To investigate, researchers from the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital tested the effects of adding monounsaturated fats to a high-fiber vegetarian diet that had previously been shown to curb LDL ("bad") cholesterol in adults with elevated levels.
Researchers had 24 patients with high cholesterol spend one month on a standard low-saturated-fat diet prescribed for cholesterol lowering.
Participants then spent another month on a vegetarian diet; but half were randomly assigned to replace 13 percent of their daily carbohydrates with monounsaturated fats, in the form of sunflower oil and avocados.
At the end of the month, both diet groups showed a similar reduction in LDL cholesterol, of about 20 percent.
The total LDL reduction over the two months, the standard cholesterol-cutting diet, plus the vegetarian ones, was 35 percent in both groups, comparable to the benefits that have been seen with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
However, the monounsaturated-fat group also showed an average increase in HDL ("good") cholesterol of about 12 percent, whereas the comparison group showed no change overall.
The monounsaturated-fat group also had a reduction in levels in C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the blood vessels that has been associated with heart disease risk.
Researcher say the findings are promising, especially for people with elevated cholesterol who want to try to lower their cholesterol levels through diet, before resorting to medication.
Researchers note that components of the study diet should be relatively easy to follow, for instance replacing highly refined carbohydrates, like white bread and processed snack foods, with monounsaturated fats from nuts, avocados and olive oil.
However, overall eating habits still also play an important role. In this study, the vegetarian diet included plenty of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber from sources like oatmeal and psyllium, as well as soymilk and soy-based meat alternatives, almonds and margarines containing plant sterols.
The findings were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
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