When someone's lab results indicate that they have high cholesterol, they often leave their doctor’s office with a prescription for a cholesterol-lowering drug in hand. Some patients choose not to take these drugs, typically statins, and some have tried and cannot tolerate the side effects. But there is good news — food can work just as well as drugs for lowering cholesterol.

High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. It can cause plaques in blood vessels and arteries that may lead to heart attack or stroke. Nearly 94 million Americans have elevated levels of cholesterol, with half of adults over the age of 50 affected.

People eating the specially-formulated foods saw their bad cholesterol levels fall by nine percent on average. Some experienced an over 30 percent reduction.

Changing your diet can be an effective way to lower cholesterol levels for most people. Eating a plant-based diet such as the DASH diet or the Mediterranean Diet lowers the amount of saturated fat a person consumes and increases the amount of fiber in the diet. Diet and exercise together can lower cholesterol levels by as much as 20 percent, but it takes time, often three months or more, to see results.

There is a problem with lifestyle changes though — getting people to change their diet and exercise habits is very difficult. To combat the resistance, a cardiologist developed a line of tasty foods made from ingredients people recognize with added nutrients, all shown to help lower cholesterol levels. Maybe asking people to substitute one brand of snack for another instead of changing their whole way of eating could make a difference.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and the University of Manitoba designed a study in which free-living people ate from a variety of foods offered by Step One Foods. Developed by a cardiologist, the foods contain a variety of nutrients and whole-food ingredients such as walnuts, almonds, flax, chia and berries that have been scientifically proven to be beneficial to cholesterol levels.

Participants ate a range of foods — from chocolate bars to strawberry-banana smoothies that were especially formulated to provide whole food fiber, plant sterols, ALA omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. They were asked to eat these snacks instead of similar foods they usually chose.

Other people in the study ate comparable grocery store brands of similar foods. Both ate their prescribed diets for 30 days; then researchers compared their cholesterol levels.

People eating the specially-formulated foods supplied by the company, Step One, saw their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels fall by nine percent on average. Some experienced an over 30 percent reduction. Participants who ate commercial grocery store snacks saw no decrease in their cholesterol levels.

“Nutrition contributes to 5 of the 7 modifiable risk factors for heart disease, but getting patients to change diet is incredibly challenging,” Elizabeth Klodas,founder and Chief Medical Officer of Step One Foods, said. “This study underscores what’s possible when we succeed.”

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition.