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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Fight cholesterol with the right diet

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Three years ago, a doctor told John Flys that his cholesterol level was dangerously high. It seemed that he had just one option -- and that was to take a drug called lovastatin, which has been proven to lower cholesterol levels in patients by about 30%.

Lovastatin, however, is a long-term commitment. Unlike antibiotics or other drugs that treat temporary illnesses or infections, lovastatin treats a chronic illness. If he had opted for that route, Flys would have had to take the drug for the rest of his life.

By chance, as he was leaving St. Michael's hospital after his doctor's appointment, John saw a notice on the wall about an experiment that doctors at the hospital were conducting to see if cholesterol levels could be controlled by diet alone. Flys decided to give it a try.

In the past 25 years, subjects like Flys have chewed their way through a variety of diets, testing individual foods that were said to lower cholesterol levels, such as almonds, soy products and a special margarine containing plant sterols.

But in 1999, Dr. David Jenkins, the director of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael's Hospital, and a Professor in at the University of Toronto's Department of Nutritional Sciences, had an idea that might make the subjects' diet more effective.

"We had been working with almonds, soy, oats and barley, and psillium in separate studies. So it seemed logical to us to put them together rather than looking at them separately. We wondering if they would add up (to a more effective result)," he says.

Since then, Jenkins and his team have done four studies, and the results, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July, were astonishing. Those on the special vegetarian diet reduced their cholesterol levels by 29% -- while those patients on lovastatin experienced a decline of 30.9 %.
John Flys

Each of the four experiments lasted six to eight weeks, and each time up to 46 subjects were put on the rigorous vegetarian dietary regime. But the team did what they could to make it convenient for participants by including some healthy ready-made dishes.

"They supplied us with food from Loblaws called "Too Good To be True" that was low-fat, high-fibre. There are soy products, soups and other goodies. It was pretty convenient and they taste as ordinary food would taste," Flys says.

"They also supplied us with almonds, and asked us to consume fruit. They provided bran cereals. There were soy meat products. I was surprised that they tasted good. And we ate lots of carrots, lettuce and okra ... that was the one thing that I didn't like it that much."

Jenkins recognizes that changing your diet so radically can be difficult in the long term because it means the patient may be eating different foods from their family, or may find it difficult to order appropriate foods in restaurants.

But John Flys says it's not as hard as you'd think. "I'm going to stick with this diet. I enjoy the food, for one thing. I feel better. The odd time I'll go out to dinner and everyone else is having roast beef and so I'll have roast beef. Then I regret it the next day because of the way I feel. It's too heavy for me now."

Jenkins is now planning to embark on longer studies following the progress of people like John who are keeping the diet for periods of up to six months or a year, to see whether the statistics stay the same in a less rigorously controlled "real world" situation.

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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