But, now there is an increasing awareness of the side effects of long term use of these drugs, with many looking to switch to natural alternatives. This is useful for people with high cholesterol due to dietary absorption.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that eating certain foods can lower your cholesterol levels just as well as drugs do, sometimes proving to be more effective.
Cholesterol lowering food components include dietary fibres, good fats, phytosterols and some vitamins. In this particular study, researchers found that foods such as soy protein, tofu, various other soy products, nuts and cereal fiber, as well as plant sterols, can lower total cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), better than statin drugs.
Other less commonly known compounds and nutrients with cholesterol lowering benefits include probiotics like lactobacillus (obtained from fermented food products), guggulipids, red yeast rice, policosanol (found in jaggery and sugar cane), grape seed extract, cinnamon, turmeric, niacin, pantethine, found in the form of Vitamin B-5) and vitamin C.
Dietary fibre, specially soluble fibre, has been shown to significantly lower cholesterol LDL, while levels of good cholesterol (HDL) remain unchanged. Soluble fibres can be found in foods such as oats, barley, legumes (peas, beans), certain fruits (apples, prunes, and berries), certain vegetables (carrots, broccoli, yams). Interestingly, oatmeal is the only whole grain food recognised by the FDA to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Psyllium husk has also been known to exhibit cardio-protective role due to its high fibre content and beta-sitosterol (a plant sterol).
Another alternative is good fats. Accumulating data from observational and clinical trials have reported that omega-3 fats actually reduce risk of heart disease by reducing triglycerides and total cholesterol. These could be included through fish, walnuts, flaxseed and green leafy vegetables.
The Harvard School of Public Health advises that nuts have favourable effects on blood lipids and cholesterol reduction. Nuts include almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pine-nuts, cashewnuts and peanuts. A meta-analysis of seven almond studies showed as high as 10 percent reduction in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
Research has also shown that frequent seed consumption like sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, fenugreek seeds, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds etc, is associated with lower levels of cholesterol.
Phytosterols are plant sterols or stanols similar to cholesterol that act in the intestines to lower cholesterol absorption. They are most commonly found in fruits and vegetables.
Ishi Khosla is a former senior nutritionist at Escorts. She heads the Centre of Dietary Counselling and also runs a health food store. She feels that for complete well-being, one should integrate physical, mental and spiritual health. According to her: To be healthy should be the ultimate goal for all.