Choose your snacks wisely, and you may lower your dangerous LDL cholesterol. That’s what researchers found when they did a small but careful study at Penn State University (Lee et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, online Nov. 29, 2017).
Which Snacks Lower LDL Cholesterol?
In this trial, 31 overweight or obese individuals followed a typical American diet for a month while their cholesterol levels were monitored. During another month, they included about 1/3 cup of almonds in their diets every day. During a different four-week time frame, they ate about ¼ cup of dark chocolate and 2.5 tablespoons of cocoa powder daily. In yet another month, they consumed both almonds and chocolate as part of their daily rations. The diets were adjusted so that they contained the same amounts of calories, and no one gained or lost weight during the trial. There were two-week breaks between each session.
The results are intriguing. Almonds lowered LDL cholesterol by about 7 percent. While cocoa and chocolate did not lower LDL, they did not raise it either. The combination of almonds and cocoa resulted in fewer small dense LDL particles that are dangerous for heart health.
The Take-Home Message:
The lead researcher points out that we each have a few hundred discretionary calories for our diets each day. Choosing almonds and dark chocolate instead of cookies and other candy might make a difference to our hearts.
Why Does LDL Cholesterol Matter, Anyway?
LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. It is commonly termed “bad” cholesterol because high levels of LDL have been linked to a greater likelihood of cardiovascular events. Molecules of LDL carry fats in the bloodstream and encourage the buildup of atherosclerotic plaque in the linings of the arteries. The number and size of these aggregations of LDL can be measured with a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). LDL particles (“low-density,” remember?) are supposed to be big and fluffy. People with healthy circulatory systems have fewer small, dense LDL particles.
How Low Should LDL Cholesterol Be?
Cardiologists have long been focused on lowering LDL cholesterol as much as possible. In fact, over the past five years, different professional groups have issued different guidelines on when people need to be treated to lower their LDL. Here is what we wrote earlier (February, 2015) about these conflicting guidelines:
Cholesterol guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association came out in 2013. They stirred up quite a controversy in medical circles. Many cardiologists were shocked that specific LDL cholesterol targets were abandoned because there was no scientific evidence to support levels below 100 for everybody.
New Guidelines Restore LDL Targets:
But new guidelines for treating high cholesterol were unveiled at the Annual Cardiovascular Symposium Cardiology Update (February, 2015). The LDL target of 70 has reappeared and 12 million more Americans could be prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs to reach that goal.
This about-face will probably put both physicians and patients in a quandary. Which guidelines should they be following to prevent heart disease?
We suspect that the 2013 guidelines have more scientific evidence to back them up. If you are interested in learning more about cholesterol, you may want to read our Guide to Cholesterol Control and Heart Health.
More Emphasis on Lowering LDL Cholesterol:
Since 2015, new medications that lower LDL cholesterol more effectively than statin drugs have some cardiologists excited about the prospect of driving these levels down even further. You can read more about evolocumab (Repatha) here. While Repatha and a similar drug, alirocumab (Praluent), definitely lower LDL, it is not clear whether such PCSK9 inhibitor drugs will help most people live longer.