What to Eat to Lower Cholesterol? 3 Nutraceuticals (Functional Foods) in the Spotlight

Heather Campbell
 min read

What to eat to lower cholesterol is actually an interesting topic.

What to Eat to Lower Cholesterol? 3 Nutraceuticals (Functional Foods) in the SpotlightThere are indeed smart or functional foods that can lower your cholesterol.

Nutraceuticals are foods that naturally or through additives contain substances that limit the absorption of cholesterol into the blood and/or cause more cholesterol to be discharged. Foods rich in fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and folic acid, and other functional foods will all lower cholesterol.

These functional foods go beyond the usual heart-friendly foods that are just low in cholesterol or saturated fats and really have a cholesterol-lowering function.

Read on to discover what nutraceuticals are and how they can lower your cholesterol.

What to eat to lower cholesterol? Introduction

These functional foods are sometimes called nutraceuticals because they are somewhere between food (nutrition) and medicine (pharmaceuticals).

This article discusses three of these functional foods in detail:

  1. Plant sterols
  2. Beta-glucan fiber (from oat bran, for example)
  3. Soy protein

Protective substances in food

There are also several protective substances in common foods which answer what to eat to lower cholesterol.

Tip: Have a read through our other article to brush up on your basic knowledge of cholesterol: What Is Cholesterol in the Body and Where Does It Come From?

Fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants

Dietary fiber, especially those in vegetables, fruits, and legumes, are what to eat to lower cholesterol.

Under the influence of intestinal flora, they ferment in the intestine and ensure that less cholesterol from the intestines is absorbed into the blood.

The non-digestible cell walls of whole rice, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain flakes also benefit cholesterol absorption in the intestines.

Many vitamins and antioxidants can also be valuable accomplices to counteract cholesterol deposition in the arteries.

They are listed together because most vitamins (certainly C and E) also have significant antioxidant effects.

Antioxidants are substances that, in addition to all other processes, hinder the harmful oxidation of cholesterol and are therefore beneficial to the heart and blood vessels.

In addition to their antioxidant effects, vitamins also ensure the optimal functioning of our bodies.

These are the following vitamins or antioxidants:

  • Essential antioxidants include flavonoids (found in red wine, cocoa, various vegetables, berries, and tea).
  • Vitamin E (in grain germs, good vegetable oils, and nuts)
  • Folic acid (found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach). Among other things, this substance regulates homocysteine levels in the blood. High homocysteine levels will promote the oxidation process of cholesterol, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Vitamin C (found in vegetables and in fruits)
  • The carotenoids. These are the red and orange dyes from vegetables (think carrots and tomatoes) and fruits. Good to know: Vitamin A is also one of the carotenoids.

Nutritional supplements of these resources

For the vast majority of people, vitamin supplements are not necessary. Anyone who eats a healthy and varied diet will have more than enough vitamins.

Vitamin C, by the way, is in a lot of products as a preservative (in canned foods, for example) and is usually described on the package as ascorbic acid.

It is possible with excessive use of supplements to take too many vitamins. And that, unfortunately, is not entirely harmless!

If vitamin D is lacking, it can be produced by the body when exposed to the sun. This is not a plea to go sunbathing to your heart’s content but rather a call to get outside and go for a walk!

People with high homocysteine levels benefit from additional B vitamins and folic acid. One of the easiest ways to get these in is to start your day off right with cereal.

These products are high in fiber (check the packaging) and contain hefty portions of vitamins B and folic acid.

Similarly, for fiber and antioxidants, there are not really any well-reasoned arguments for taking them in supplement form.

We know that foods naturally rich in these products are beneficial. Still, few valid arguments would make using expensive powders and pills also beneficial.

In other words, first and foremost, heart-healthy food choices with attention to sufficient variety are appropriate.

Beware of specific health claims

A functional food product such as cholesterol-lowering margarine, for example, has not been tested in the same way as a drug.

