Researchers have found that some foods, particularly oatmeal, fatty fish, nuts and foods fortified with plant sterols or stanols, can help reduce total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. The FDA has reviewed the research on these foods and given them “qualified health claim” status. A “qualified health claim” by the FDA means that evidence for the cholesterol-lowering benefits of these foods is strong, and it allows manufacturers to advertise the heart-healthy benefits on labels.Here’s the low-down on these cholesterol-lowering foods:
Oatmeal is high in soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is reported to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines, where it passes through and is excreted as waste. (Soluble fiber also is in kidney beans, Brussels sprouts, apples, pears, barley and prunes.) Five grams to 10 grams of soluble fiber is recommended per day. The average American only gets three grams to four grams per day. You can increase your intake by adding oatmeal to other foods—for instance, to soups and casseroles or to breadcrumbs when coating food for cooking. The American Dietetic Association says you can also add oatmeal to baked goods by substituting one-third of the flour in recipes with quick or old-fashioned oats. Remember: not everything with “oatmeal” in its name is good for you. Packaged oatmeal cookies might contain very little oatmeal and lots of saturated fat and sugar. Read labels carefully to see how much soluble fiber is in the ingredients.
Many studies have shown that nuts have powerful cholesterol-lowering effects. They’re a good source of protein, fiber, “healthy” monounsaturated fats, vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants. But not all nuts have FDA recognition. The FDA has issued “health claim” status to peanuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and some pine nuts. Not on the FDA health-claim list because of the limited amount of published research are Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, cashews and some varieties of pine nuts. About a handful of nuts per day, approximately 1 ounce to 1.5 ounces, provide health benefits. But don’t overdo it; nuts are high in calories. Avoid excess calories by replacing foods high in saturated fat with nuts. For example, instead of using cheese or luncheon meat in your salad, add a handful of walnuts or almonds.
Fatty (oily) fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring and trout are full of omega-3 fatty acids—a “healthy” fat noted for its help in lowering blood pressure and blood triglycerides (a type of fat), and reducing the risk of blood clots. Current recommendations are to eat two, 4-ounce servings of fish per week. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are found in mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. If you dislike these fish, good substitutes are halibut and cod. To maintain the heart-healthy benefits of fish, be careful how you cook it. Bake, grill or steam fish; don’t deep fry it. If you don’t like fish at all, omega-3 fatty acids are available in walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil and omega-3 enriched eggs. For those concerned about toxins in sea fish, the FDA says that up to 12 ounces of canned light tuna, salmon and certain other fish are safe. However, pay attention to local advisories about the safety of local fish. If you’re concerned, ask your health-care provider for advice.
Foods Fortified with Plant Sterols or Stanols
Plant sterols and stanols are substances that naturally occur in small amounts in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds. Because they help block the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream, manufacturers have started adding them to foods. You can now get plant sterols and stanols in margarine spreads, orange juice, cereals, granola bars, cooking oils, salad dressings, milk, peanut butter and yogurt. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that people with high cholesterol get 2 grams of sterols or stanols per day. The American Heart Association recommends that only people who need to lower their cholesterol or who have had a heart attack should use these foods. The reason, said Cooper University Hospital medical nutritionist Francine Grabowski, M.S., R.D., C.D.E, is that these foods are expensive and unnecessary for people with healthy cholesterol levels. “These manufactured, ‘new’ foods are costly and meant as a therapeutic intervention for people who need them. Think of these fortified foods as medicines to use if you are sick. Otherwise, stick to the real foods that have been around for thousands of years that are naturally fortified with good things,” said Grabowski. If you do need these foods to combat high cholesterol, remember that more is not better. Extra margarine spread or granola bars, with or without sterols or stanols, means extra calories.
Of course, none of the foods listed here is a cure-all for high cholesterol, and their health benefits won’t override an ongoing diet of high-fat, unhealthful foods.
“When it comes to a heart-healthy diet,” Grabowski said, “don’t forget the big picture. A daily diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as low-fat milk, lean meat and fish is what keeps you healthy. Make sure you eat a variety of these foods every day, and shop smart,” Grabowski said, offering these food-shopping tips:
- Shop the perimeter of the supermarket, where most of the fresh foods are found.
- Choose foods with less than five ingredients. If your granola bar has seven ingredients, decide to have a bowl of oatmeal instead.
- Look for the kinds of foods your great-grandmother might have recommended, such as barley, rye bread and kidney beans.