Veggies Add Vim to Low-Fat Diet
Adding Plant Foods to Low-Fat Diet Doubles Cholesterol-Lowering Effect
May 2, 2005 -- You can lower your cholesterol with a low-fat diet. But you get twice the bang for your buck if you eat lots of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
For years, Americans were told to avoid fats. But it's not enough to avoid unhealthy foods. New dietary guidelines stress the value of eating plenty of healthy foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans.
How much better is the new advice? At least twice as good, find Stanford researcher Christopher Gardner, PhD, and colleagues. Gardner's team finds that people who eat a low-fat diet lower their cholesterol. But those who eat just as few fats and eat lots of plant-based foods double the diet's cholesterol-lowering power.
"The effect of diet on lowering cholesterol has been really minimized and undermined by a lot of clinicians and researchers saying, 'Yes, it has an effect but it is really trivial. It would be better to put you on drugs to control your cholesterol,'" Gardner says in a news release. "We weren't really giving diet a fair shake. We were so focused on the negative -- just what to avoid -- and not what to include."
The plant-food-enhanced diet isn't strictly vegetarian. It's simply rich in foods known to lower cholesterol. These include soy-based foods, garlic, soluble fiber (provided by food like oats, barley, psyllium and beans), whole grains, and nuts.
So what's more important -- simply avoiding fat or eating lots of good foods? Gardner's team asked 120 people to help answer this question. These 30- to 65-year-olds had moderately high LDL "bad" cholesterol, ranging from 130 to 190 mg/dL. None was obese, and all were in generally good health.
For four weeks, half the volunteers adopted the old-fashioned low-fat diet and half stuck to a low-fat, plant-based diet. To minimize cheating, the researchers fed them dinner every weekday and gave them a cooler filled with foods for the rest of the time.
The diets were fat and calorie balanced so that nobody gained or lost weight. Some of the study participants were, indeed, overweight. Losing weight is a good way to cut your cholesterol. But the study was designed to look at the effects of diet and not weight loss.