“Low-fat diet” is almost a mantra among physicians and their patients who are trying to lower elevated cholesterol levels. And sticking to foods that are low in fat remains a tried-and-true strategy. But for those frustrated by what they see as a Spartan style of eating, claims that dozens of foods act as cholesterol busters are seductive.
Some of these foods deserve the big media splash they’ve received, while some have had their reputations tarnished when they didn’t live up to initial claims. Still others require eating a multitude of servings before you’ll see any effect. Unfortunately, none is the golden apple. But a few of these foods, in addition to sensible eating, may indeed help drive down cholesterol levels.
Seafood: Something Fishy?
Though some studies found that fatty fish, like salmon and sardines, lower total and blood vessel-damaging LDL cholesterol levels (often called the “bad” cholesterol), this has been disputed. When researchers took into account study subjects’ saturated fat intake, cholesterol levels hardly budged, even after they ate 7 ounces of fish a day — more than twice the amount the USDA considers a serving.
Further, most of the studies were conducted using fish oil supplements, not filets.
There’s good evidence that fish is good for you, but whether there’s any direct effect on cholesterol levels is much softer. Still, eating fish a couple times a week is a better choice than a saturated-fat-rich piece of steak.
Garlic: Sniffing Out the Facts
Recently, garlic got a lot of bad press when two well-designed studies found that ingesting the equivalent of one to one and a half cloves a day, taken as supplements, didn’t make a dent in total or LDL cholesterol, nor did it affect cholesterol metabolism.
While some experts still claim that whole garlic cloves may reduce cholesterol levels, critics are unequivocal. “Garlic’s been well studied,” they says, “and it doesn’t lower cholesterol.”
Fruits and Vegetables: Eat a Lot
Certain fruits and vegetables are particularly rich in pectin, a soluble fiber that may help lower total and LDL cholesterol. It does its job by trapping cholesterol-containing bile acids in the intestine and ushering them out of the body. The problem is you need to eat a lot — the equivalent of six large apples a day — to get maximum benefit.
Nonetheless, Pat Streicher, dietitian manager at the Jewish Hospital Cholesterol Center in Cincinnati, suggests getting three to four servings a day of water-soluble fiber foods, such as citrus fruits (especially the inner white rind), apples, berries, carrots, apricots, dates, figs, prunes, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. “You may get an extra 10 percent drop in cholesterol beyond the effect of a low-fat diet,” she says.
Beans: A Magical Experience
Lima, kidney, black beans and other legumes are loaded with soluble fiber that can help curb cholesterol levels. Studies have found that eating 1½ cups of cooked beans a day can cause significant dips in total and LDL cholesterol levels.
“Beans figure prominently in lowering cholesterol,” says Cyndi Reeser, lead nutritionist at George Washington University Lipid Research Center. “I highly recommend them several times a week, if not daily.”
Nuts: Finally, a Good Excuse?
Loaded with fat and calories, nuts often end up on the no-no list. Yet, in several studies, eating 2 to 4 ounces a day significantly reduced total and LDL cholesterol levels.
Scientists speculate these benefits may come from poly- and monounsaturated fats, which can lower cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat, and several phytochemicals, like plant sterols, that can inhibit cholesterol absorption. However, “We rarely encourage eating nuts because they’re too easy to overeat,” says Streicher.
Flaxseed: Rich in Soluble Fiber
Flaxseed is the richest source of lignins, plant compounds that provide fiber, as well as alpha linolenic acid, a polyunsaturated fat, which both may affect cholesterol levels.
“Though there have been few studies looking at flaxseed’s effect on high cholesterol levels,” says Joanne Slavin, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota, “I suspect it works probably because of its soluble fiber content.”
Reeser recommends trying a cereal containing flaxseed or adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day to oatmeal, casseroles or salads.
Olive Oil: Better Than Butter?
The traditional, olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet has been promoted for its heart-healthy benefits. But there’s disagreement over whether olive oil, high in monounsaturated fats, holds a special place among oils when it comes to cutting cholesterol. When they replace saturated fats like butter, both polyunsaturated fats, such as corn or safflower oils, and monounsaturated fats, including olive oil, lower cholesterol levels.
Scientists disagree, however, whether beneficial HDL levels (the “good” cholesterol) may drop with the polyunsaturated fats. Streicher suggests replacing saturated or animal fat with olive oil and, if your diet is very low in fat, consuming four to five servings of olive or canola oil a day — a serving is 1 teaspoon of oil or 1 tablespoon of salad dressing.
Oats: Officially Heart-Healthy
Foods containing oats have been permitted to carry a label stating they’re heart-healthy — if a serving provides at least ¾-gram of soluble fiber.
It takes 3 grams of soluble fiber per day to lower cholesterol levels by about six points. That translates to 1½ cups of oatmeal or 3 cups of Cheerios.
It’s the soluble fiber, beta glucan, that’s responsible for the cholesterol lowering properties of oats — the same fiber found in barley. “Oats definitely have an impact on cholesterol, though it’s not whopping,” says Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. “Besides, adding oats is something that’s easy to do.” She recommends adding 2 cups of oatmeal a day to your diet.
Soy: A Modest Effect
Soy’s effect on cholesterol is modest at best, and seems to take place only in people with very high cholesterol levels to start. This is what researchers found after analyzing 38 studies in which soy protein was substituted for some animal protein. To get the most benefit, you’d have to eat the equivalent of a pound of tofu a day.
A study suggested it’s the phytochemicals in soy, called isoflavones, that are causing the difference when it comes to cholesterol. Recently, the FDA proposed allowing food manufacturers to place a heart-healthy claim on soy food labels.
“There’s a case for soy lowering cholesterol; we just don’t know whether it’s the protein, fat, fiber or the isoflavones,” says Van Horn. But just 2 cups of soy milk or about 31/2 ounces of tofu a day may produce some cholesterol-lowering benefit.
The information contained in or made available through This Site cannot replace or substitute for the services of trained professionals in the medical field. We do not recommend any treatment, drug, food or supplement. You should regularly consult a doctor in all matters relating to physical or mental health, particularly concerning any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.