By Neal D. Barnard, MD Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC Author of the 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart
If you have a high cholesterol level, you are no doubt looking for a safe and effective way to bring it down. Medications are one way, but foods have more power than you might have imagined. Carefully chosen, foods can rival the power of prescription drugs.
Needless to say, be sure to speak with your doctor before staring any new treatment plan. Cholesterol problems can be dangerous, so you will want to be sure your doctor monitors how you are doing and advises you along the way.
Here are three steps for using foods to tackle cholesterol:
Step 1: Favor Foods From Plants
When I was growing up in North Dakota, my mother cooked up bacon for her children’s breakfasts, lifting the sizzling strips out of the grease with a fork and setting them on a paper towel to drain. Then, she carefully poured the hot grease into a jar to save it. She did not put the jar in the refrigerator; it went straight into the kitchen cupboard. She knew that as bacon grease cools, it turns solid and does not require refrigeration. The next day, she spooned the bacon grease back into the fry pan and fried eggs in it.
The fact that bacon grease is solid – as opposed to a liquid oil – is a sign that it is high in saturated fat (sometimes called “bad” fat), because it causes your body to make cholesterol. The big contributors of saturated fat in your diet are meats, dairy products, and eggs. The more you replace these products with plant-based foods, they better off you’ll be.
Fish are a bit of a mixed bag. Fish fat contains some omega-3 fats, also called “good fats,” which are healthier in some ways that other animal fats. However, 70 to 85 percent of fish fat is not omega-3. It is a mixture of plain old saturated fat and various other fats that offer no health benefits.
Cholesterol Is Not the Same as Fat
Fat is the yellow layer under a chicken skin or the white stripes in marbled beef. But cholesterol is not the same as fat. Cholesterol is invisible, hiding mainly in the lean portion of meats, in the membranes that surround each cell in an animal’s body. So a bite of chicken, for example, has fat under the skin and in between the muscle cells, as well as cholesterol lurking in the cell membranes that surround each cell.
But if you were to check the cholesterol content of vegetables, fruits, and other foods from plants, their labels would indicate a big zero. So when you set aside animal products, you get a double benefit. You are getting no animal fat and essentially no cholesterol. The result can be a big improvement on your blood cholesterol test.
Step 2: Skip Trans Fats
If you look at the food label on a pack of potato chips or a snack pastry, you might see the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Also called trans fats, these oils raise cholesterol, just like animal fats.
Avoiding them is easy as searching for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the food label. Instead of a snack pastry, how about an apple or an orange? They never have a drop of trans fat.
Step 3: Use Special Cholesterol-Lowering Foods
For most people, following a plant-based diet and avoiding trans fats lowers cholesterol impressively. But there is one more step you can take. You can choose foods with a special cholesterol-lowering effect.
Red Yeast Rice
Around 800 AD in China, it was found that red yeast cultivated on rice produces compounds that are good for health. But it was not for another 1200 years that it was discovered that the compound produced in red yeast rice is actually lovastatin – the same compound that is marketed as the cholesterol-lowering prescription drug Mevacor. It reduces cholesterol production in the liver.
Although red yeast rice is widely available without a prescription and appears to have fewer side effects compared to statin drugs, it is important to remember that it is, in effect, a natural pharmaceutical that should be used under a physician’s direction. A typical regimen would be 1200 milligrams twice per day.
Oyster mushrooms contain lovastatin, just as red yeast rice does. But they also contain beta-glucans, which help the body eliminate cholesterol. A typical serving would be about one-half cup. Click here for a Linguine With Seared Oyster Mushrooms recipe.
The Power Combo: A Portfolio of Cholesterol-Lowering Foods
At the University of Toronto, Dr. David Jenkins discovered that by combining specific foods, you can achieve a cholesterol-lowering effect that compares very favorably with that of medications.
In his research, Dr. Jenkins asked a group of patients to avoid animal products and to choose from a “portfolio” of special foods. The result was quick and dramatic. Their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol fell nearly 30 percent in four weeks –essentially the same drop as is seen with cholesterol-lowering drugs.1
Here is the combination that did the trick:
Foods Rich in Soluble Fiber
Oats, beans, okra, and barley are rich in soluble fiber, which helps your body eliminate cholesterol. How about starting your day with a bowl of old-fashioned oats? If you chose cold oat cereals, top them with soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, or other non-dairy milk.
For lunch, have baked beans, black beans, hummus (made from chickpeas), split pea soup, lentil soup, or other varieties. If beans give you a bit of gas, have smaller servings and be sure they are cooked until very soft. Barley is a great addition to soups. Or add it to rice for added flavor. Okra is a southern staple, but it is a healthy addition to any diet in soups, stews, or curries.
Soy products replace cholesterol-laden meats and dairy products, and they have a cholesterol-cutting effect of their own, reducing your liver’s tendency to produce cholesterol. Enjoy a glass of soymilk, an edamame appetizer, or tofu or tempeh in a stir-fry instead of chicken.
Almonds and Walnuts
These nuts contain natural sterols that reduce cholesterol. You might have about one ounce per day (one small handful). To avoid overdoing it with nuts, use them as a topping for a salad, rather than a snack.
Instead of butter or margarine, why not choose a spread that blocks the absorption of cholesterol? Benecol light, for example, is made with natural plant stanols that come from pine trees, and it has a significant cholesterol-lowering effect.
The idea is to add each of these foods to your routine, to get a powerful cholesterol-lowering effect. You will very likely find that you have more power over your health than you ever imagined.
At the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, we have a free 21-Day Kickstart program that will help you try out a healthy plant-based diet. You’ll see it at PCRM.org.
1. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Marchie A, et al. Direct comparison of a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods with a statin in hypercholesterolemic participants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81:380–7.