This Week’s Question: Can eating oatmeal really lower your cholesterol or are the cereal companies selling us a story?
The short answer is yes, oatmeal can lower your cholesterol. Now for the long answer.
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is acted upon by the normal bacteria in your intestines. Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body and promotes regularity and softens stools. Wheat bran, whole grain products and vegetables are good sources of insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber appears to reduce your body's absorption of cholesterol from the intestines. Oatmeal contains soluble fiber that reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol that can increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes. This type of fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, brussels sprouts, apples, pears, barley and prunes.
The American Dietetic Association recommends a healthy diet include 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, including both soluble and insoluble fiber. (Soluble fiber should make up 5 to 10 grams of your fiber intake.) However, Americans only consume about half that amount.
There are other foods that work against cholesterol.
Soy protein, found in such products as tofu, soy nuts, soy milk and soy burgers, can help lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol, particularly when it's substituted for animal protein. Ingesting 25 to 50 grams of soy protein a day lowers LDL cholesterol by 4 percent to 8 percent. That’s a lot of soy. People with the highest cholesterol levels seem to benefit the most from soy protein.
Women with breast cancer or who are at high risk of breast cancer should consult with their doctors before eating a soy, because it is not clear how these plant estrogens might affect them.
Studies have shown that walnuts can significantly reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. Rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, walnuts may also help keep blood vessels more healthy and elastic.
When walnuts represent 20 percent of the calories in a cholesterol-lowering diet, they reduce LDL cholesterol by 12 percent. Almonds appear to have a similar effect. All nuts are high in calories, so use them as replacements for high-calorie foods with high levels of saturated fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are noted for lowering triglycerides, another form of fat in your blood. They also benefit the heart in other ways. The highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are in mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil.
Some foods are fortified with plant substances called sterols or stanols, which are similar in structure to cholesterol; this helps them block the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. Margarines and orange juice that have been fortified with plant sterols can help reduce LDL cholesterol by more than 10 percent.
The American Heart Association recommends foods fortified with plant sterols only for people who with high levels of LDL cholesterol.
You may want to try eating more soluble fiber, soy protein, walnuts and fatty fish. The next step would be the addition of foods fortified with plant sterols. Eating a combination of these cholesterol-lowering foods increases the benefit.
Of course, if you’re a geezer and you plan to make a change in your habits that could affect your health, it is recommended that you consult your doctor first.
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The Healthy Geezer column publishes each Monday on LiveScience. If you would like to ask a question, please write firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by Fred Cicetti.