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Functional Foods and Lowering Cholesterol

05/14/2000

Question:

Do any natural nutrients such as garlic or red yeast rice really lower cholesterol?

Answer:

The area of "functional foods" (foods that impact our health in a beneficial way) is constantly being studied and changed. Extensive studies are still needed to see just what effects these foods/components have on our growth, performance, and ability to fight or resist disease. Until the "verdict" is in, we can not be 100% sure of the long-term benefits. With this in mind, research has been pointing to a variety of foods that may be helpful for lowering cholesterol. You specifically asked about garlic and red yeast rice. Here is what I found out: Garlic: research has been controversial. On one hand, some studies found that eating garlic can lower cholesterol levels by about 9%, but these studies had design flaws and are not convincing. On the other hand, a 1998 study, that was strictly controlled, found that garlic treatment used for 12 weeks did not lower cholesterol levels in people with elevated blood cholesterol levels. (refer to Quackwatch website for more information) Red Yeast Rice: is a newly available dietary supplement in the U.S. According to one source, it functions just like the cholesterol-lowering prescription drug Lovastatin.

An article published 2/99 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by David Huber, M.D., PhD and others discusses the Cholesterol-Lowering Effects of a Proprietary Red-Yeast-Rice Dietary Supplement. This study concluded that "red yeast rice significantly reduces total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and total triacylglycerol concentrations compared with placebo and provides a new, novel, food-based approach to lowering cholesterol in the general population." But, a word of caution is needed. This is only one study. More research is needed to find the safest, most effective doses to take. Also, if you are already taking a cholesterol lowering medication, red yeast rice supplements have the potential to cause undesirable drug interactions or overdosing. To avoid serious problems, it is always advisable to consult your personal doctor before using a self-prescribed supplement. Other foods that have been found to be helpful in lowering cholesterol include oat bran, oatmeal, and psyllium fiber (all soluble fibers), flaxseed, and soy. It is important to be aware of the fact that there are many different variables that influence our cholesterol levels (such as our genetic makeup, food intake, exercise habits, and lifestyle).

A single food or nutrient should not be the only method used for treating this problem. An individualized plan should be developed to take all factors into consideration. Thank you for your question.

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Response by:

Jane   Korsberg, MS, RD, LD Jane Korsberg, MS, RD, LD
Senior Instructor of Nutrition
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University