Lowering Cholesterol: What Works and What Doesn’t (Part 2)

Last week we looked at four different supplements that either don’t work to lower cholesterol levels or may work but could potentially have side effects. This week, we’ll look at some safe, “tried-and-true” ways that you can naturally lower your cholesterol.

Plant stanols/sterols: Plant stanols and sterols are natural substances found in plants that are structurally similar to cholesterol. They work to prevent the body from absorbing cholesterol. Studies show that stanols and sterols can effectively lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels by up to 14%. The challenge is consuming enough of them. Both sterols and stanols are found in small amounts in many fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Food companies have jumped on the bandwagon and have added these ingredients to margarine-like spreads (Benecol, Take Control) as well as products such as orange juice and energy bars. Plant stanols and sterols are also available in supplement form. Aim for 3.4 grams of stanols or 1.7 grams of sterols each day as part of a heart-healthy diet. Rating: Highly recommended.

Soluble fiber: Soluble fiber is the kind of dietary fiber that forms a gummy gel in the digestive tract. While both soluble and insoluble fiber can help keep you “regular,” soluble fiber has the additional ability to lower blood cholesterol levels by binding to cholesterol in the digestive tract. The goal is to consume between 5 and 10 grams of soluble fiber each day. Oat products, peas, beans, barley, apples, citrus fruits, and psyllium (found in some fiber laxatives and certain cereals) are all good sources of soluble fiber. Rating: Go for it!

Olive oil: While not breaking news, it’s still worth mentioning: Unsaturated fat, including monounsaturated fat, can lower cholesterol as part of a heart-healthy eating plan. Monounsaturated fat has the advantage of lowering LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL (or “good”) cholesterol (and it may even raise HDL levels). Furthermore, “monos” can help prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidized, making it less likely to cause atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). While there are many sources of monounsaturated fat, olive oil is a prime example. It tastes good, you can cook with it easily, and it contains phytonutrients called polyphenols that may lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, some types of cancer, and arthritis. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should start pouring olive oil over everything. It’s still a fat and contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. Rating: It’s a winner!

Physical activity: Surprised? You were probably expecting another food or supplement, but we can’t say enough about the benefits of activity. Being active on a regular basis can help lower your LDL and raise your HDL cholesterol. However, a once-a-week stroll around the park isn’t enough. The goal, ideally, is to aim to be active every day for at least 30 minutes. Don’t have 30 minutes to spare? You probably have 10 minutes—during your coffee break, at lunchtime, in between loads of laundry. Do three 10-minute walking sessions each day, for example, and you’ll reap the benefits. Rating: Just do it!

There are many other foods that are part of a heart-healthy eating plan that I don’t have room to discuss. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains all contain helpful ingredients, which is why dietitians keep advising you to fit these foods into your eating plan every day.

It’s important to note that there’s no single, magic bullet to lower your cholesterol. Even if you take cholesterol-lowering medicine, you’ll still need to follow an eating plan that’s low in saturated and trans fat and be physically active on a regular basis.

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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