Milwaukee — One of the major health hazards of modern living -- high cholesterol -- can be dramatically improved by eating foods our primate ancestors commonly dined on, according to study today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
The so-called ape diet was so effective at lowering LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) that it worked as well as a cholesterol-lowering statin drug.
The vegetarian diet contains healthy doses of soy protein, oats, barley, nuts, fiber, vegetable oils, and fruits and vegetables -- the same foods that many pill-popping Americans routinely avoid.
The study's authors acknowledge that the real-world effectiveness of the diet will have to be tested in routine living situations where people make their own meals on a regular basis. Compliance was easier for those in the study because the foods were pre-packaged and delivered to their homes.
Still, the findings were dramatic.
The study followed 46 people with high cholesterol for one month. All were put on diets that have been shown to lower cholesterol.
One group ate a low-fat diet with lots of whole-wheat cereals. A second group ate the same diet, but also took the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin, also known as Mevacor.
The third group ate the ape diet. It differed from the other diets in that it included large amounts of soy protein, such as soy milk and tofu; soluble fiber, such as oat bran and barley; nuts; and plant sterols. Plant sterols are cholesterol-lowering compounds found in plants that now are being put into some margarines.
All of the groups saw substantial decreases in their cholesterol, but the ape diet performed nearly as well as the low-fat diet plus the statin drug.
The diet got that name because it is believed to be similar to many of the foods primates ate 5 million years ago, said the study's lead author, David Jenkins, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
The ape diet lowered LDL cholesterol 28.6 percent, compared with 30.9 percent for the statin group and 8 percent for the low-fat only group.
It also lowered triglycerides -- another type of unhealthy fat found in the blood -- and blood pressure.
Equally impressive was a 28 percent drop in C-reactive protein, a substance found in the blood that is a sign of inflammation and possible heart disease. The statin group had a 33 percent drop.
The fact that diet alone can produce results that are as dramatic as the main pharmacological weapon against high cholesterol will surprise most doctors, said Patrick McBride, a professor of medicine and director of preventive cardiology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison.
"They need to see this," he said.
Because most statins are not available in generic form, they are not readily affordable for many people who don't have prescription drug coverage.
The ape diet's effectiveness probably is due to its combining of four different known cholesterol-fighting foods: soy protein, nuts, soluble fiber and plant sterols.
Jenkins said people on the diet actually said they felt full and satisfied.
"These are foods that people like to eat," he said. "They aren't just made up in a lab."