A Plant-based Diet to Cut Bad Cholesterol
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." [Read more: A Plant-based Diet to Cut Bad Cholesterol.]
Could Getting More Fiber Help You Live Longer?
Hear fiber and you probably think of bran cereal, which doesn't exactly make you salivate. But research suggests more fiber could equal more years. Analyzing data from nearly 400,000 men and women ages 50 to 71, researchers found that those who consumed the most fiber were 22 percent less likely to die from any cause during the nine years they were studied. Men were 24 to 56 percent and women 34 to 59 percent less likely to die of heart and infectious or respiratory diseases, according to findings from the National Institutes of Health's AARP Diet and Health Study, published earlier this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Why fiber reduces the risk of early death is unclear. Perhaps it's because fiber lowers levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, improves blood glucose levels, reduces inflammation, and binds to potential cancer-causing agents, helping to flush them out of the body, says lead author Yikyung Park, a staff scientist at the National Cancer Institute.
What is clear, however, is that participants only benefited when fiber came from grains, like oatmeal, cornmeal, and brown rice. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and beans had no impact on death risk. "Whole grains are rich sources of fiber, but also good sources of vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals that may provide health benefits," Park says. And grains have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties—another reason researchers say grain fiber is beneficial. [Read more: Could Getting More Fiber Help You Live Longer?]
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The Best Low-Carbohydrate Diet? One That's Plant-Based
Since its debut in the '80s, the Atkins diet and similar low-carb menus have swung back and forth, lauded and vilified, several times over. Some supporters say they're a fast track to weight loss with less hunger, while detractors say they're too restrictive and don't provide enough fuel—carbohydrates break down to glucose, which powers the body and brain. Recent research could tip the scales once again in favor of low carbs, U.S. News reported in 2010. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a low-carb diet may reduce the risk of death from all medical causes, especially heart disease—if it's heavy on proteins and fats from plants, not animals. A low-carb regimen heavy on meat raised the risk of dying from cancer and other medical causes, the researchers found after following more than 85,000 women for 26 years and 44,000 men for 20 years.
"It's no big surprise, because the animal-protein diet will have lots of saturated fat and cholesterol, and the plant-based diet will have unsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes," says study coauthor Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Low-carb diets are neither good nor bad—it's what we're replacing those carbs with that's important. It's making choices among your protein and fat sources, and choosing to emphasize the plant sources."
The study highlights the Eco-Atkins diet popularized in 2009 by David Jenkins, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who is credited with developing the eating plan. High in plant proteins and rich in fruits and vegetables, it is touted by the study authors as an ideal example of a healthy low-carb diet. While the study does not suggest such a diet will make you live longer, Eco-Atkins has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and promote weight loss, says Jenkins. [Read more: The Best Low-Carbohydrate Diet? One That's Plant-Based.]
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