For example, a product can be advertised without any scientific verification as “cholesterol-lowering,” “good for cardiovascular health,” “beneficial for intestinal flora,” etc.

Be wary of such health assertions or claims and they should be taken seriously only if be backed up by scientific evidence.

This is the case, for example, with foods enriched with sterols and stanols.

Fortunately, these types of functional foods are now subject to stricter scrutiny by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) than in the past.

Yet, like dietary supplements, they do not undergo nearly the same rigorous process as drugs, which must meet much higher requirements.

A drug’s efficacy, safety, and effectiveness must be proven in several stages before it is allowed on the market, both in the short and long term.

With foods and supplements, the bar is a lot lower. Above all, manufacturers must demonstrate that their product is safe and prepared in hygienic conditions.

To be allowed to put a health claim on the label, they usually have to scientifically prove that it is effectively so.

For example, the label “cholesterol-lowering” should only be used if scientific evidence supports it.

Health claims that go further and claim, for example, that the product leads to less cardiovascular disease must prove the link to these specific diseases.

In short, it is much more difficult for producers than in the past to establish healthy claims on products.

Either way, you better check this out as a consumer to ensure it is more than just a sales pitch.

Three nutraceuticals that will lower your cholesterol levels

Plant sterols and plant stanols

Foods may be enriched with plant sterols (phytosterols), which are cholesterol-like substances and found in the cells of certain plant species, such as nuts, legumes, pine nuts, and soybeans.

Sterols have the same basic structure as cholesterol, but are of plant origin.

How plant sterols lower cholesterol

At first glance, both substances (plant sterols and cholesterol) are very similar, yet there are some crucial differences.

This similarity between the two substances has an interesting effect. Indeed, this will allow plant sterols to settle on the same receptors in the gut that also take up cholesterol.

But because they are sufficiently different from cholesterol, those receptors cannot funnel the plant sterols into the blood.

In other words, these plant sterols block cholesterol receptors in the intestines for a time.

At that point, these can no longer bring any cholesterol into the body because they are already occupied by the plant sterols.

How much plant sterols to take per day

Our diet contains about 300 mg of plant sterols per day, but this can go up to 600 mg in vegetarians.

Plant stanols are a variant of the plant sterols and occur at a much lower dose and answer what to eat to lower cholesterol.

Recognized by the FDA

Plant sterols are recognized by the FDA.

An intake of 3 grams of plant sterols per day by consuming sterol-enriched foods can lower LDL cholesterol by 10%.

And after about two weeks, this effect will already be noticeable in the blood.

Foods containing plant sterols

Specifically, this includes herbal cheeses, yogurts, margarines, minarines, and milk drinks enriched with sterols.

Sterols or stanols derived from pine nuts are often added to these foods.

Recommended daily intake of plant sterols

If you want to use these products, you need to take a high enough dose.

Many people with cholesterol or heart problems are now so used to spreading an extremely thin layer of butter on their sandwich that they apply it here as well.

But, specifically with these products, that’s not a good idea. Too little margarine or not drinking enough sterol-enriched milk is pointless! You need to consume enough of these foods to compete with cholesterol absorption from the gut.

So, for optimal results, go for 2 or 3 reasonably thickly spread sandwiches a day (with sterol-enriched margarine or minarine). An alternative to this is 1 yogurt drink per day.

That LDL cholesterol drop will persist as long as you keep taking the sterols, but you shouldn’t go overboard with this either!

For example, do you already drink functional yogurt drinks? Then it is not helpful to also start using the sterol-enriched minarine or margarine.

In other words, use enough but not more than necessary; you can ingest too much of these functional foods!

So it is best to stick to the recommended dose of 2 to 3 grams per day.

And all who go above that take too much. You can’t really call it an overdose like drugs or medicines, but it’s not recommended!

Effect of plant sterols on cardiovascular disease

That plant sterols roll back cholesterol levels is scientifically established. So you would also expect those sterols to provide a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, right?

But the scientific evidence for that link is as yet lacking.

