If you have heart or vascular disease, diabetes, or very high LDL (bad cholesterol), your doctor has probably talked with you about the benefits of statin medications.
But statins aren’t for everyone. If you experience unpleasant side effects with statins, if you’re not a candidate for this type of drug – or if you just don’t want to take medication, you should know that you can, literally, eat your way to lower cholesterol.
Make Food Your Ally
Beyond genetics, one of the biggest drivers of cholesterol is what we eat. But just as diet can negatively affect our cholesterol readings, we can also use it to our advantage. Although not everyone is a “food responder,” many people do see a significant drop in their cholesterol numbers after making changes in their diet.
In fact, research suggests that a strategic cholesterol-lowering diet can achieve nearly the same LDL reductions as statin medications!
Ingredients of a Cholesterol-Reducing Diet
If you’re interested in markedly lowering your cholesterol through diet alone, there are a few vital nutrients you need to be focusing on:
- Fiber – Fiber helps carry cholesterol out of the digestive system, so a high fiber diet is essential if you’re trying to lower your LDL. The average fiber intake in the US is 15 grams per day. Depending on the number of calories you consume, this amount should be twice to three times as high. To increase the fiber in your diet, select minimally processed foods like whole grains that provide at least 2.5 grams of fiber per serving, and increase your consumption of whole fruits and vegetables. One small apple has about 3 grams of fiber. Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils, are particularly fiber-rich — lentils provide about 5 grams of fiber per 1/2 cup. Avoid “fiber-fortified” processed foods: A high fiber Twinkie is still more a Twinkie than a cholesterol-lowering intervention. To know if a food has been fiber-fortified, look for “inulin”, “chickory root extract” and “soluble corn fiber” in the ingredient list.
- Omega 3 fatty acids – Omega 3s are healthy fats that help lower LDL and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. High intakes of omega 3 also lower Triglycerides. The American Heart Association recommends that people eat a variety of fish (preferably oily) at least twice weekly, in addition to consuming plant foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Good sources of ALA include chia seeds, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are fatty fish especially rich in omega 3s.
- Antioxidants – LDL that’s been oxidized is especially harmful to our arteries, and is more likely to lead to blockages and heart attacks and strokes. So, eating a diet rich in antioxidants helps to make sure that any LDL cholesterol that is circling around is less toxic. This is where fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds all shine. All of these foods are naturally high in antioxidants. It’s also where that daily glass of wine might fit in.
- Plant Sterols – These are plant-based compounds that block cholesterol absorption in the intestine during food digestion. Plant sterols are found naturally in all plants, but to get a significant cholesterol-lowering effect, you need to consume about 1000 mg twice a day with meals. To get to this level of plant sterols through food, you’d have to eat 16 heads of broccoli. Luckily, plant sterols can be found in supplements such as Cholestoff and Centrum Cardio and also in foods fortified with plant sterols, like Promise Activ spread, Minute Maid Premium Heartwise orange juice, Smart Balance Right Heart Fat Free Milk, Benecol spread, and Step One Foods.
What foods are not part of a cholesterol lowering diet? All dairy-based foods, and all beef, chicken and pork. Why? Because these foods all contain saturated fats, and saturated fats raise LDL. Though recent headlines like “Butter is back” might suggest that saturated fat is not so bad, it is still on the “do not eat” list for those of us who are working hard to markedly lower our LDL levels and avoid statin medications.
So what we’re talking about is a plant-based diet containing beans and greens, nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruits and grains in their most whole and unprocessed forms. I know this type of diet may seem strict if you’re not used to eating this way – but the rewards are substantial. People following this type of eating system have been shown to lower their LDL cholesterol by 30-35% in just 30 days.
And why treat a problem with medications when you can eliminate it with food?
Editor’s Note: Dr. Klodas is the founder and chief medical officer of Step One Foods.