You’re probably aware that cutting back on dietary cholesterol and fat is the first step in lowering your blood cholesterol level to reduce your risk of heart disease. You may also have heard that increasing the fiber in your diet can help. That, too, appears to be true, but only where soluble fiber is concerned—up to a point.
All plants contain a mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber. Both are good for you, but they differ in the benefits they offer. Soluble fiber swells up in water, forming a sticky gel. This fiber seems to help lower blood cholesterol.
Insoluble fiber is the material that makes up the plant-cell wall. It’s what some people call roughage. This fiber is thought to lower your risk of colon cancer, and it helps prevent constipation.
Many studies have shown that soluble fiber—the fiber found in oat bran, figs, oranges, kidney beans and other legumes—can reduce levels of both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol.
Probably the most-studied and best-known source of soluble fiber is oat bran. Studies of oat bran determined that adding 3 grams of soluble fiber a day—the equivalent of one large bowl of ready-to-eat-oat-bran cereal—lowered cholesterol levels an average of 2 percent to 3 percent.
No matter how much oatmeal you eat for breakfast, it can’t counter the negative effects of a fast-food lunch and a steak for dinner. A low-fat diet is your most important ally when it comes to lowering your cholesterol. Another caution: Eating a large oat bran muffin for breakfast may do your cholesterol level more harm than good! Many muffins available in stores are made with highly saturated coconut oil, which raises blood cholesterol.
Besides helping to modestly lower blood cholesterol, increasing your soluble fiber intake will bring you other health benefits. Soluble fibers helps regulate blood-glucose levels and control appetite by making you feel full. Foods high in soluble fiber (see the box) tend to be low in calories and packed with vitamins and minerals, too.
So, first and foremost, stick with a low-fat diet. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains that are high in soluble fiber, and you’ll be on your way to better heart health!