A Plant-based Diet to Cut Bad Cholesterol

Drop your LDL by subbing nuts, soy protein, plant sterols, and viscous fiber for fattier foods.

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Going green could help bring down the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the bad kind that can lead to heart attack and stroke. While it's always been smart to ditch the butter and forget the fatty meats, new research suggests opting for plant-based foods is an effective way to lower the level of LDL cholesterol.

Canadian researchers recruited people with very high LDL and put them on a diet that included plant-based sterols supplied by a special margarine, soy protein from tofu, soy milk, and soy-based meat substitutes, viscous fiber from oats, barley, and psyllium, and nuts. After six months, the LDL level of the study participants dropped by an average of 13 percent, reducing their risk of heart attack and stroke over the next 10 years by about 11 percent on average. The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Each one of these ingredients will help you, but when they all work together, you'll get the strongest results," says study author Peter Jones, Canada's research chair in functional foods and nutrition. "Plant-based sterols alone can lower your cholesterol by 5 percent. When you add in fiber and nuts and soy, the story just keeps getting better."

The key to reaping the benefits of this regimen is to make smart swaps throughout the day rather than measuring out specific amounts of each ingredient, the study authors say. In particular, replace choices high in saturated fat with healthier, plant-based options. At breakfast, for instance, try oat bran, nuts, and berries with soy milk instead of a bagel and cream cheese. For lunch, substitute a couple of pieces of fruit and a handful of nuts for a ham, cheese, and mayonnaise sandwich every so often. You don't have to be rigid. "Life is about balance," says Jones. "You can always misbehave and get away with it—if a steak sandwich looks good, go ahead. It's not like a drug that you have to take every day. But the more often you subscribe, the better it will work."

Here's a quick guide to sources of the study's cholesterol busters:

Plant-based sterols. Small amounts of these substances in the walls of plant cells are found naturally in grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. As they travel through the intestinal tract, they compete with artery-clogging LDL particles and prevent them from being absorbed into the bloodstream. Because of their cholesterol-lowering properties, sterols are now being added to a slew of products. In the new JAMA study, for example, participants got sufficient amounts by topping bread with less than 2 grams a day of sterol-enriched margarine. (The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's National Cholesterol Education Program also recommends 2 daily grams for an LDL-lowering effect.) Other sterol-fortified options include orange juice, cereals, yogurt, and granola bars. All are readily available at the grocery store.

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Soy protein. Choices like edamame, tofu, soy milk, and soy-based meat alternatives (think veggie burgers and soy hot dogs) have long been touted as a way to decrease LDL cholesterol. Researchers speculate that soy may have a positive effect due to a combination of the protein itself and natural chemicals called isoflavones. The ingredient is versatile, and weaving 45 grams or so a day into your menu as an entree, side dish, snack, or drink is fairly simple. Anything you can do with a chicken breast, you can do with a soy product: Bake it, grill it, or add it to a veggie stir-fry, for example. Try nibbling on soy nuts, drizzle some soy milk into your coffee, or serve up soy cheeseburgers for dinner.

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Viscous fiber. Different plant fibers have different properties. Viscous fiber is the sticky variety of soluble fiber, which dissolves readily in liquids. In the body, it acts as a sponge, absorbing cholesterol and carrying it out of the body. It's found in oats, barley, and bran, as well as psyllium, an ingredient used in high-fiber cereals, muffins, and breakfast bars and available as a tasteless powder to mix into liquids. To get the recommended amount of roughly 20 grams a day, try eating oatmeal in the morning and either a side of pearled barley with dinner or a sandwich on oat bran bread. Oat flour, another option, can be subbed for all-purpose flour in recipes for pancakes, muffins, and cookies. Make your own by pulverizing rolled oats in a food processor. Eggplant and okra also provide ample viscous fiber.