The mechanism of action of these functional foods may also have other influences or side effects.

Although it cannot be said with certainty that the effect on cholesterol also automatically leads to cardiovascular protection, the available scientific data are currently reassuring enough to recommend using these products.

Functional foods are relatively new, so naturally, some questions remain unanswered for now.

Thus, we do not yet know the long-term effects of these products with certainty.

Disadvantages of plant sterols

In some cases, these foods may cause the levels of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) to be slightly lowered, which is not thought to have an adverse effect.

Several functional foods are already responding to this by adding some fat-soluble vitamins to their product.

More important is a potential link to arteriosclerosis. In fact, it is not entirely true that plant sterols cannot be absorbed into the blood at all.

Plant sterol spikes in our blood range from 0.3 to 1 mg/3.38 fluid ounces. These are levels that are thus, on average, about 500 times lower than our blood cholesterol levels.

But there is an extremely rare genetic disorder called phytosterolemia (formerly called sitosterolemia).

These people have a tremendously high intake of plant sterols from the diet giving them levels up to 50 mg/3.38 fluid ounces. Consequently, these people suffer from early-onset arteriosclerosis.

However, these people usually also suffer from extremely high LDL cholesterol levels, which can also explain this same arteriosclerosis.

There are several people known within these rare disorders in whom only the stero levels had risen, without their LDL cholesterol having risen. And in these people, premature arteriosclerosis was not diagnosed.

Another reassuring fact comes from several experiments conducted on animals that were administered additional plant sterols.

The increase in the levels of plant sterols in the blood led to a decrease in LDL cholesterol and delayed the development of arteriosclerosis in these animals.

Beta-glucans

Beta-glucans are fibers from the cell wall of barley or oats that humans cannot absorb.

Therefore, these Beta-glucans remain undigested in the intestines, where they affect cholesterol metabolism.

Recognized by the FDA

The FDA recognizes the cholesterol-lowering nutritional claim of these fibers.

The extra intake of these fibers through eating oat bran, for example, can lower your cholesterol by about 5% percent.

Guideline: For this, you need to take at least 3 grams of beta-glucans per day.

Foods with beta-glucans

Oat flakes consist of about 5% beta-glucans.

The bran of oats is processed for specific products so that the beta-glucan content can be as high as 70%.

These products are ideal for use in breads enriched with oat bran or wheat bran, for example.

Additional benefits of beta-glucans

As practical advice, the intake of additional fiber is vital and not only for cholesterol levels.

In fact, it also works to protect against the development of diabetes and cancer of the colon.

So whenever possible, always consume whole-grain products (bread, pasta, etc.) and whole-grain breakfast cereals.

Good to know: Foods with some extra oat or wheat bran are also good additions to your diet.

Soy protein

Soy protein has also been shown to reduce cholesterol in several studies.

But not all studies agree on this, so we still need to approach this critically…

How much soy should you take?

The described effects vary quite a bit, but we can say that about 25 grams of soy protein per day can lower your LDL cholesterol by 3 to 4%.

If you know that a glass of soymilk can contain about 6 grams of soy protein or that 150 grams of tofu contain 15 grams of soy protein, you can see that quite a high daily intake is needed to create a real cholesterol-lowering effect.

Controversy surrounding soy

As with many food products, soy proteins do not escape some controversy:

  • In fact, soy contains so-called phytoestrogens, which can exert a limited (female) hormonal effect.
  • Whether this actually has an effect (positive or negative) on health is not yet known.

Recognized by FDA as cholesterol-lowering

Soy protein can present an FDA-approved cholesterol-lowering health claim.

This is a mild cholesterol-lowering effect. To effectively establish a cholesterol-lowering result, you need to consume pretty large amounts of it, so not a part of what to eat to lower cholesterol.

Yet soy remains a good food

Nevertheless, it still seems to be a good idea to consume more soy products.

It is a very full source of protein and is also a source of protein with a minimal carbon footprint compared to meat products.

