A ready-to-eat food program designed to help manage blood cholesterol levels was shown to have a meaningful impact even when participants ate it as a substitute for just a small amount of similar snack foods each day, according to a new study published in The Journal of Nutrition.
Cholesterol levels matter largely because they’re linked to the risk for atherosclerosis, or the buildup of a fatty material called plaque inside your blood vessels. Atherosclerosis can lead to several dangerous cardiovascular problems, including coronary artery disease (CAD), in which blood flow to the heart is restricted. If an area of plaque inside a blood vessel breaks open, it may lead to a blood clot that suddenly stops the flow of blood — causing a heart attack when blood flow to the heart is blocked, or an ischemic stroke when blood flow to the brain is blocked. While diabetes isn’t known to directly affect blood cholesterol levels, many people with type 2 diabetes also experience abnormal cholesterol and triglycerides (another type of fatty substance) levels as part of what is known as metabolic syndrome — which also includes high blood pressure and increased abdominal fat.
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It has long been known that dietary choices have an impact on blood cholesterol levels in most people — with certain food components, like saturated fat, tending to raise levels of unhealthy cholesterol and others, like dietary fiber, tending to lower levels of unhealthy cholesterol. But many doctors are reluctant to “prescribe” foods to help lower cholesterol, for several reasons. These reasons may include the difficulty of figuring out how an eating plan works for an individual patient, lacking confidence that a patient will follow an eating plan, and a lack of studies showing that specific dietary interventions lead to improvements in cholesterol levels. The latest study aimed to address all of these concerns, by looking at the effects of eating specialized snack foods designed to help manage blood cholesterol levels. These snack foods, from a company called Step One Foods, contain fiber, fatty acids, phytosterols, and antioxidants — components known to help improve blood cholesterol levels — in standardized measurements. Examples of products included in the study include the company’s chocolate bars and strawberry-banana smoothies.
The study’s participants were 18 men and 36 women with an average age of 49, and an average LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) cholesterol level of 131 mg/dl — well above the common reference range of 50 to 100 mg/dl. The study consisted of two different intervention periods, each lasting four weeks, separated by a “washout’ period of four weeks. During one of the intervention periods, participants were instructed to eat a variety of items from Step One Foods, replacing similar snack foods that they already consumed. During the other intervention period, participants were given a variety of “better for you” snacks available at grocery stores and given the same instructions. During both intervention periods, participants were told to avoid changing any other habits.
Food intervention linked to lower LDL, total cholesterol
The researchers found that over the course of the four-week period in which participants ate items from Step One Foods, their average LDL cholesterol level dropped by an average of about 9%, while their average total cholesterol level dropped by about 5%. During the four-week period in which participants ate “better for you” snack foods available in grocery stores, on the other hand, there was no drop in cholesterol levels. No other blood measurements that the study looked at changed significantly during either period, including triglycerides, HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good”) cholesterol, fasting glucose, or insulin.
“Based on the outcomes seen in our study, using this type of food as medicine approach expands the options for medical professionals and patients,” said Stephen Kopecky, MD, a cardiologist and director of the Statin Intolerance Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in a press release on the study. Statins are a widely prescribed group of cholesterol-lowering drugs, which are generally highly beneficial but can cause side effects in some people that make taking them intolerable. “Many patients who are unwilling or unable to take statin drugs may be able to help manage their high cholesterol or hyperlipidemia with a realistic food-based intervention,” Kopecky continued.
Other researchers noted in the press release that getting people to change their diet is usually quite challenging, leading many doctors not to even try. But in this study, there was a 95% rate of participants following the snack regimen as directed — showing that if beneficial foods are palatable and accessible, it may be possible for doctors to prescribe a nutrition regimen that helps improve cholesterol levels. Whether studies like this one will persuade health insurance plans to cover such prescriptions, on the other hand, is still an open question.
Want to learn more about diabetes and cholesterol? Read “Natural Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol,” “Your Cholesterol Questions Answered,” and “Statin Alternatives: Other Medications That Can Lower Cholesterol.”