A new study out of Canada could potentially save millions of lives. Research shows that, by eating certain foods, people can significantly reduce their cholesterol and improve their chances of avoiding heart disease or stroke.
What's known as the Western diet emphasizes meat and fatty foods and people who follow it have waistlines that show it.
There's a movement now to eat healthier. It's backed by doctors, health officials, government leaders and first lady Michelle Obama, who encourages school children to get more exercise and eat fruits and vegetables. Diet and exercise are key in maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol is a type of fat. It helps to build and maintain cells. But there are different types of cholesterol. A type called HDL promotes heart health, while another, LDL, contributes to heart disease.
Typical advice is to minimize animal fat or fat that is solid at room temperature. These fats are sources of LDL cholesterol. But it is also known that certain foods help lower bad cholesterol.
"Vegetables like okra, eggplant, all of these are somewhat sticky. They all take out cholesterol from the body," noted Dr. David Jenkins of Saint Michael's Hospital in Toronto, Canada.
Jenkins wanted to study people who followed a low fat diet that included these foods. He wanted to see if their cholesterol levels dropped more than those who just followed a low fat diet.
Bonnie Wood was in the first group.
"The initial change was, like, just to increase the fiber content of my diet," said Wood.
A total of 350 men and women participated. All were on the verge of needing cholesterol-lowering drugs. Those who followed the enhanced diet also ate foods known to lower LDL: apples, grapes, and strawberries, certain whole grains and vegetables, nuts, olive or canola oil, beans and soy products. Six months later, researchers reviewed the results.
Those eating cholesterol-lowering foods had a 13 to 14 percent drop in LDL cholesterol. Those who followed only a low fat diet saw their cholesterol drop only three percent. Dr. Jenkins says the study should encourage people with high cholesterol.
"They can make a difference to their own LDL cholesterol levels by adherence to a good diet," noted Jenkins.
"I would prefer 100 percent to try to lower it (cholesterol) by a program of food rather than statin drugs," added study participate Bonnie Wood.
Researchers say another benefit of this enhanced low-fat diet is that people in the study also reduced their blood pressure. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.