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Can a Spoonful of Bran Help Cholesterol Go Down?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I’m not what you’d call a health-food nut. I love thick, blood-rare steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue ribs, virtually all the killer P’s (pastrami, prosciutto, pate, pastry, pepperoni pizza) and--above all--fine French food. So devoted am I to gastronomic self-indulgence that I take my own food and wine on airplanes, I make all my restaurant reservations before my hotel and airplane reservations and I insist on making a two-week gastronomic pilgrimage to France every year.

Given these predilections, it will probably not come as a shattering surprise to you that I regard with horror all vegetarian restaurants, health-food stores and anything that involves such words as whole grain, high fiber, low sodium, sugar-free and--shudder!-- macrobiotic. Let them eat tofu, is how I look at it.

But I’m not completely crazy. My father had his first heart attack when he was 38. His brother--my uncle--also had a heart attack. I’m 47, a resolutely Type A personality, and my cholesterol has long been borderline--in the 220-230 range (higher than the 200 maximum now recommended, although still below the 240+ high-risk level).

I don’t jog, play tennis or participate in any of those other tedious activities, but I do ride an exercise bicycle each morning while I read the paper--pedaling just fast enough to break a sweat, not fast enough to dampen my Doonesbury--and I do try to eat my favorite foods in moderation. Well, OK, not moderation. But not gluttony either (except when I’m in France). My wife and I usually go out to dinner three or four nights a week, but I’m more likely to order fowl than red meat in a restaurant; and at home, I generally stick to fish, fowl and pasta, skipping red meat, dessert and rich sauces altogether (except when we have a dinner party).

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Sure, I always eat dessert in a good restaurant (or even a not-so-good restaurant). But I don’t use butter on my bread. And I try not to eat more than two hot dogs when I go to Dodger Stadium.

I’ve always figured that, sooner or later--preferably sooner--someone would develop a medicine that could control cholesterol, and I’d take that rather than go on a true low-cholesterol diet.

Sure enough, in recent years, several cholesterol-fighting drugs have come on the market. Each time I read about a new one, I call my doctor.

“Not for you,” he always says. “Too new and unknown. Too many side-effects. Besides, you’re generally in excellent health. Just try to be reasonably careful eating and don’t worry too much.”

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I religiously followed at least half that advice.

Then, over the past year or so, I began to read about scientific studies on the amazing cholesterol-fighting powers of oat bran. (This was before a more recent round of studies said oat bran was useless as a cholesterol-fighter.) I tried several kinds of oat-bran muffins and oat-bran cereals and assorted other oat-bran products in a frenzied quest for the best of both possible worlds--to be able to eat all my favorite foods, then have the oat bran sop up most of the killer cholesterol before it could course through my blood stream, clogging my arteries like dumpsters overturned on the freeway at rush-hour.

Yuk! All oat-bran products tasted like a blend of sawdust and library paste--and the oat-bran cereals all turned to mush the instant I added milk.

Perhaps, I thought, I should try one of the newer products that also promise to do valiant battle with cholesterol--rice bran, barley, cabbage, carrots, onions. Maybe I could eat enough carrots to both reduce my cholesterol and throw away my contact lenses.

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Fortunately, it was at about this point in my quest for life that I discovered Oat Bran O’s, a dry cereal made by an outfit called Health Valley, precisely the kind of name that I had spent my life sneering at--and assiduously avoiding. Oat Bran O’s certainly weren’t delicious, but they were edible. Sort of. Texture has always been almost as important as flavor to me, and at least they were crunchy, even after several minutes’ submersion in milk.

Oat Bran O’s provides more oat bran per serving than any other dry cereal I could find--15 grams per ounce. (Quaker Oat Bran later came along at 20 grams per ounce, but it had 40 times more salt than the O’s, it was sweetened with sugar instead of fruit juice and, in milk, it turned to mush faster than you could say “fatty deposits.”) Since two ounces is a normal serving of cereal for me, I figured I could consume 30 grams of oat bran, pain-free, with the O’s. That got me to thinking: Suppose I also took a two-ounce “snack-pack” of O’s to work each morning and nibbled them like peanuts?

