One of the biggest misconceptions about cholesterol is that there is one hero (HDL) and one villain (LDL). The reality is there is no “good” or “bad” cholesterol, per se.
Think of cholesterol like a person. The person themself is not bad. It’s when outside influences alter that person and change their behavior that they become dangerous. Cholesterol is exactly the same.
LDL cholesterol is needed for a variety of functions in your body, namely the creation of sex hormones. But, when LDL cholesterol becomes oxidized, that’s when things change and LDL turns bad. It is this LDL oxidation that is the real villain when it comes to cardiovascular health.
So, rather than trying to figure out how to just lower LDL cholesterol, many researchers have turned their attention to improving the oxidation resistance of LDL cholesterol. Enter rye bread.
Rye Bread Reduces Oxidation
To determine if, in fact, rye bread could provide protection against LDL oxidation, Finnish researchers looked at the impact of high intake of rye bread versus no rye bread.
They worked with 63 healthy adults over six weeks. For the first week, participants ate normally. The second week, they were instructed to eat very little cereal-based fiber, specifically avoiding rye, wheat and barley.
The third and fourth weeks, all participants ate 99 grams of rye bread a day (about 256 calories or a bit less than four average-sized pieces of bread). The last two weeks, researchers upped the rye intake to 198 grams a day (about seven to eight pieces of bread). The reason they increased the amount incrementally was to avoid the GI upset that can occur with high doses of rye foods.
All four weeks, participants were asked to avoid other rye, wheat and barley products. Additionally, they were asked to divvy up their intake between the morning, midday and evening.
To further push the envelope, researchers added plant sterols to half of the participants’ rye bread (2 grams a day the third and fourth weeks, and 4 grams a day the last two weeks).
Finally, all participants were tested at baseline and after the six weeks for a number of biomarkers, including:
- Waist circumference
- Blood cholesterol levels
- LDL cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol
Researchers found no changes in weight, BMI or waist circumference after the rye bread consumption. However, there was a 14.4 percent increase in oxidation resistance of LDL cholesterol at the end of the six weeks. This change remained the same, regardless of the addition of the plant sterols.
As you would expect, there was a significant increase in dietary fiber due to the high rye intake, but the concentrations of antioxidants such as beta-carotene and tocopherols (vitamin E) did not change. Additionally, the oxidation resistance of HDL cholesterol did not change from baseline to the end of the six weeks.
Given this, researchers concluded that high rye bread intake significantly improved LDL oxidation resistance in healthy adults. However, this protection could not be attributed to an increase of HDL cholesterol oxidation resistance, nor to an increase in key antioxidants. As such, they believe that additional research is needed to determine the actual antioxidant protection conferred by rye bread.
Go for the Dough
If cholesterol is a concern for you, this may be one of your easiest prescriptions ever! Swap your existing bread for whole grain rye bread. Aim for about three to four pieces a day to start. If you want to increase to six or more in a few weeks, do so slowly and pay attention to any abdominal discomfort.
Just don’t undo the good the rye is doing by loading it up with cheese or processed meats. Opt instead for toast with almond butter, sandwiches with low-mercury tuna, or high-fiber rye muffins with fresh fruit.
 Soderholm PP et al. Rye bread intake improves oxidation resistance of LDL in healthy humans. Atherosclerosis. 2012 Jan 25. [Epub ahead of print.]