Eating a diet similar to that of our simian relatives can have as much of an effect on cholesterol levels as modern medicine does, a new study suggests. Results published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicate that a strict, low-fat vegetarian diet high in specific plant products can lower levels of bad cholesterol as much as widely prescribed statin drugs can.

A number of foods, soy protein and oats among them, have known cholesterol-lowering effects. David J. A. Jenkins of the University of Toronto and his colleagues tested a specific vegetarian diet that combined many of these food groups into one menu that contained high amounts of plant sterols, fiber, nuts and soy protein. Of the 46 patients with high cholesterol levels that the team studied, 16 ate this diet for a month. A second group of 16 ate a regular low-fat vegetarian diet and 14 participants consumed the low-fat diet and took 20 milligrams of lovastatin, a standard cholesterol-reducing drug. At the end of the study period, those patients who ate the special diet lowered their levels of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" type associated with clogging coronary arteries) by 29 percent whereas the patients taking lovastatin reduced their LDL levels by 31 percent. The low-fat dieters, in contrast, showed just an 8 percent decrease in the amount of LDL present. "As we age, we tend to get raised cholesterol, which in turn increases our risk of heart disease," Jenkins explains. "This study shows that people now have a dietary alternative to drugs to control their cholesterol, at least initially."

The results are still preliminary, however. Writing in an accompanying commentary, James W. Anderson of the University of Kentucky notes that if the findings are confirmed by larger and more rigorous studies, they could have far-reaching implications for many patients suffering from cholesterol problems. He notes "those who are motivated to adopt prudent diets might achieve meaningful lipid reductions without pharmacotherapy."