Soy-based meat substitutes are also cholesterol-free and thus fit nicely into a heart-friendly diet.

If there was an additional active cholesterol-lowering effect anyway, that’s a nice touch.

Not suitable for children, adolescents, and breastfeeding women

These functional foods are not recommended for young, growing children because they have never been tested on young children.

Another important argument is that the mechanism of plant sterols also suppresses the absorption of specific fat-soluble vitamins.

While children in their growing years absolutely do need all vitamins, water, and fat-soluble vitamins.

Except in certain extreme situations, there is no reason to give children functional foods to lower cholesterol levels.

An exception may be made in children and adolescents affected by familial hypercholesterolemia (but this is an exception).

Active cholesterol reduction is also best avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

So pregnant or breastfeeding women are also best off not taking cholesterol-lowering foods.

This makes sense because a fetus or young baby just needs cholesterol to grow and make cell membranes.

Impact of nutraceuticals on public health

The great potential of these functional foods is mainly at the general population level.

If a large part of the population can lower the average cholesterol level by 8 to 10% by eating and drinking these foods, this could lead to a lot less cardiovascular disease in society.

But there’s a caveat. The link between functional food and reduced cardiovascular disease is not final but if the nutraceuticals were to prove themselves, the potential is enormous.

If science proves the link between this food and less cardiovascular disease, this would be excellent.

These functional foods are interesting because they allow us to appeal to and reach a wide audience. In practice, this is a broader group than the population that can be reached with medication.

As people should use salt in moderation for lower blood pressure, these functional food products can greatly help reduce cholesterol on a large scale and would be part of what to eat to lower cholesterol.

Related postWhy Is Cholesterol a Silent Killer? Its Huge Impact on Our Body’s Functions Explained

But before this is fully advertised by the medical community, we must wait for further necessary scientific evidence.

What to eat to lower cholesterol? Conclusion

So what should we eat to lower cholesterol?

Fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants are helpful accomplices and natural tools to keep our bodies healthy.

The intake of these products in (often expensive) supplement form (powders and pills) is usually not an issue.

Foods or dietary supplements can only claim a cholesterol-lowering effect (or another health benefit) if they meet the criteria as by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

The label “cholesterol-lowering” should be used only when there is scientific evidence.

The use of food enriched with plant sterols lowers your LDL cholesterol level by up to 10% if you stick to the recommended amount of 2 to 3 grams per day.

The cholesterol reduction using plant sterols is scientifically indisputable but if also means less cardiovascular disease in the long term is not known yet.

Science shows that there are no clear arguments to doubt the usefulness or safety of these products.

Further research does remain necessary. Based on this knowledge, foods enriched with plant sterols are also recommended by the FDA.

These plant sterol-enriched foods answer what to eat to lower cholesterol

  • In people at low to moderate risk who are not eligible for cholesterol-lowering medication
  • As an adjunct to medication in people at high to very high risk who are not reaching their target cholesterol levels

Beta-glucans are fibers from the cell wall of barley or oats. The additional intake of these fibers can lower your cholesterol by about 4-5% (these fibers are also FDA approved).

The intake of additional fiber is vital for cholesterol levels, but it also protects against the development of diabetes and cancer of the colon.

Use whole grain products (bread, pasta, cereal) whenever possible and foods with some extra oat bran or wheat bran.

Soy protein can lower your LDL cholesterol by 4% if taken in high enough amounts (25 grams of soy protein per day).

A glass of soy milk contains up to about 6 grams of soy protein, and 150 grams of tofu contains about 15 grams of soy protein. So you need a relatively high daily intake to see an effect.

Soy protein can make an FDA-approved cholesterol-lowering health claim, and it seems like a good idea to consume some more soy products.

Not only is it a very full source of protein, but it is also a source of protein with a very small carbon footprint compared to meat products.

Soy-based meat substitutes are also cholesterol-free and thus fit well into a heart-friendly diet.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More