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Changing diet good as statins for busting cholesterol, research claims

Drinking and eating specially-formulated ‘healthy’ snacks could be just as good at lowering cholesterol as statins, a small study suggests.

Researchers asked 54 people with high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol to sacrifice two parts of their diet every day. 

Instead, they were told to replace them with snacks produced by one healthy food brand, which included chocolate bars and smoothies. 

Participants — who were instructed to make like-for-like swaps — were told not to make no other radical alterations to their lifestyles but were encouraged to be more active.

After a month, the average person saw their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels drop by 9 per cent. But four participants had falls of up to 30 per cent, similar to the effects of powerful statins. 

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, was led by the Mayo Clinic.

Snacks were provided by the US company Step One Foods, contained between 110 to 190 calories per serving and delivered a minimum of 5g fiber. They were all made from real ingredients, such as walnuts, chia seeds and berries.

Study author Dr Elizabeth Klodas, a US cardiologist and founder of Step One Foods, said simple diet hacks ‘could change the health of our country in 30 days’.

US researchers claim that even small changes to diet using specially formulated cholesterol busting snacks and smoothies can lower people’s bad cholesterol levels as much as taking statins, in some cases

This chart shows the individual percentage changes in LDL cholesterol by the 54 study participants when they consumed the Step One Foods substitutes. The average reduction was 9 per cent though three participants had reductions in excess of 30 per cent. It should be noted some participants also had their bad cholesterol levels increase over the 30 day study

This chart shows the individual percentage changes in LDL cholesterol by the 54 study participants when they consumed the Step One Foods substitutes. The average reduction was 9 per cent though three participants had reductions in excess of 30 per cent. It should be noted some participants also had their bad cholesterol levels increase over the 30 day study

She added: ‘The implications of attaining such a significant cholesterol impact from a small food-based intervention are profound.’

Cholesterol is a fatty substance vital for the normal functioning of the body.

But too much can cause it to build up in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart, brain and rest of the body and raising the risk of angina, heart attacks, stroke and blood clots.  

High levels are mainly caused by eating fatty food, not exercising enough, being overweight, smoking and drinking alcohol — but it can also run in the family.

Cholesterol is made in the liver and is carried in the blood by proteins and is broadly divided into two types.

What are statins? 

Statins are a group of medicines that can help lower the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood.

Having a high level of LDL cholesterol is potentially dangerous, as it can lead to a hardening and narrowing of the arteries a key factor in cardiovascular disease, the biggest killer in the UK.  

A doctor may recommend taking statins if either: 

  • you have been diagnosed with a form of cardiovascular disease
  • your personal and family medical history suggests you’re likely to develop cardiovascular disease at some point over the next 10 years and lifestyle measures have not reduced this risk 

Research has suggested around one in every 50 people who take statins for five years will avoid a serious event, such as a heart attack or stroke, as a result. 

There are 5 types of statin available on prescription in the UK:

  • atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • pravastatin (Lipostat)
  • rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • simvastatin (Zocor)

However the medication is not without controversy. 

Some people argue that the side affects of statins which can include headache, muscle pain and nausea, and statins can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hepatitis, pancreatitis and vision problems or memory loss are not worth the potential benefits. 

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol from cells to the liver where it is broken down or passed as waste. This is called ‘good cholesterol’.

‘Bad cholesterol’, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), carries cholesterol to cells, with excessive amounts then building in the artery walls.

A diet heavy in animal fats such as butter, processed meat like bacon, and coconut oil can increase your bad cholesterol. 

Statins are one of the primary ways to treat high cholesterol and an estimated 7-8million people in the UK take them, and 35m in the US.

Research suggests around one in every 50 people who take statins over five years will avoid a serious event, such as a heart attack or stroke, as a result.

However, those that take them can experience side effects like headaches, muscle pain, and nausea, that for some are not worth the potential protective benefits. 

Co-author Dr Stephen Kopecky, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, said: ‘Many patients who are unwilling or unable to take statin drugs may be able to help manage their high cholesterol, or hypolipidemia with a realistic food-based intervention.’ 

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, which is one of the biggest killers in the UK and US.

Heart and circulatory diseases cause 160,000 deaths each year in Britain – an average of 460 deaths a day. 

The US death toll is even larger with heart disease killing 659,000 people each year. 

In the latest study, patients replaced the foods they would normally consume with alternatives formulated to lower their cholesterol.  

After 30 days, the participants were found to have lowered their cholesterol count by an average of 9 per cent. 

Cholesterol charity Heart UK says statins can reduce LDL cholesterol by around 30 per cent, and sometimes even 50 per cent with high doses. 

The NHS says statin users should see their cholesterol levels ‘drop noticeably within four weeks’, if the drugs are taken as prescribed. 

The study also had participants try other, non-Step One Food brands of healthier alternatives for another 30 days but the authors said no similar cholesterol reductions were observed. 

One flaw in the study is that because participants did not have a set diet outside of the substitutes provided, variations in their eating habits may have impacted their outcomes.  

The participants had an average LDL reading of 131 mg/dl which is considered to be borderline high.

Readings of 160–189 mg/dl are high and above 190 mg/dl puts patients in the highest risk category. 

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