Health benefits of avocados

Avocados are a fruit that many people don’t think of eating. They’re exotic, a little strange looking, and how to eat them isn’t always obvious. For those of you who have ventured into the world of Central American fruit however, the benefits of avocados are incredible.

First of all, avocados are extremely nutritious. One avocado contains approximately 300 calories (but don’t worry, you’ll learn why this is not a bad thing!), 29g fat (again, this is a good thing), 14mg sodium, 17g carbohydrates, 13g dietary fibre, 1g sugars, and 4g protein.

The avocado is what is known as ‘nutrient dense’. This means that it is very high in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, whilst being low in ‘empty’ calories. There are also over 20 vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, iron, potassium, vitamin C, and dietary fibre.

  • Vitamin E is important for boosting the immune system and is involved in protecting cell membranes from damage.
  • Iron helps to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen through the blood. This allows cells to produce energy, preventing weakness and fatigue. People who are iron deficient (anaemia) have a reduction in the number of red blood cells produced, and as a result get cold, breathless and tired very easily. It can also lead to a greater susceptibility to illness. Eating avocados can be a great way to boost iron levels in a healthy way.
  • Potassium, another nutrient found in avocados, is great for lowering blood pressure, which can in turn reduce the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) and stroke.
  • Vitamin C is a very important nutrient which promotes healing, improves the quality of skin, bones & hair, and helps the body to absorb iron.
  • Dietary fibre is important to ensure that the gastrointestinal system (gut) is working efficiently. Having poor fibre levels can cause constipation as well as more serious intestinal problems.

For these preventative benefits alone, avocados appear to be a superfood. But it doesn’t stop there. Avocados have a range of health benefits, including:

  • Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
  • Weight Loss
  • Prevention of Cancer
  • Prevention of signs of Ageing

Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease

Each year, over 73,000 people are killed by coronary heart disease, or CHD. It is the biggest killer in the UK. There are an estimated 2.3 million people with the disease in the UK, but it is a disease which is easily preventable with a healthy lifestyle.

Pieterse, Jerling and Oosthuizen (2003) investigated the link between avocados, monounsaturated fat, cholesterol and coronary heart disease (CHD). Most people seem to assume that high fat will lead to heart problems and low fat to heart health. In recent years evidence has revealed that it is in fact the types of fat consumed which have a greater influence on cardiovascular health.

Avocados actually have one of the highest fat contents of all fruit, but are also one of the best for heart health. This is because they are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). These are the ‘good fats’ which can help to lower cholesterol. High cholesterol is a well-established risk factor for the development of CHD, and is also linked with a greater risk of heart attack, stroke, a narrowing of the arteries and transient ischemic attach (TIA, or ‘mini-stroke’ – a temporary interruption in the blood supply to the brain).  As well as lowering cholesterol, MUFA also speed up the metabolism, which allows food to be consumed by the body more efficiently.

Weight Loss

Avocados are also excellent foods for weight-loss. Obesity is a common problem in the UK, affecting approximately 25% of adults and 1/5 of children aged ten to eleven. Therefore, an easy way to combat unhealthy eating is essential.  A study by Wien, Haddad, Oda and Sabate (2013) assessed whether avocado could help induce a feeling of satiety (fullness) and reduce post-meal snacking in order to prevent unnecessary eating.

Twenty-six overweight adults were split into three groups for a lunchtime meal – avocado free (the control group), avocado inclusive, and avocado added. Avocado inclusive participants had a meal where avocado replaced another food, and avocado added participants had a meal where avocado was additional to other food. The participants ate their meals, and then rated their appetite for the next five hours. The researchers also measured insulin and blood glucose levels. The results showed that those who had added avocado felt 23% more satisfied and had 28% less desire to eat, compared to the control group.

