There’s no question that eating certain foods can help lower cholesterol—oats, nuts and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids are particularly effective. And previous research suggests that plant sterols—those plant compounds added to foods like margarine, orange juice and yogurt drinks—can also help lower cholesterol levels. Two new studies offer important information on how small changes to your diet and eating habits can help significantly lower cholesterol levels.
A Daily “Drip” of Plant Sterols
Many people have turned to foods fortified with plant sterols in an effort to lower cholesterol. It appears, however, that getting the most benefit from these foods isn’t as simple as gulping a fortified glass of orange juice in the morning or slathering your toast with margarine. Rather, a small study suggest that consuming plant sterols throughout the day—what researchers term a daily “drip”—may help lower cholesterol as much as 6 percent in as little as six days.
Researchers at Tufts University in Boston, Mass., recruited 29 volunteers to determine the effects of consuming plant sterols throughout the day over a six-day period. During the control phase, all participants consumed a weight-maintaining diet free of plant sterols. For the second phase, participants were placed on the same diet, but with the addition of 1.8 grams of plant sterols at breakfast. During the third phase, the volunteers once again consumed the same diet, but ate 1.8 grams of plant sterols divided equally between the three main meals each day. For two weeks between each phase, participants consumed their normal diets.
Measurements of LDL-cholesterol levels were taken at the beginning and end of each phase, with the greatest reduction—6 percent—occurring following the third phase when plant sterols were consumed throughout the day. The full results were published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
An Apple a Day…
It may be an old adage, but the theory about eating an apple every day to keep the doctor away received some scientific backing from researchers at the University of Florida. They recruited 160 women, ages 45 to 65, to eat dried apples or prunes (about 240 calories worth) every day for a year. Researchers measured the subjects’ cholesterol levels at three-, six- and 12-month intervals. After six months, the women who ate the dried apples showed a 23 percent drop in LDL-cholesterol levels and a 4 percent increase in HDL levels. And, despite the added calories, the women lost, on average, 3.3 pounds over the course of the study.
“Reducing body weight is an added benefit to daily apple intake,” said lead researcher Dr. Bahram Arjmandi. Part of the reason for the weight loss, he explained, could be the fruit’s pectin, which is known to have a satiety effect. The next step in confirming the results of this study, which were presented at Experimental Biology 2011 in April in Washington, D.C., is a multi-investigator nationwide study.
High cholesterol is currently the most prevalent health condition in the United States, with an estimated 101 million Americans having a total cholesterol level greater than 200 mg/dl. Though not considered a disease itself, high cholesterol is associated with numerous diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and stroke.
Other Foods That Can Help Lower Cholesterol
- Oats and other high-fiber foods
- Nuts, particularly walnuts and almonds
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, sardines and halibut)
- Olive oil