Eating Your Way to Lower Cholesterol

Lower cholesterol doesn’t have to come from a pill.

Although cholesterol drugs are in the news lately, what is getting lost in the discussion is the fact that it’s possible to lower your cholesterol without drugs. It’s just not as easy.

In fact, many doctors think dietary changes are too difficult for most of their patients. While they typically encourage better eating and a diet low in saturated fat, they also prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins as a faster way to lower bad cholesterol.

But many people can’t tolerate statins and their side effects. Others simply don’t want to take a pill every day or shoulder the cost of a prescription. For those patients, dietary changes may be a better option.

In 2006, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on a study of 55 patients with high cholesterol who, over the course of a year, started eating a diet rich in soy proteins, fiber and almonds. All those foods may have cholesterol-lowering properties. Twenty-one patients managed to lower their cholesterol by 20 percent or more by the end of the year. The researchers noted that whether the patient was motivated and actually stuck with the diet most of the time was key.

Journalist Tom Burton, a former colleague, wrote about his own efforts to Lower cholesterol without drugs for The Wall Street Journal. He found that many doctors don’t really know how to advise patients about dietary changes to Lower cholesterol. He found one who did and used him as a nutrition “coach” to help him figure out which changes would be most effective for him.

The problem for Mr. Burton was that he already had a pretty healthful diet. He ran four miles most days and had given up red meat and most cheese. But his bad cholesterol was 169 mg/dL — far above the 100 mg/dL most doctors recommend. Doctors were telling him statin drugs were in his future.

After documenting his eating habits, Mr. Burton was advised by his doctor to cut out a favorite dish — roast chicken with the skin on. He was told that more of his protein should come from fish, beans and nuts. He phased out the chicken as well as shrimp and squid, which are high in dietary cholesterol. He began including steel-cut oatmeal, eggplant, roasted soybeans, whole-wheat pasta and Brussels sprouts in his diet. He also increased his exercise. His cholesterol numbers were slow to move, but eventually they did, dropping 33 percent.

To read Mr. Burton’s story, click here. Even better, the story includes a link to two favorite recipes from his cholesterol-lowering diet. (If you don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription, you can read the story for free here.)

But Mr. Burton’s success doesn’t mean it’s easy. Last fall, my colleague Jane Brody documented her own struggle to Lower cholesterol by diet alone. Few people can claim a diet as healthful as Ms. Brody’s. She eats well and exercises regularly, putting the rest of us to shame. Still, her cholesterol kept creeping up. After a concerted effort to lower her numbers with dietary changes, she finally relented and took a statin. To see her full story, click here.

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