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The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Oatmeal & Oat Bran

What's magic about oats? A lot.
By
WebMD Feature

Oatmeal, that sturdy breakfast food from your grandmother's kitchen, has a lot going for it. Not only is it a fine way to start the day, but it can also really bring down your bad LDL cholesterol levels without lowering your good cholesterol. The same goes for oat bran, which is in some cereals, baked goods, and other products.

How Do Oats Help?

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Oatmeal is full of soluble fiber, which we know lowers LDL levels. Experts aren't exactly sure how, but they have some ideas. When you digest fiber, it becomes gooey. Researchers think that when it's in your intestines, it sticks to cholesterol and stops it from being absorbed. So instead of getting that cholesterol into your system -- and your arteries -- you simply get rid of it as waste.

What's the Evidence?

There's plenty of evidence that eating oatmeal lowers cholesterol levels. It's such a well-accepted belief that the FDA gave it the status of a "health claim" in 1997. This allows manufacturers to advertise the heart-healthy benefits on boxes of oatmeal and other products.

Some studies have shown that oats, when combined with other cholesterol-lowering foods, can have a big effect on cholesterol levels. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers tested cholesterol-lowering drugs against cholesterol-lowering foods in a group of thirty-four adults with high cholesterol. Oat products were among the chosen foods. The results were striking. The diet lowered cholesterol levels about as well as cholesterol drugs.

Getting Oatmeal Into Your Diet

It's fairly simple to work oatmeal into your meal plan. Start with the obvious: enjoy hot oatmeal in the morning.

"Oatmeal makes a filling, healthy breakfast," says Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She suggests that you add bananas or walnuts. If you're not so keen on hot oatmeal, try a cold cereal that's made from oat bran.

But oatmeal isn't only for breakfast. "Ground oatmeal can be added to any food," Frechman tells WebMD. You can add it to soups and casseroles. You can add some to breadcrumbs when you coat food for cooking. You can also add it to many recipes for baked foods. For instance, the American Dietetic Association suggests swapping one-third of the flour in recipes with quick or old-fashioned oats.

Do keep in mind that not everything with "oatmeal" in the name will be good for you. For instance, some so-called oatmeal cookies might contain very little oatmeal and lots of fat and sugar. So pay attention to the label. Look to see how much soluble fiber is in the ingredients.

How Much Do You Need?

Most adults should get at least 25 grams of fiber a day. But the average Americans only eats about 15 grams of dietary fiber a day. So you should aim to double or triple your intake by consciously adding soluble fiber to foods.

There are 3 grams of soluble fiber in 1.5 cups of oatmeal -- enough to lower your cholesterol, according to the American Dietetic Association. It may be a bit much for breakfast, so just add in oatmeal or bran to dishes at other times of the day.

Reviewed on February 02, 2009
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Cholesterol Glossary

  • Dietary fiber - The parts of plants that your body can't digest. If eaten regularly, fiber such as oats, pectin, and psyllium reduces serum and LDL cholesterol.
  • HDL Cholesterol - The "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol helps your body remove "bad" cholesterol from your arteries.
  • LDL Cholesterol - The "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol tends to be deposited in artery walls.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - A good-for-you polyunsaturated fat found in some fish and vegetables (salmon, flax seed, soybean, English walnuts, and canola oil).
  • Plant sterols - Found in plant foods, isolated from soybean and tall pine tree oils, they lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels.

Which foods do you favor?