Harvard Women's Health Watch

Cholesterol-lowering foods outdo low-saturated-fat diet

People with high cholesterol are urged to eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. A study suggests that when it comes to reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol, they may do even better if they also eat certain cholesterol-lowering foods. The findings were published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (Aug. 24/31, 2011).

The study. Researchers at the University of Toronto enrolled 351 women and men with hyperlipidemia (high levels of fats in the blood), including an LDL level that averaged 171 milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dL. (Optimal LDL is less than 100 mg/dL). None of the participants were taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. All were instructed to follow weight-maintaining, largely vegetarian diets. Some were assigned to incorporate a "portfolio" of cholesterol-lowering foods into their diet. These foods included soluble fibers such as oatmeal, barley, psyllium-enriched cereals, okra, and eggplant; nuts; soy protein (soy milk, tofu, and soy meat substitutes); and margarines enriched with plant sterols. The control group was advised to focus on eating low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and to avoid the portfolio foods.

The results. After six months, LDL levels dropped an average of 13% to 14% in the portfolio group, compared with 3% — a nonsignificant drop, meaning it could have been due to chance — in the group eating the low-saturated-fat diet. The portfolio group also had an 11% reduction in their calculated 10-year risk of having a heart attack (based on the Framingham Heart Study risk assessment tool). On the other hand, the control group had a nonsignificant 0.5% drop in calculated risk.

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