For those who had avocado instead of another food, their post-meal insulin levels were significantly lower than the other groups. This study shows that adding avocado to your meal can significantly reduce hunger pangs later in the day, which will reduce snacking behaviour. If avocado is used as a substitute for another food source, it can also improve insulin levels. Insulin is important for using and storing glucose found in food. Low insulin levels can lead to chronic health problems such as Type 1 Diabetes where the body does not produce insulin, and so insulin shots have to be taken regularly throughout the day.

Prevention of Cancer

As previously mentioned, avocados are rich in dietary fibre which is excellent for maintaining digestive health, including preventing digestive system cancers such as bowel or colon cancer. Cancers are sometimes caused due to a high number of free radicals in the body.

Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons. Going back to high school science days, remember that in every atom there should be an even number of protons (positively charged particles) and electrons (negatively charged particles). Free radicals are created when oxygen reacts with certain molecules (the result of atoms chemically bonding together) which can result in either the addition or loss of an electron. They play an important role in the body, but in high numbers can be destructive.

Once free radicals are formed, they attempt to find a proton to pair with the unpaired electron in their formation. During this search, they can do a significant amount of damage through a destructive chain reaction, interacting with cells in the body, including DNA. When a cell interacts with a free radical, this can cause cell damage or death. Damage to DNA can lead to the formation of many cancers. Oxygen free radicals are a certain type of free radical which is a waste product of metabolic processes. The production of these radicals can be increased through consumption of tobacco smoke, pollution and radiation. This can help to explain how smoking and unhealthy lifestyles can increase the risk of certain cancers.

In order to prevent cell damage through free radicals, the body creates antioxidants which interrupt the chain reaction before damage can be done to the body’s cells. Antioxidants include vitamin C and vitamin E, both found in avocados. Avocados also contain glutathione, an antioxidant which attacks free radicals by eliminating absorption of certain fats. Through this process, the number of free radicals in the body is reduced, and so the risk of developing cancers is also reduced.

Protecting your Youth

For a long time, scientists have been aware that certain oils have healthy properties. Olive oil is supposedly one of the healthiest, as it helps reduce cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, breast cancer, bowel disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease (although only extra virgin olive oil has been found to have this benefit). One of the most important reasons that these health benefits exist is that olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFA. As we have seen before the avocado is also rich in MUFA, therefore it can reap the same benefits.

Free radicals, as well as being a risk factor for cancer, can also accelerate the ageing process through damaging skin cells and DNA. Avocado oil can help prevent this from happening because the antioxidants within the oil are able to penetrate the mitochondria of cells. This is a unique property of avocado which isn’t found in many other fruits or vegetables. Mitochondria are vital for the production of cells energy, but they are also quite unstable and can generate chemicals which negatively influence many cellular components. A direct result of this is ageing. Because antioxidants in avocado oil can penetrate mitochondria, this can ensure that mitochondria function correctly even when the cells are being attacked by free radicals. This in turn, can prevent the ageing process.

Signs of ageing can also be prevented through the nutrients contained in avocados. Sterolins are sugars found in various plants and fruits including avocados, and are good for softening the skin and reducing the appearance of age spots. Vitamins A, B, D and E, all found in the avocado can rejuvenate the skin, and avocados also boost collagen production, a protein which binds structures in the body together and gives skin firmness and elasticity.

Some Things to Be Aware Of

Although the avocado does seem to be a super food, it does sound a little too good to be true. And there are a few downsides, but not many.

Firstly, if you have allergies to kiwi, bananas, latex, tomatoes or chestnuts, you might find you are also allergic to avocados. This is because they all contain the similar substances which may cause a reaction.

Another potential disadvantage may be that if you are calorie counting (although personally I wouldn’t recommend it), the avocado can add a great load of calories for a relatively small amount of food. Therefore, they may not be the best choice for you. I’d recommend you really take note, however, of the research quoted above stating that it is the content of the food, and not the calories itself, which are truly important.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and have been enticed into incorporating avocados into your diet. They can be enjoyed in a variety of different ways – a list of delicious recipes can be found here. Happy eating!

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