Get out the olive oil and the fruits and vegetables: A Mediterranean-style diet can help men lower blood cholesterol levels more dramatically and quickly than previously believed, according to a recent study by scientists at France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
The aim of the study was to see how well a diet low in fat and high in fiber could control blood cholesterol levels. People in Mediterranean countries ate a diet of this sort at the turn of the 20th century. Study participants were 31 men with mildly elevated blood cholesterol levels.
In the first phase of the study, all participants went on a low-fat, low-fiber diet for four weeks. During this time, they ate low-fat, low-fiber fare, consuming such foods as fruit juice and skim milk and toast for breakfast. For lunch, they ate cooked artichokes and low-fat chicken or veal cooked in olive oil, topped with lemon and served with white rice, a glass of red wine, coffee and a fruit pie. There was a midafternoon snack of a biscuit and coffee followed by dinner of fish, sauteed in olive oil, cooked vegetables, soft cheese and fruit.
This low-fat, low-fiber diet resulted in about a 12% reduction of blood cholesterol, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
During the next four weeks, half the participants remained on the low-fat, low-fiber diet. Their blood cholesterol levels rose slightly during this second phase of the study but remained on average 9% lower than when the study began.
The other half of participants continued on the low-fat diet, but added high-fiber foods so that they consumed 35 grams of fiber per day. Instead of eating toast for breakfast, members of this group consumed high-fiber cereal. Lunch included the same low-fat chicken or veal, red wine, and rice and olive oil, but also added cooked beans, whole-wheat bread and raw tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn, plus a high-fiber fruit, such as an apple. The midafternoon snack was a high-fiber cereal, while dinner included fish, low-fat cream, olive oil, lemon, a boiled potato and fruit salad, whole-wheat bread and cooked spinach.
Participants in this high-fiber group showed an additional 4% reduction in total cholesterol and nearly a 5% additional decline in LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol.
The findings suggest, the authors wrote, that a mixed Mediterranean diet, rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, such as those found in olive oil, and in soluble fiber, such as that found in cereals, legumes, fruit and vegetables, can significantly lower blood cholesterol levels.