Two Steps in Reducing Cholesterol

February 18, 2014 in fiber, Health Claims, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Uncategorized, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

When groups of people eat a plant-based diet like the Mediterranean peoples did 50-plus years ago, bodies and minds stayed healthy for a relatively long time. The original epidemiologist who studied diet in populations, Ancel Keys, discovered the phenomenon of the health differences between American diet (now commonly called Western diet) and the Mediterranean diet. It took many decades before his work was really taken seriously; but today study after study validates what he found all those years ago – that eating plant foods helps keep the mind and body healthy. Beware of modern nutrition writers who really speak for continuing high intake of animal proteins. They criticize small points of Keys’ methodology, but do not mention the overwhelming body of additional studies that supports the benefits of each of the types of foods Keys described as characteristic of the Mediterranean diet.

One of the first things Dr. Keys noticed when he studied the Mediterranean peoples is that they did not have a lot of people with early cardiovascular disease. He found a correlation between their different style of eating and their health. Since then, science has continued to try to discover exactly what and how the differences in diet affect the body and mind. I’ve written quite a bit about this subject, but today I want to concentrate on a discovery of the relationship of certain types of food and having too much LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in our bodies.

First, let me just say that some individuals’ livers are very efficient at churning out surplus cholesterol and some are not. This always helps to muck up the story. You may hear about ‘cousin John’ who ate a nice fatty rib-eye steak every night; never touched vegetables and lived until he was 100 years old. But this post is about populations. There are not many of us who will enjoy optimal health, or have an optimal opportunity to enjoy a long healthy life if we eat the Western diet. The reason is that it is loaded with fatty meat and cheese, salty processed foods, a load of sugar (by various names), white processed flour, and a dearth of vegetables and fruits.

Among the biggest breakthroughs on the subject of cardiovascular health are the findings that trans and saturated fats stimulate the production of harmful cholesterol. If we stay away from processed foods, the trans fat part of the problem can go a long way toward being solved. Saturated fat is a little more challenging, especially if we want to cling to high animal protein intake. Today, I’d like to write about the next step in reducing LDL-cholesterol.

David J. A. Jenkins, MD, of St. Michael’s Hospital and the University of Toronto, conducted a randomized controlled diet trial. After six months, those who consumed cholesterol- lowering foods saw drops of 13% - 14% in LDL-cholesterol. The group that did not receive the cholesterol-lowering foods has a statistically insignificant 3% drop on the diet that had only a low-saturated fat regimen.  So the take away is that adding the cholesterol-lowering foods, to the low-saturated fat diet is worth the effort – it can improve the effectiveness of cutting down on saturated fat by over 4 times! Please take time to digest this information: The plant foods themselves have something in them that lowers LDL cholesterol – even if you are still eating (hopefully smaller amounts of) animal proteins.

Foods That Fight Bad Cholesterol

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved health claims for the following foods for improving cholesterol and combating coronary heart disease:

  • Try Plant sterol/stanol esters (at least 0.65 grams plant sterol esters per serving). Sterol/stanol esters can be found in some spreads and salad dressings. Check the labels.  You can get at least 1.7 grams plant stanol esters per serving of certain spreads and salad dressings; also, some snack bars and dietary supplements have these amounts.
  • Almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachio nuts, walnuts are great sources of nutrients that fight LDL cholesterol.  Control portion sizes; 1.5 ounces per day.
  • Try Soy protein; at least 6.25 grams per serving.
  • Oatmeal products are great! You can get soluble fiber or beta-glucan soluble fiber (at least 0.75 grams per serving) from oat bran, rolled oats, whole oat flour, whole grain barley or dry milled barley; also try Oatrim, psyllium husk (at least 1.7 grams per serving)
  • Look for fruits, vegetables and grains that contain at least 0.6 grams of soluble fiber per serving

This may be an underutilized group of foods that lower cholesterol. Melodie Anne Coffman at SFGate shares a very concise list of foods with soluble fiber; but if you want to really get going and have lots of choices go to the Harvard site.

Fruit: Notice that a very small 3.5-ounce apple has about 0.7 grams of soluble fiber. A 3.5-ounce serving of Hass avocado has 2 grams of soluble fiber. (That’s more than three times the amount needed for a serving in the Toronto study.) Pretty terrific!

A tiny naval orange weighing about 3.5 ounces offers 1.4 grams of soluble fiber.

Vegetables: Coffman shares a few examples of the soluble fiber in vegetables. Green beans, 3.5 ounces has 1.4 grams of soluble fiber. For 3.5-ounce serving of steamed broccoli you get a 1.8 grams of soluble fiber and carrots at 1.5 grams of soluble fiber for a 3.5-ounce serving. Remember that raw vegetable count. And don’t forget legumes.

So if you’ve cut out most of the butter, bacon and burgers, while trying to cut back on the saturated fat, maybe you’re ready to take the next step. That is, begin adding more fruits, vegetables, legumes, oatmeal, nuts, and maybe even a tofu meal now and then. You may expect to see your bad cholesterol take a dip. If you haven’t yet cut out or down on some of the meats and animal fats, renew your efforts, but do not wait to begin to add the cholesterol-fighting foods.