Let Food Be Thy Medicine for a Healthy Heart

By Melina Jampolis, MD

Would you rather eat a heart-healthy bowl of oatmeal with sliced strawberries and almonds or take medicine to lower your cholesterol? If you chose the more flavorful option, you’d achieve nearly the same benefits, according to research evaluating a cholesterol-lowering diet done by a group of Canadian researchers.

In the study, 34 people with high cholesterol were put on three separate treatments for a month each. The control group ate a very low-saturated fat diet; the second group ate the same low-saturated fat diet plus 20 mg dose of a popular statin (cholesterol-lowering) medication. The third ate a “portfolio diet.” The plan does not focus on weight loss per se but is exclusively designed to lower cholesterol. And, much like an investment portfolio, instead of naming a single food, the portfolio approach works by eating a variety of foods.

A Heart-Healthy Diet Can Be as Effective
As Cholesterol-Lowering Medication

The amounts were based on total calories the subjects consumed, which varied:

1. Plant sterols (1.0 gram for every 1,000 calories consumed): These disease-fighting plant chemicals are found in nature but in small doses. They’re added in higher concentrations to foods including butter spreads, yogurts, milk, nutrition bars and even tortilla chips.
2. Soy-protein foods (21.4 grams per 1,000 calories): Including soy milk and soy burgers.
3. Almonds (14 grams per 1,000 calories).
4. Viscous fiber (10 grams per 1,000 calories) from oats, barley, psyllium and the vegetables, okra and eggplant. (Note: “Viscous” refers to a sticky type of fiber that binds to cholesterol and sweeps it out of your body.)

After one month, the control group’s LDL (bad cholesterol) dropped 8.5 percent. The group taking medication showed an average 33.3 percent reduction in LDL, and the portfolio diet group showed a 29.6 percent reduction in LDL. Amazingly, 26 percent of the participants actually achieved their lowest LDL by following the portfolio diet for only one month.

Since the portfolio diet was very strict, all the food was provided. So the same researchers published a follow-up study in which they prescribed the same portfolio diet for one year, but this time the participants were on their own. No food was provided, so researchers could measure the effects of the portfolio diet under real world conditions.

Results were not quite as dramatic but still very substantial. After one year, LDL levels dropped an average of 13 percent, and one third of the participants achieved a greater than 20 percent reduction in LDL, which is comparable to results achieved by many people who take medication. Not surprisingly, success directly related to how closely participants followed the diet, and those who followed the diet the most closely achieved the best results.

In the past decade, we have come to understand that heart disease is not only associated with elevated cholesterol levels, it also results from inflammation and oxidative (free radical) damage. A more recent study by the same group looked at the effect of adding strawberries, as a source of antioxidants, to improve the portfolio diet even further. They found that adding strawberries (454 grams a day, 112 calories, or about 2 servings), compared with additional oat bran bread, showed an even more significant reduction in oxidative damage to LDL cholesterol, which could reduce heart disease even further.

If oatmeal and almonds do not appeal to you, keep in mind that while these researchers chose very specific foods, many other heart-healthy choices abound. A few heart-healthy guidelines include:

1. Eat from the rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables. The same compounds that give produce their bright colors provide powerful antioxidants.
2. Experiment with whole grains like barley; think outside the box when it comes to oatmeal (healthy cookies, coating for chicken) and consider adding psyllium to your diet (which can be found in products like Metamucil) on a regular basis.
3. Replace a portion of the animal protein in your diet with plant based protein (including beans, soy protein, and nuts).
4. Eat nuts and seeds in moderation, however, since their high calorie count may lead to weight gain, which may offset the benefits of a heart healthy diet.

In addition, limit added sugar and salt, eat omega-3 rich fish (i.e. salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, halibut) at least twice a week (or take an omega-3 fatty acid capsule daily), get rid of excess weight, especially toxic belly fat, consider imbibing in a glass of red wine with dinner (no need to start drinking if you don’t already, but wine contains antioxidants and may help raise the good HDL cholesterol), and strive for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days.

Melina Jampolis, MD is an Internist and physician nutrition specialist. She specializes in weight loss and disease prevention and treatment. She is the author of “The No Time to Lose Diet” and a frequent expert guest in the media. For more information, please visit http://www.drmelina.com

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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