Can Someone With Mildly Elevated LDL Cholesterol Use Diet to Avoid Statins?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Can someone who's been diagnosed with mildly elevated LDL cholesterol use dietary changes to avoid taking statins?

Expert Answer

Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor and the director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet.

Yes, a change in diet can help reduce so-called "lower elevated" LDL cholesterol levels -- and can often make taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs unnecessary.

Keep in mind that our cholesterol level is just a number. What's really important in terms of cardiovascular disease is the oxidation of that cholesterol (the end result of cell damage caused by so-called free radicals) that goes on to cause unchecked inflammation (when the body's normal immune response goes into a kind of unhealthy overdrive), which is the ultimate cause of damage to the arterial lining, and of heart disease.

So it's important to think beyond the numbers and focus on decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation. How to do this?

Decrease animal proteins and add more soy protein. This has two benefits:

  • It replaces animal protein, which is higher in saturated fat (which causes the increase in human cholesterol production).

  • Isoflavones in soy have lipid-lowering effects. Ideally, to get the full benefit, aim to consume 25 grams of soy protein (about two or three servings of whole soy) a day. Good sources of soy include edamame (baby soy beans in the pod), roasted soy nuts, tempeh, and tofu. Animal protein should be lean.

Consume more soluble fiber. These are the sticky-gummy types of fiber found in oatmeal, oat bran, legumes, barley, peas, and citrus fruits. Soluble fibers lower lipids by binding with cholesterol in the digestive system to help eliminate it along with waste, and they help keep blood sugar in check. (Insoluble fibers include wheat, wheat bran, rye, and rice bran.)

Eat more mushrooms. They contain beta-glucans, which bind cholesterol in the gut to help eliminate it from the body. Good varieties to look for: enoki and maitake.

Add unsalted or lightly salted nuts to your diet. Almonds, walnuts, and pistachios in particular have lipid-lowering effects. Almonds are also a good source of soluble fiber, walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and all are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Nuts also contain plant sterols, which bind cholesterol in the gut to remove it from the body, rather than it being reabsorbed. The body then has to use its own cholesterol stores to manufacture hormones, cell membranes, and so on, effectively lowering the overall cholesterol in the body.

Aim for an ounce of nuts per day. This is equivalent to approximately a quarter cup of most nuts, or 20 to 23 almonds or 18 to 20 walnuts.

Drink pomegranate juice and green tea. Both contain antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation. Pomegranate juice has also been shown to be effective in reducing the formation of plaque in artery linings. Amounts as small as 3 to 4 ounces of pomegranate juice per day (that's a small juice cup) have been shown to provide these benefits. Green tea can be brewed hot or consumed as iced tea. Look to drink 2 to 4 cups per day for maximum health benefits.

Try to raise the level of HDLs (the protective form of cholesterol). The best ways to do this are by getting aerobic exercise and consuming omega-3 fats, found in foods such as cold-water fish (wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel), flaxseed, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds.