Move Over Statins: Legumes Are Nature's Cholesterol Busters

By Neha Sharma, D.O.

A serving of legumes a day may keep bad cholesterol at bay, a new study has found.

Researchers in the United States and Canada have found that daily consumption of non-oil-seed legumes - like chickpeas, lentils or peas - can significantly reduce "bad cholesterol" and cut the risk of heart disease.

People who ate one three-quarter-cup serving of legumes daily had a 5 percent reduction in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels - a decrease that suggests a 5 to 6 percent reduced risk of major vascular events such as heart attack and stroke.

"Legumes are generally considered healthy, but there [are no guidelines] about their intake from public policy officials," said Dr. John Sievenpiper of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Center in Canada, lead author of the study published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Sievenpiper added that "legumes can complement statins" in the fight against cholesterol, serving as a crucial ingredient in "a healthy diet portfolio" for the general population, regardless of heart disease.

Nutritionists and preventive cardiologists not involved in the research said the new findings were noteworthy.

"It is a well-known fact that high-soluble, fiber-rich foods, like legumes, produce significant effects on LDL numbers and actually add to the cholesterol-lowering effects of statins," said Dr. Chip Lavie, medical director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Preventive Cardiology at Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in Louisiana.

Lavie added that while a 5 percent reduction may not seem huge, studies show that for every 1 percent fall in cholesterol, there is a 1-to-2 percent fall in cardiovascular risk.

"People should seriously think about adopting legumes in their diet," he said. "The LDL-lowering effect aside, it's a healthy thing to be doing, anyway."

Dr. Walter Willett, a nutritionist and epidemiologist at The Harvard School of Public Health, agreed.

"[The study] appears to be a useful summary of the literature on metabolic effects of legume consumption and suggests that there are benefits, especially if beans or other legumes replace red meat," Willett said.

There may be another benefit, as well - to the environment. Willett said that if more Americans replaced some of the red meat they eat with legumes, it could cut greenhouse gas production and other adverse environmental effects linked to livestock production.

Doctor's Take

Legumes have long been a favorite among nutrition researchers and health experts because of their proven benefits in lowering the risk of many killer chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Now, according to this study, a legume-loaded diet can lower high cholesterol levels, as well.

That's not to say, of course, that a handful of beans a day can necessarily replace cholesterol-lowering statins for the 43.2 million U.S. adults who currently take them. Rather, it seems that adding a daily serving of tasty legumes like peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils in your diet will serve as a companion to this important prescription drug.