know something ironic? What do you think most people are eating in their diet that actually increases inflammation that eventually leads to heart disease? Surprise, surprise: It’s these very carbohydrates from whole grain sources that are being so heavily promoted to you as “heart-healthy.” Isn’t it something that the very foods they want us to be eating more of in pursuit of becoming healthier are actually having the exact opposite effect? Still want that Cheerios because you think it’s helping your heart? Think again!
3. Vegetable Oils/Margarine
One of the biggest health claim scams in the food industry is the idea that consuming vegetable (seed) oils such as canola, soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower oils, for example, are good for your heart and boost your overall health. These are the very same oils that are used to make margarine that has been heavily marketed for many years as a better “heart healthy” substitute for butter (which has been deemed unhealthy because of the saturated fat content). All of these products have been given the green light for use in virtually every packaged, processed food you’ll find on supermarket store shelves today. But what most people fail to realize about these vegetable oils and margarine is just how heavily processed and very unnatural it is compared with a real food like butter. If you want to see for yourself how many chemicals it takes to refine a product promoted as “healthy” like canola oil, just watch this eye-opening video about how it’s made:
Juxtapose this with the simplicity of the process for making butter:
The “heart healthy” claims on these products all come down to this: Vegetable oil and margarine are cholesterol-free, contain no saturated fat and will indeed lower your LDL-C and total cholesterol. That’s why they are trumpeted to you the consumer as a health product. But the truth of the matter is 85 percent of the cholesterol in your diet is excreted by the body, saturated fat consumption is a critical part of improving the most important parts of your cholesterol panel, and these vegetable oils are causing major damage to your LDL particles by eliminating the large, fluffy kind and oxidizing the remaining small, dense kind that will increase chronic inflammation, penetrate the arterial wall, and eventually lead to heart disease. Are you getting mad yet about how “heart healthy” has been so blatantly misused?
4. Egg Whites/Soy Milk/Skim Milk
Are you one of those people who eat egg whites for breakfast? What about pouring soy milk or fat-free skim milk on top of your cereal because you think that is a much better option for your health than full-fat milk? I hate to break it to you, but choosing these foods that people think are “heart healthy” once again is pure folly. The unintended consequence of removing the fat from your diet by choosing foods like this is it increases the amount of carbohydrates you take in. And it’s these very carbs that are problematic when you are attempting to improve your cholesterol panel because they raise triglycerides, lower HDL cholesterol, and lead to an increase in your small LDL particles. Plus, nixing the egg yolk and natural fats found in real whole (preferably raw) milk is removing what are arguably the most nutritious parts of those foods. These fats are so delicious and satisfying while energizing your body, why would you want to rob your body of the benefits you’ll receive from consuming them? Yes, your LDL might go up when you eat these, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing since the increase tends to be the more buoyant kind of LDL particles that are not atherogenic. Add to that your triglycerides dropping and your HDL increasing and you’ve got the recipe for a truly “heart healthy” food to consume.
5. Statin Drugs/Red Yeast Rice/Niacin/Plant Sterols
Wait, what? Statin drugs aren’t “heart healthy”? Isn’t that the reason why they exist in the first place to help prevent heart attacks and heart disease from happening? That is precisely how these cholesterol-lowering medications raking in $29 billion in annual profits have been presented to the general public. Add to that all the supplements on the market like red yeast rice, niacin, and plant sterols that boast they will lower your cholesterol and you’ve got the recipe for big business. While products like these can and will lower your cholesterol levels, that’s the wrong thing to be focused on. As I’ve stated previously, cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease. So why are we trying so desperately to artificially lower something in our body that is there for a purpose all under the assumption that will make us “heart healthy”?
The reason is people have fallen for the “go lower” message regarding cholesterol that has been promoted ad nauseam in television ads from pharmaceutical companies who would like nothing more than to continue their very lucrative gravy train. But if you took away the profitability of statin drugs and all these cholesterol modifying supplements today, then the focus by medical professionals regarding heart health would immediately shift away from LDL and total cholesterol and more towards key markers such as triglycerides, HDL, inflammation and blood sugar. Until that happens, you have to take back control of your own health by making more informed decisions and stop trusting food, drug and supplement companies to tell you the whole truth about their products.
So the next time you see a food, drug or supplement promoted as “heart-healthy,” stop and ask yourself whether it truly is or not. Most of the time, it’s not. And now you know.
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