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Are you still being fooled by avocado’s bad rap as a high-fat food? It’s time to let go of old assumptions and embrace the fact that rich, creamy avocado benefits your health in a dizzying array of ways. Move over apples! Avocado benefits include improving your cholesterol, lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer, helping you maintain optimal blood sugar levels, decreasing inflammation, and protecting your eyes and joints. Avocados even help you absorb substantially more nutrients and phytochemicals from the foods you consume alongside them.
Avocados Contain a Dense Variety of Essential Nutrients and Important Phytochemicals
Hass avocados, the most commonly consumed avocados in the world, contain a dense variety of essential nutrients and important phytochemicals. One-half an avocado (68 g) contains 114 calories and provides the following nutrients and phytochemicals:
- dietary fiber (4.6 g)
- potassium (345 mg)
- magnesium (19.5 mg)
- vitamin A (43 μg)
- vitamin C (6.0 mg)
- vitamin E (1.3 mg)
- vitamin K1 (14 μg)
- folate (60 mg)
- vitamin B-6 (0.2 mg)
- niacin (1.3 mg)
- pantothenic acid (1.0 mg)
- riboflavin (0.1 mg)
- choline (10 mg)
- lutein/zeaxanthin (185 μg)
- phytosterols (57 mg)
- high-monounsaturated fatty acids (6.7 g)
Avocado Eaters Are Found to Be Healthier Than Non-Eaters
Before we explore specific avocado benefits, keep in mind the results of a recent study which showed that people who eat avocados are healthier than those who don’t. Avocado eaters tend to consume significantly more of the commonly deficient nutrients—dietary fiber, vitamins K, and E, potassium, and magnesium—according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES 2001-2006) regarding the dietary intake of 14,484 U.S. adults. The study also found that avocado consumers have higher HDL-cholesterol, which is the good, protective form of cholesterol associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Not only that, avocado eaters were at significantly lower risk for metabolic syndrome, the precursor to diabetes and heart disease. Lastly, the study showed that people who eat avocados tend to weigh less and have lower BMI’s and smaller waist circumferences than non-avocado eaters, even though their total fat intake is higher. Of course, this study doesn’t prove that all these health advantages are directly due to avocado benefits (such a study would be virtually impossible), but it does demonstrate they can play an important role in healthy living and optimal nourishment.
The Avocado Benefits for Cardiovascular Health are Especially Profound
At least eight preliminary clinical studies have consistently demonstrated positive avocado benefits on heart and blood vessel health. In one of the latest studies to show how avocado lowers cardiovascular disease risk, researchers at Pennsylvania State University studied the effects of one avocado per day on cardiovascular risk factors in overweight and obese adults with elevated LDL cholesterol. Including avocado in the diet significantly decreased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and other cholesterol-related risk factors (such as apoB and the LDL/HDL ratio). Compared to a low-fat diet containing no avocado but the same number of total calories, the avocado diet, which was considered moderate in fat, lead to a significantly greater reduction in LDL-cholesterol. Other studies have also shown decreased triglycerides and increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) in addition to improvements in total and LDL cholesterol.
The Many Reasons Avocado Decreases the Risk of Heart Disease
Avocado’s fats, essential nutrients, and phytochemicals each play a role in its ability to improve heart and blood vessel health. Some of avocado’s nutrients are potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Other compounds in avocado block cholesterol uptake from the intestines and still other avocado components lower homocysteine, an important cardiovascular risk factor.
- Avocado benefits to cardiovascular health are mainly due to its unique composition of healthy fats, which help maintain healthy blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and decrease inflammation within the blood vessels. Avocado oil consists of 71 percent monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), 13 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and 16 percent saturated fatty acids (SFA). It is well known that heart health is improved by intake of oleic acid (the primary MUFA in avocado) and by intake of omega-3 PUFAs (provided by avocado in the form of alpha-linolenic acid at 160 mg per cup).
- Avocado benefits to cholesterol may also be due to the fact that avocados are the richest known fruit source of fat-like substances called phytosterols. Phytosterols decrease inflammation and also block cholesterol activity in the intestines. One study showed that the natural phytosterols in avocado may help promote stronger intestinal cholesterol blocking activity than popular sterol-fortified foods and supplements.
- In addition to avocados’ healthy fats and phytosterols, they have an impressive spectrum of carotenoids. Carotenoids are a group of phytochemicals with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Lowering inflammation and oxidative stress is one way to prevent plaques from building up in the arteries. Not only that, certain carotenoids— lutein, cryptoxanthin, and zeaxanthin— have been shown to directly lower oxidized LDL cholesterol levels and to decrease the thickening of arterial walls. Lutein, cryptoxanthin, and zeaxanthin just happen to be the three primary carotenoids in avocados! In fact, California Hass avocados have the highest content of lutein among commonly eaten fruits. (Note: the carotenoids are concentrated in the darkest green flesh directly under the avocado’s skin. To capture the most carotenoids and get optimal avocado benefits, make sure to peal your avocado just like a banana skin so that it retains most of this dark green outermost flesh.)
- Because of its healthy fats and antioxidants, ingesting avocado along with unhealthy, artery-clogging foods helps to mitigate the dangerous properties of those foods. Foods like hamburger meat are known to cause inflammation, oxidative stress, and blood vessel constriction after consumption. A study at UCLA in healthy volunteers, for example, found that when eaten alone, a hamburger patty caused significant constriction in the arteries and inflammation two hours later, indicating increased risk for cardiovascular events like heart attacks. However, when half an avocado was ingested along with the hamburger patty, no blood vessel constriction or inflammation was observed. “These observations are suggestive of beneficial anti-inflammatory and vascular health effects of ingesting added Hass avocado with a hamburger patty,” concluded the researchers.
- Not only are avocados loaded with carotenoids, they are also excellent sources of the specific B vitamins known to lower homocysteine levels—folic acid and vitamin B6. Elevated levels of homocysteine are a key risk factor for heart disease and both folic acid and vitamin B6 are very important for healthy regulation of homocysteine levels. Researchers believe the significant amounts of these B vitamins constitute another method by which avocado benefits heart health.
How to Get the Most Avocado Benefits
Including avocados in a natural diet based mostly on whole, unprocessed foods is a delicious way of eating that can help you enjoy excellent heart health and cardiovascular function. Avocado benefits are due primarily to its dense nutrient and phytochemical content, especially its monounsaturated fatty acids, phytosterols, and lutein/zeaxanthin carotenoids. Avocados contain a good deal of water and fiber along with their healthy fats, so are not as loaded with calories as one might think. What’s more, the heart healthy avocado benefits on cholesterol, blood vessel function, and other cardiovascular risk factors make it the perfect food for anyone at high risk for heart disease. In part 2 of this article you will learn about the many additional health benefits of this truly amazing food.
This article was originally published in 2013. It is regularly updated.