Eat This Fruit to Lower Cholesterol

December 18, 2012
Daily Health News
Bahram H. Arjmandi, PhD, RD

Sure, statin drugs such as Lipitor and Zocor can be effective in bringing down elevated cholesterol—and, therefore, your risk for heart disease—but these benefits come at a price.

Side effects of these powerful drugs can include raised blood sugar, memory loss and muscle damage.

Seeking a safer, natural solution to at least supplement (if not fully replace) statins, scientists recently looked at the impact of two fruits on cholesterol.

And the results were quite promising—especially for one of the fruits.

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In the study, researchers asked participants to eat a half cup of dried apples or a half cup of dried plums (prunes) each day for a year. The study did not include people who had regularly consumed dried apples or prunes in the past or anyone who was taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. Participants were asked to eat whatever else they typically ate and to exercise the same amount that they normally would. Roughly the same percentage of people in each group—about 82%—complied with all the instructions and completed the study. And the results below are based only on those who complied and completed the study.

Cholesterol levels were checked at the beginning of the study and after three months, six months and 12 months. Results…

  • After three months: Those who ate dried apples reduced their total cholesterol by 9% and their LDL “bad” cholesterol by 16%…while those who ate prunes reduced their total cholesterol by only 2.6% and their LDL by just 5%.
  • After six months: Those who ate dried apples reduced their numbers even more—their total cholesterol dropped by 13% and their LDL by 24%, compared with levels at the beginning of the study. But the prune group’s levels didn’t change between the three-month mark and the six-month mark.
  • After 12 months: The dried-apple group’s results were the same as they were at the six-month mark. The prune group saw a little more improvement at this point—their total cholesterol was 3.5% lower and LDL was 8% lower, compared with levels at the beginning of the study.

In other words, overall, it seems that both dried apples and prunes brought down cholesterol, but dried apples had a stronger effect. Though participants in this study were all women, the researchers believe that the results are likely to apply to men as well.

Though head-to-head fruit versus statin studies haven’t been done, neither fruit is likely to lower cholesterol quite as much as a statin would (depending on the dose, a statin tends to lower LDL by roughly 40% to 60%). But given that they’re natural foods that provide excellent nutrition and no harmful side effects, I think this news is quite encouraging.

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I was curious to find out why these fruits (especially the apples) may have been beneficial. Both dried fruits offer heart-healthy antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection and are rich in pectin—a dietary fiber that reduces cholesterol, said Bahram H. Arjmandi, PhD, RD, lead investigator of the study. Dried apples helped more, probably, because apples (both dried and fresh) contain an especially high amount of pectin.

In case you’re wondering, dried apples (rather than regular, fresh apples) were studied for the sake of consistency. Since there are significant variations in the chemical composition of fresh fruits, studying dried apples was a more standardized way to measure their effects. But fresh apples, said Dr. Arjmandi, are apt to provide the same cholesterol-lowering benefits as dried apples. To eat an amount of fresh apples that is equal to what the study subjects ate through dried apples (one-half cup), you would need to eat two medium-sized fresh apples per day. To try: Slice fresh apples and dip them in peanut butter…blend some into your lunchtime smoothie…or sprinkle cinnamon on them and eat them as a sweet after-dinner treat.

On the other hand, dried apples are easier to transport and store and they keep much longer—so it’s easy to keep them around for snacking. You can also use dried apples as a garnish and add them to cereal, yogurt, soup or pasta dishes. (Try it!)

If you do so and you also take a statin, said Dr. Arjmandi, continue seeing your doctor to track your cholesterol, because it may turn out that you can reduce your statin dose—and that would be sweet.