My wife, Lucy, began laughing uncontrollably that Sunday afternoon when she saw me carefully measuring Oat Bran O’s into tiny plastic baggies and weighing them on my home postage scale. Let her laugh. I figured I’d be eating 60 grams of oat bran a day, and one study said people who ate 100 grams a day had cut their cholesterol 19%; 60 grams might cut mine about 10%.

I had my cholesterol tested to establish a base-line, then began my experiment. I started by buying eight boxes of Oat Bran O’s--more laughter from Lucy as I lugged them in the front door--but apart from the O’s, I tried to eat the same way I usually did. I also threw a few baggies filled with Oat Bran O’s in the back seat of my car, and I took Oat Bran O’s with me even when I flew across the country on business. (I bought a special plastic container to put the O’s in when I checked my luggage so they wouldn’t be crushed in transit.)

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About two weeks into my experiment, the store at which I bought my O’s ran out of them. The distributor was out of stock. No store in Los Angeles had any Oat Bran O’s.

But I was about to fly to Berkeley to deliver a speech. When the student who’d been selected to drive me around picked me up at the airport, I told him he had two assignments--get me back to the airport on time and find me some Oat Bran O’s.

He succeeded at both, and I flew off to Santa Barbara for the weekend with two emergency boxes of O’s in my carry-on luggage. Lucy had a car; that meant I had room for more O’s if I could find them in Santa Barbara.

I checked the yellow pages for--ugh!--health food stores. There was one about two miles from the bed-and-breakfast where we were staying.

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“Let’s walk,” I said, figuring the exercise would help put a double-whammy on my cholesterol.

I bought 10 boxes.

Not surprisingly, Lucy laughed at the sight of me juggling the two large shopping bags. She laughed even harder when I insisted we have lunch at a wonderfully funky Mexican restaurant nearby--where I ordered the special barbecued pork burrito. That night, we ate at one of our favorite French restaurants.

Six weeks later, on the eve of a trip to France, I had my cholesterol tested again--the morning after a big French dinner celebrating a friend’s birthday.

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When I got the printed results two days later, I first decided I wouldn’t look at them until we returned from France. If my cholesterol hadn’t dropped--or, Escoffier forbid, if it had actually increased--I might be so depressed (or so alarmed) that I wouldn’t be able to attack the croissants, foie gras and gateau chocolat on the other side of the Atlantic with my characteristic abandon.

Then I decided to “sneak up” on the results as I had once sneaked up on a worrisome report card in school; I’d cover the entire cholesterol report with a piece of paper and uncover it a little at a time so I could see only the first digit of my cholesterol. (This required the construction of an elaborate paper apparatus so I would see no more than I wanted.) Since my cholesterol at the beginning of the test had been 223, I figured that if the first digit were still “2"--which seemed eminently likely--I wouldn’t look at the rest until after we returned from France. If it were “1,” I’d know I’d cut my cholesterol at least 11% and I’d look at the whole report.

It was “1.”

Triumphantly, I wadded up my paper contraption and looked at the entire report. My cholesterol was 183--down 18%! My “bad cholesterol” (LDL--Low-Density Lipoproteins) was also down--24%. And my “good cholesterol” (HDL--High-Density Lipoproteins) was up--12%. (In some clinical tests, I knew, the “good cholesterol” had actually dropped slightly, so I was doing even better than the test patients.) And the all-important ratio between my “good” and “bad” cholesterol was also improved. My triglycerides, another index of possible heart trouble, had dropped 37%.

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I was euphoric. Even Lucy stopped laughing.

There must have been something other than euphoria on my face, though, because she asked me why I was “smiling that way.”

“I’m wondering if I should take Oat Bran O’s with me to France.”

Lucy started laughing again.

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