February is American Heart Month, which is an excellent opportunity to find out how a lower carb lifestyle may have a positive impact on heart health. The amount and type of carbs you should eat depend on your health risks and weight-management goals. If you’re overweight or obese, going low-carb when coupled with healthy fats and lots of colorful vegetables intake, may help you lose weight — and thus reduce your heart disease risks.
The Role of Dietary Fat in a Low Carb Lifestyle
For decades fat was considered the culprit when it comes to an increased risk for heart disease, but according to a study in the journal Lipids, a low carb diet may be more effective than a low fat diet in terms of promoting heart health. “The results support the use of dietary carbohydrate restriction as an effective approach to improve features of Metabolic Syndrome and cardiovascular risk,” according to one of the study’s authors, Jeff Volek, Ph.D.
A 2015 meta-analysis in the BMJ also concludes that saturated fats are not associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease, stroke, or type-2 diabetes.
In a 2017 study, high carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. “Emerging data are showing us that refined sugars are likely the main culprits in our diet, not fat,” says lead researcher Mahshid Dehghan, a nutritionist at the Population Health Research Institute in Hamilton, Canada. “Reduction in quantity and improvement in the quality of carbohydrates is essential for better health outcomes.”
A low carb diet can promote heart health, as shown in a 2021 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where, after losing weight, study participants were randomized into low, moderate, and high carbohydrate diet groups. The group eating low carb was fed a diet that increased their fat intake while lowering the amount of refined and high-glycemic carbohydrates, yet still contained foods rich in fiber and nutrients, such as vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, nuts, beans, and lentils. Ultimately it was this group that had better improvements in cardiovascular risk factors than people who followed the diets that were lower in fat and higher in carbs. In the low carb group, the meal plan swapped out whole grains like wild rice and whole-wheat bread for foods higher in fat and lower in carbs, and this dietary pattern ended up performing better in terms of improving multiple metabolic disease risk factors.
Even better news? Some of your favorite foods may be heart healthy. A 2020 state-of-the-art review on dietary fats and cardiovascular health, authored by leading researchers in the field, highlighted the fact that whole-fat dairy, unprocessed red meat, and dark chocolate (perfect for chocolate lovers, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner) are not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. While this isn’t permission to have a dark chocolate free-for-all, it shows that quality of your food is important when it comes to reducing your risk of heart disease. In other words, a square of dark chocolate is likely a better choice than a convenience store candy bar.
How to Make Low Carb Even More Heart Healthy
The quality of the carbs and fat that you eat may contribute to a low carb lifestyle’s heart-healthy trait:
Eat heart-smart carbs: High-glycemic carbs, which tend to be processed or rapidly digested (like white flour, white rice, sugar and packaged foods like crackers, cookies and chips), increase the risk of coronary heart disease, according to the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed almost 120,000 female nurses for eight years. With a low carb and low glycemic lifestyle like Atkins, you control carb intake. By eliminating added sugar and focusing on whole foods, including Foundation Vegetables, as your core carbohydrates, you are eliminating those high-glycemic carbs that may put you at risk for heart disease.
Eat heart-smart fats: Certain fats are good for your heart, and they are also an important part of a low carb lifestyle. These fats include monounsaturated fats; which are found in nuts, avocados and olive and canola oil and polyunsaturated fats; which are found in fish, sunflower seeds, soybeans, and flaxseeds as well as cottonseed, corn, and safflower oils. Make sure you are eating high-quality sources of saturated fats, such as organic coconut oil, eggs from pasture-raised chicken, grass-feed beef, and fatty, cold-water fish like salmon and dairy products from grass-fed cows. Try to eat at least two servings a week (3.5 ounces) of fatty cold-water fish like salmon, halibut, and tuna, which are also rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3s may decrease triglyceride levels, slow the rate of atherosclerotic plaque and lower blood pressure.
These recommendations are in line with many of the American Heart Association’s suggestions for a heart-healthy diet, which, along with heart-smart carbs and fat, include:
- A wide variety of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Healthy sources of protein (mostly plants such as legumes and nuts; fish and seafood; dairy and lean and unprocessed meat and poultry)
- Minimize intake of added sugars
What to Keep in Mind When Creating Your Heart-Healthy Low Carb Lifestyle Meal Plan
Focus on improving the quality of the carbs you are eating, replacing high-glycemic carbs and sugar for fiber- and nutrient-rich low-glycemic carbs. This will help you experience many of the benefits of a low carb diet, such as increased energy, supporting stable blood sugar levels, and less cravings. With Atkins’ low carb lifestyle, you can customize your meal plan based on how many carbs you’d like to eat, as well as the variety of food you’d like to eat:
Based on Atkins’ four-phase original nutritional and ketogenic approach, you eat 20 grams of Net Carbs a day. You’ll begin in Phase 1, consuming the smallest amount of net carbs to burn fat and put your body in ketosis. As you move through Phases 2 and 3, you will gradually balance and expand your list of acceptable foods. By Phase 4, you’ll be able to eat at your maximum net carb level while maintaining your weight and lifestyle.
Learn more about how to do Atkins 20 here.
You may maintain a fat-burning metabolism while having more carbohydrate options and a greater variety of food in controlled portions. You start by eating 40 grams of Net Carbs per day. As you approach your goals, you can start to increase your carbohydrate portion size. Your daily carbs can come from all food groups.
Learn more about how to do Atkins 40 here.
This low carb lifestyle plan has flexible eating options and the widest variety of food choices, geared toward maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You’ll begin the program by eating 100 grams of Net Carbs a day split between three meals and two snacks. If you are happy with your goals, you do not need to adjust your carb intake.
Learn more about how to do Atkins 100 and even a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style Atkins 100 here.
Low Carb Recipes Featuring Heart Healthy Foods
Learn about the potential heart-healthy benefits of foods like salmon, olive oil, broccoli, tuna, avocadoes, and spinach, plus discover delicious low carb recipes that make use of these nutrient-rich foods: