A new study showed people who ate a diet rich in cholesterol-lowering foods, such as soy protein, almonds, plant sterol-enriched margarines, and natural fiber (from items such as oats, psyllium, okra, and eggplant) for a year lowered their cholesterol levels by 20% or more, a reduction comparable with that found with statins.
Researchers say the results suggest that cholesterol-lowering foods are most effective when combined rather than eaten individually to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
"The benefit of statins to individuals at high risk for cardiovascular disease is not in question here," says researcher David Jenkins, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, in a news release. "Emphasizing diet changes in general can boost the success rate of statins while providing additional health benefits and a possible alternative for those for whom drugs are not a viable option."
Portfolio Diet Lowers Cholesterol
In the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the cholesterol-lowering effects of one month of statin use vs. one year of following a diet rich in a portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods under real-world conditions.
For one year, 55 adults with high cholesterol followed a mostly plant-based diet including soy protein, plant sterol-enriched margarine, increased fiber, and almonds. The people were also asked to eat five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and eat more plant protein (such as beans).
"The participants found it easiest to incorporate single items such as the almonds and margarine into their daily lives," says Jenkins. "The fiber and vegetable protein were more challenging since they require more planning and preparation, and because these types of niche products are less available. It's just easier, for example, to buy a beef burger instead of one made from soy, although the range of options is improving. We considered it ideal if the participants were able to follow the diet three-quarters of the time."
The results showed that the participants who followed the diet for one year had lowered their cholesterol levels by 20%. Researchers say that cholesterol reduction is comparable with the reduction achieved by 29 of the participants who took a statin for one month before following the diet in a separate study.
"The study's findings suggest that the average person can do a lot to improve their health through diet," says Jenkins. "People interested in lowering their cholesterol should probably acquire a taste for tofu and oatmeal, keeping in mind that portable alternatives fit best with a modern lifestyle. Save the experimenting for the evening, when you have more time to prepare more complicated meals."
"Taking a pill may give people the false impression that they have nothing further to do to protect their health and prevent them from making serious lifestyle changes," says Jenkins.