Heart Health

Heart Healthy Eating: The Truth on Carbs and Red Meat in Your Diet

Eat real food, not too much, and read the labels

A recent editorial article in the Houston Chronicle titled, “Want a healthier heart? Eat a steak”, caught the eye of many in the cardiology community. In his opinion piece, Dr. Bret Scher, the Low Carb Cardiologist, wrote, “For decades, nutritionists and physicians have urged people to limit consumption of red meat and other fatty foods, which were thought to cause heart disease. However, new studies debunk this conventional wisdom. Indeed, it now looks like low-quality carbohydrates — not saturated fats — are driving America’s heart disease epidemic. It’s time to stop demonizing steak.”

“Just to point out, this was an opinion, not a scientific article published in a medical journal,” noted Dr. Kevin Woods, during a recent episode of HeartTalk presented by Capital Cardiology Associates. Dr. Woods has an interest in preventive cardiology and cardiovascular imaging and promotes heart-healthy eating with his patients. “There is a lot of information out there, on the internet, sometimes in newspapers and magazines, that can confuse people who are looking for healthy eating,” commented Dr. Woods. “I think the article is good, in that, it does highlight [the relevance of] what you put in your body because what you eat is important.”

The Role Of Carbohydrates In Our Diet

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. When dieters “cut carbs” they limit their intake of sugary drinks and foods, bread, certain fruits, chips, pretzels, crackers, and most breakfast foods. The goal is to force your body to use protein and fat (mainly your body fat) for energy. A problem with low or no carb diets is that they are often difficult to maintain since a lack of carbohydrates in your diet can lead to feelings of low energy, and, it is difficult to eliminate carbs from your diet.

The Houston Chronicle write-up also challenges the theory that disease rates have skyrocketed because Americans replaced saturated fats with carbohydrate-rich grains (think quinoa, oatmeal, and brown rice). “The point that they made was, they felt the [nation’s] diabetes and obesity epidemic, which is a huge problem, is related to what we are eating. We are consuming too many refined carbohydrates,” affirmed Dr. Woods. Refined carbs have been stripped of all bran and fiber which aid in bowel health, and heart-healthy nutrients. White bread and pasta would be typical examples. Because they are low in fiber and quickly digested, refined carbs cause significant swings in blood sugar levels.

“I agree we eat far too many simple sugars and we need to eat more fiber and whole grains. There is no fiber in meat, zero,” added Dr. Woods. Fruits, vegetables, and milk contain fructose, galactose, lactose, and maltose — natural, simple sugars that are quickly absorbed by your body. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommend adults eat anywhere from 5 to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day depending on age, gender, physical activity, and overall health. “The solution to simple sugar in our diet is not to eat more meat, it’s to cut out processed food loaded with refined sugars for flavoring,” said Dr. Woods. Soda, candy, and sweets are often called “empty calories” because they provide energy (from sugar), taste great but have very little to no nutritional value.

Watching What You Eat

“There is good evidence that red meat and processed meats, in particular, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, it increases your risk of cancer and death,” added Dr. Woods. Processed meats include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats. These meats have been treated in some way to preserve or flavor. The processing could include salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking. The American Cancer Society has long recommended a diet that limits processed meat and red meat, and that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Dr. Woods continued, “When you look at the meta-analysis published, people who have consumed diets that are low in carbs and high in protein, that there is an increased risk of death. That is a concern. The WHO puts processed meats (like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and cold cuts) into Group 1 Carcinogenic to humans, meaning they are established to cause cancer. The same things in that group are plutonium, radioactive material, cigarette smoke, benzene, and asbestos. Red meat is also listed in 2A which is ‘probably cause’ cancer.”

For this reason, Dr. Woods offers this advice to patients when food shopping: “Read labels. If you cannot pronounce the ingredients or picture where they came from, they belong back on the shelf and not in your body.”

Heart Healthy Eating and Living

The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet that emphasizes daily portions of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils. They also urge limiting saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you choose to eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available.

Heart Healthy Eating and Living

The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet that emphasizes daily portions of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils. They also urge limiting saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you choose to eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available.

Healthy Choices and The Holidays

The challenge we all face during the Holidays is trying to find the balance of healthy eating and enjoying the festivities that come with gatherings and family events. “When it comes to nutrition, I stress to my patients that they don’t need to be perfect,” shared Dr. Woods. “You can enjoy dinners with your friends and family. I would highlight that portion control, especially during the holidays, is important – don’t overdo it. Enjoy turkey, apple pie, I do! The holidays are just a few days during the year; if you are making the right choices during the rest of the year, one meal shouldn’t make or break you.”

The Holidays also present the opportunity to indulge in an alcoholic beverage or drink, from Thanksgiving dinner to a New Year’s toast. The American Heart Association states no more than one drink per day if you are a woman and no more than two drinks per day for men. “That being said I have never, never, encouraged someone to start drinking that never has,” began Dr. Woods. “My take on things, as long as they are staying at a beverage or two that day, I don’t promote it as a healthy choice, there are so many other nutrition decisions [heart patients] are making that I would rather they stop doing, as far as short-term options.”

Written by: Michael Arce, Media Specialist
Any medical information published on this website is not intended as a substitute for informed medical advice and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.