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Fred Shragai, 59, of Encino, Calif., is a good example. Fourteen years ago, the prosperous real estate developer had a cholesterol level above 300 mg. At the time, he smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, was overweight (202 lbs. on a 5-ft. 5-in. frame) and routinely put in five or six 14-hour, pressure-packed days a week at the office. Rich sauces and fatty meat were his standard fare for both lunch and dinner, and exercise meant reaching under the bed to grab from his stash of pretzels and potato chips. Shragai was a classic candidate for a heart attack, and at the age of 45, he had one. Nine years later he was hospitalized for an operation to bypass five seriously blocked coronary arteries. In desperation, Shragai enrolled himself in U.C.L.A.'s Center for Health Enhancement. By changing the way he lived, he was told, he could lower his cholesterol level and reduce his risk of another heart attack.
There was much to learn. Cholesterol, as Shragai found out, is packaged by the body in envelopes of protein, and only some of these packages are potentially harmful. The main culprit, LDL (for low-density lipoprotein), is the body's oil truck, circulating in the blood, delivering fat and cholesterol to the cells. Studies have shown that the higher the level of LDL, the greater the risk of atherosclerosis. Another type of cholesterol package is called HDL (for high-density lipoprotein). It appears to play a salutary role, helping remove cholesterol from circulation and reducing the risk of heart disease. Shragai's goal was to lower his level of LDL and raise his HDL.
Diet was a first step. To begin with, such cholesterol-rich foods as eggs and organ meats and most cheeses can directly add to the level of potentially harmful LDL. Fat has an even bigger impact, although the reasons are not well understood. Saturated fat tends to raise LDL levels. Butter, bacon, beef, whole milk, virtually any food of animal origin is high in saturated fat; so are two vegetable oils: coconut and palm. Polyunsaturated fats, which are typically of vegetable origin, have the opposite effect; thus corn, safflower, soybean and sesame oils tend to lower the level of potentially dangerous LDL. Fish oils do the same. In the middle are the mono-unsaturated fats such as olive and peanut oils. These may lower LDL slightly, but tend to be neutral.
The amount of fiber in the diet also seems to influence cholesterol levels. "LDL cholesterol can be reduced 20% in people with high levels just by consuming a cup of oat bran a day," says Dr. Jon Story of Purdue University. However, Story adds, "that does not mean you can go and eat whatever else you want."