Many of the people I lecture to or see in practice seem to be eternally frustrated by the ever-changing nature of the nutritional recommendations we are given. Dietary advice rarely seems to blow in a consistent direction for too long, and we can find ourselves chopping and changing nutritional tack without any real sense of where we are going. During my years in practice, however, I have noticed that individuals of the older generations are generally resistant to the vagaries of nutritional messages we are subjected to. Whatever notions they are pedalled by the dietetic establishment or food companies, most of my mature patients stick unflaggingly to a diet based on the ostensibly natural, unadulterated foods they grew up with.
I recently encountered an example of the healthy cynicism elder individuals tend to have to contemporary nutritional wisdom in Soho’s Berwick Street market. Talking me through her wares, an elderly lady vendor pointed to a pile of avocado pears. After extolling their virtues from a flavour perspective, she informed me her doctor had advised her to steer clear of this fatty fruit on account of its cholesterol-boosting nature. Then in hushed tones, she questioned the idea that a food plucked from a tree could be bad for her, and added that despite her doctor’s advice, she was eating avocados all the same. Not that she needed my approval, but I was more than happy to point out to my new best friend that she was right to indulge in this most forbidden of fruits.
While avocados are indeed rich in fat, this comes mainly in the form of what is known as monounsaturated fat. Also a prominent constituent of olive oil and many nuts, monounsaturated fat actually has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels in the body. In particular, a stack of studies show that a diet rich in monounsaturated fat helps to reduce levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ” the type of cholesterol traditionally associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. In theory at least, avocados should bring benefits to the body through a LDL-quelling action.
Several studies have examined the effect of feeding individuals a diet enriched with avocado. Happily, it seems their theoretical benefits in the body do materialise in the real world. One study found that just one week on a high-avocado diet led to a 22 per cent reduction in LDL scores. This study also found that avocado consumption raised the blood level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the type of cholesterol believed to be a protective factor in cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke. And as if this was not enough, studies show that avocado eating can help bring down the level of blood fats called triglycerides that, like LDL, have been implicated in the processes that underlie heart disease.
So, if the imminent arrival of the summer gives you an appetite for avocado, I suggest you offer no resistance. Half an avocado, dressed with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, makes a nutritious starter or snack. The flesh of this fruit also makes a satisfying ingredient in sandwiches and salads. A good deal of evidence points to the avocado, and the fat contained within it, as an eminently healthy food. But then again, if you tend to rely on age-old nutritional wisdom, you probably knew that already.