Don't Know Beans About Lowering Cholesterol?

October is National Cholesterol Awareness Month, but most people think they already know about cholesterol. Ask them, and they'll tell you it's bad, you should avoid it in your diet and that you want your blood cholesterol number to be lower.

Actually those three things are only about half true.

Your body makes cholesterol on its own. Good thing, because it serves some useful purposes in the body: cell structure, nerve function and so forth. Secondly, unless you eat no animal products whatsoever, you can't avoid it in your diet. And third, you really only want to lower the bad cholesterol -- the LDL stuff. HDL cholesterol, the good kind, is OK at higher levels.

Since the advent of statin drugs, most people don't worry very much about their cholesterol levels. The drugs are very effective at lowering bad cholesterol (the LDL stuff) and while that's good, some people feel they have a pass to return to eating a crappy diet. But these drugs aren't without their side effects, like short term memory problems, muscle weakness and others.

Head for the Pantry, Not the Medicine Cabinet

Did you know there are foods that will absolutely help lower cholesterol? But by how much? It depends on how much of them you eat. Foods like oatmeal, soy protein, almonds and plant sterols (think those special margarine-type spreads), along with fruits and vegetables each lower serum cholesterol a bit -- several percentage points. That's fine, but if you include them all together, there seems to be an additive effect.

Research by David Jenkins of the University of Toronto documented this effect, referring to it as the "Portfolio Diet." The additive effect amounts to a lowering of serum cholesterol by 30 percent, about the same as the early statin drugs. Of course, the down side is that this is a vegan diet -- no animal foods at all -- and that's hard for most of us.

Bean Counters Reap the Profits

If you'd rather get some serious cholesterol lowering without having to go completely vegan, there is hope on the way -- and you'll like this news.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people eat about three cups of beans per week, or about one-half cup daily -- not green beans, but the grown-up kind. Most people are lucky to eat a third of this amount, so there's room for improvement.

Some recent research from Donna Winham at Arizona State University indicates that just that recommended amount of beans -- one-half cup daily -- lowered cholesterol by about 8 percent, which lowers heart disease risk by 16 percent. She and her colleagues looked at pintos, black-eyes and carrots, with pinto beans coming out the winner for lowering cholesterol. Didn't matter how you ate them, just one-half cup daily (what we should be eating anyway) did the trick. And even better news is that most of the reduction was from the bad (LDL) cholesterol.

Picture it: If everyone in America followed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and ate their one-half cup of pinto beans daily, you have to wonder how many people could get off of statin drugs (and be done with their side effects), or have fewer heart problems, reduced hospital stays and on and on.

Statin drugs are expensive. Beans are not -- they're so cheap it's almost ridiculous. That may be what keeps people from eating them.

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