Can a bowl of oatmeal help prevent a heart attack? How about a handful of walnuts, or even your baked potato dressed in sterol-fortified margarine? A few simple tweaks to your diet - like these - may be enough to stave off a cholesterol problem.
Oatmeal and oat bran
Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, pears, psyllium, barley and prunes.
Soluble fiber appears to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in your intestines. Gel-like soluble fiber binds bile (which contains cholesterol) and dietary cholesterol so that the body excretes it.
Five to 10 grams of soluble fiber a day decreases LDL cholesterol by about 5 percent. Eating 1.5 cups of cooked oatmeal provides 4.5 grams of fiber - enough to lower your cholesterol. To mix it up a little, try oat bran or cold cereal made with oatmeal or oat bran.
Walnuts, almonds and more
Studies have shown that walnuts can significantly reduce blood cholesterol. Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, walnuts also help keep blood vessels healthy and elastic. Almonds appear to have a similar effect, resulting in a marked improvement within just four weeks.
A cholesterol-lowering diet in which 20 percent of the calories come from walnuts may reduce LDL cholesterol by 12 percent. For a 1,200-calorie per day diet, a little less than 1/3 of a cup of walnuts is about 240 calories, or 20 percent of the total calories for the day.
All nuts are high in calories, however, so a handful will suffice. As with any food, good or bad, eating too much can cause weight gain, and being overweight places you at higher risk of heart disease. To avoid gaining weight, replace foods high in saturated fat with nuts. For example, instead of using cheese, luncheon meat or croutons in your salad, add a handful of walnuts or almonds.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids
Studies in the 1970s showed that Greenland Eskimos had a lower rate of heart disease than did other individuals living in Greenland at the same time. Analysis of dietary differences between the groups showed that the Eskimos ate less saturated fat and more omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and whale and seal meat.Research since that time has supported the heart-healthy benefits of eating fish. If you can't dine with the Eskimos, other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids are noted for their triglyceride-lowering effect, but they also help the heart in other ways such as reducing blood pressure and the risk of blood clots. In people who have already had heart attacks, fish oil - or omega-3 fatty acids - significantly reduces the risk of sudden death.
Doctors recommend eating at least two servings of fish a week. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. However, to maintain the heart-healthy benefits of fish, bake or grill it.
Foods fortified with plant sterols or stanols
Foods are now available that have been fortified with sterols or stanols - substances found in plants that help block the absorption of cholesterol.
Margarines and orange juice fortified with plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol by more than 10 percent. The amount of daily plant sterols needed for results is at least 2 grams - which equals about two 8-ounce servings of plant sterol-fortified orange juice a day.
Plant sterols or stanols in fortified foods don't appear to affect levels of triglycerides or of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Nor do they interfere with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins - vitamins A, D, E and K. However, the American Heart Association recommends foods fortified with plant sterols only for people who actually have high levels of LDL cholesterol.
Long thought to have cholesterol-lowering effects, a recent meta-analysis by the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee showed soy protein actually has very little impact on reducing cholesterol levels. In January 2006, the American Heart Association issued a statement saying the cardiovascular health benefits of soy protein are minimal at best. No benefit was seen on HDL, triglycerides, or blood pressure and even with a large intake of soy, only a small impact on LDL was seen. Though it may not lower your cholesterol, soy does contain vitamins and minerals and is a good source of fiber. It's also a healthy low-fat alternative source of protein.
Cut fats first
The first step for a heart-healthy diet is to reduce your intake of bad fats - especially saturated and trans fats. If cutting out bad fats isn't enough to reduce your cholesterol, you may want to try adding soluble fiber, nuts and fish to your diet. If you need more boost from your foods, try adding foods fortified with plant sterols. Eating a combination of these cholesterol-lowering foods increases the benefit. But dietary changes alone are not always enough for everyone. If your cholesterol is still high after you've revised your diet and increased your physical activity, your doctor may suggest adding cholesterol-lowering medications to your treatment plan.