Avocado and health

Avocado and health

Avocado, aguacate, palta. All of these words refer to the same fruit – yes, fruit. The avocado (Persea americana) seems to have originated in Mexico (1, 2) and is currently enjoyed in most corners of the world thanks to globalisation.

The picture at the top of this article was taken in my hometown (Lima, Perú), where avocados are pretty much a staple. There are several varieties available throughout the year, including Fuerte, Hass, “punta” and “dedo”. However, in the anglo world, Hass seems to be the most common varity.

Fruit or vegetable?

Even though avocado is botanically a fruit, it’s normally considered a vegetable. This is because it’s low in sugar and it’s mainly eaten in salads and other savoury meals. Also, when dietitians make an assessment of nutrient intake, we usually count avocado as part of the vegetable food group.

Having said that, the avocado is a versatile food. It can be used in everything from desserts to soups (more on this later). In addition, it fits in many eating styles including paleo, primal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, keto, low carb, DASH, Mediterranean, etc.

Nutrients in avocado

Avocados are low in carbohydrate, high in fat (mainly monounsaturated or MUFA) and potassium. Below is the nutrient composition per 100g of avocado (2). Note than an average Hass avocado, for example, contains about 136g of flesh (1).

The table below shows the composition per 100g of avocado flesh (3).

NutrientPer 100g
Energy (kJ)867
Moisture (g)71.1
Protein (g)1.8
Total fat (g)21.6
– Total saturated fat (g)4.86
– Total monounsaturated fat (g)12.94
– Total polyunsaturated fat (g)2.86
– Linoleic acid (g)2.69
– Alpha-linolenic acid (g)0.17
Total carbohydrates (g)0.4
– Total sugars (g)0.4
Dietary fibre (g)3
Beta-carotene (µg)27
Thiamin (B1) (mg)0.07
Riboflavin (B2) (mg)0.128
Niacin (B3) (mg)1.8
Total Folates (µg)67
Vitamin B6 (mg)0.12
Vitamin C (mg)10
Alpha-tocopherol (mg)2.2
Vitamin E (mg)2.2
Calcium (Ca) (mg)13
Iodine (I) (µg)0.5
Iron (Fe) (mg)0.59
Magnesium (Mg) (mg)25
Phosphorus (P) (mg)49
Potassium (K) (mg)472
Selenium (Se) (µg)0.5
Sodium (Na) (mg)4
Zinc (Zn) (mg)0.52
Tryptophan (mg)24

Some key nutrients are:

  • Fat: As it happens with most foods, the fat in avocados is a mixture of different kinds of fatty acids: saturated (SFA), monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA). The proportion in avocado is about 24%, 63% and 14% respectively (3). Ripe avocados have more MUFA and less SFA than unripe ones (1). The average MUFA content in avocados is 12.94g per 100g, a little lower than olives (about 15g per 100g) and most nuts and seeds. Just FYI, macadamia nuts have the highest MUFA content (about 60g per 100g).
  • Fibre: Avocado has 3g of fibre per 100g, similar to pumpkin and Jerusalem artichokes but less than nuts, seeds, legumes, carrots, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, etc.
  • Potassium: Avocado has 472mg of potassium per 100g. As a comparison, roasted potatoes have around 650-700mg and bananas have about 350mg for the same weight.

Avocado and health

Weight and body composition

Avocado consumption has shown to lead to reductions in body weight, BMI, waist circumference and body fat (1, 2). This is likely because the fat and fibre content in the fruit help control hunger.

Cardiovascular health

People who eat avocados seem to have high HDL-cholesterol (the “good” kind) and lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides (1, 2, 4, 5) and small dense LDL-particles (5), which are the most harmful.

Avocados are also rich in phytosterols (i.e. the plant sterols), which block the absorption of cholesterol in the gut (1, 2).

The potassium content in avocados might help regulate blood pressure (1, 2).

Likewise, other nutrients in avocado might have protective effects on the cardiovascular system. These include magnesium, vitamin C, E, K1, B6, folate and carotenoids (1), which are present in the fruit but not in large quantities.

Diabetes and metabolic health

Maintaining a healthy weight, blood lipid levels and blood pressure are important for reducing risk of diabetes. In addition, avocado consumption seems to help regulate blood glucose and insulin levels (2, 5) as well as glucagon-like peptide-1 levels (2).

Vision

The antioxidants lutein (1, 4) and zeaxanthin (1), as well as the MUFAs (1, 4) in avocado can help protect eye health.

Skin health

The antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin may help protect the skin from UV radiation (1). Avocado flesh and oil can also be used topically (directly on the skin) as moisturiser.

Cancer

It has been proposed that several phytochemicals in avocados (such as carotenoids and terpenoids) may protect against some types of cancer (1, 2).

Other components of the plant

Scientists have developed extracts from avocado leaf, seed and skin that might lower plasma levels of LDL-cholesterol, total cholesterol and the liver function markers ALT and AST. The extracts also contain phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants (2).

Pros

Besides the health benefits, avocados are delicious, easy to transport and consume.

Cons

  • Due to their fat content, avocados are relatively high in energy. Therefore, they can lead to weight gain if eaten in excess.
  • Avocados are high in salicylates and amines (6). These are two naturally-occurring food chemicals that can cause adverse reactions in some people.
  • Avocados are also high in sorbitol (a FODMAP) – a half avocado contains about 80g (7). This can cause issues in people with intolerance to this fermentable carbohydrate.
  • It’s hard to get avocados in the perfect stage of ripeness.
  • They can be expensive depending on the season.

Uses

The uses of this versatile fruit include but are not limited to:

Baby food

Soft diets (e.g. jaw surgery or missing teeth)

Smoothies (tip: freeze the flesh for better smoothie consistency)

Cakes, mousses and other desserts

Guacamole

In salads

On toast or crackers

In sandwiches. As a side note, in Perú it’s common to have a bread roll with mashed avocado for breakfast or afternoon tea. I grew up eating my mashed avocado with sugar because that’s the way my grandma taught me (try it, it’s delicious) and later learned the rest of people eat it with salt.

Avocado chips

Grilled

References

  1. Dreher ML, Davenport AJ. Hass Avocado Composition and Potential Health Effects. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2013;53(7):738-50.
  2. Tabeshpour J, Razavi BM, Hosseinzadeh H. Effects of Avocado (Persea americana) on Metabolic Syndrome: A Comprehensive Systematic Review. Phytotherapy research : PTR. 2017;31(6):819-37.
  3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. AUSNUT 2011–13 – Australian Food Composition Database. 2014 [Available from: www.foodstandards.gov.au].
  4. Scott TM, Rasmussen HM, Chen O, Johnson EJ. Avocado Consumption Increases Macular Pigment Density in Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2017;9(9).
  5. Park E, Edirisinghe I, Burton-Freeman B. Avocado Fruit on Postprandial Markers of Cardio-Metabolic Risk: A Randomized Controlled Dose Response Trial in Overweight and Obese Men and Women. Nutrients. 2018;10(9).
  6. Swain Anne SV, Loblay Robert. RPAH elimination diet handbook: with food & shopping guide. Sydney, Australia: Allergy Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital; 2009.
  7. Monash University. Low FODMAP Diet App. 2018.