You Take Statins For Cholesterol. How Much Does Diet Matter?

by Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Professional

Statin drugs are one of the most frequently prescribed medications and one of the pillars of preventing and treating heart disease. The other pillars, unfortunately, are too often overlooked. Diet modifications, increasing physical activity, weight loss, and stress management continues to be the base of the cardiovascular health pyramid however they are all too often cast aside in our “take a pill” society. The common misconception that a healthy lifestyle is not needed when taking statins is leading to less than optimal protection from heart attacks and strokes.

How statins work to reduce risk

Health professionals prescribe statins when cholesterol levels are out of balance and/or a person is deemed to be at risk for a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke. Statins work by blocking the liver’s production of cholesterol, therefore, lowering LDL cholesterol circulating in the bloodstream. They also have the beneficial effect of raising HDL cholesterol. Some types of statin drugs will also reabsorb cholesterol that has built up in the arteries forming plaque or blockages.

Statins provide a false sense of security

Preliminary research has shown that statins may provide a false sense of security as individuals believe they are immune to cardiovascular events and in good heart health once beginning their statin regimen. One study revealed long-term statin users consumed larger amounts of calories and fat overtime and had higher BMIs than non-statin users. Another study discovered that statin users were less likely to engage in physical activity and participated in more sedentary activities than non-users. To maximize the benefits of statin drugs, lifestyle interventions should be strongly encouraged in harmony with the drug usage. Together both lifestyle changes and statin drugs will yield the most cardiovascular protection.

Increase statin effectiveness with diet and lifestyle modification

Lifestyle changes including weight loss, increasing physical activity, healthy diet changes, and improved stress management are all proven to carry the most bang for their buck, especially when paired with the use of a statin drug. An intentional weight loss of just 5 percent has been proven to decrease cardiovascular risk. These decreases in risk come in the form of improving blood pressure, systemic inflammation, vascular function and lipid measures; benefits that statin drugs cannot do alone.

Diet changes are also a large part of maintaining a healthy heart. The most commonly recommended diet for heart-healthy eating is the Mediterranean approach. The proportion of fat types in this diet is where most of the heart-healthy magic lies. Through limiting saturated fat via red meat, butter, margarine, and processed foods while increasing unsaturated fats via vegetable oils, fishes, and nuts, the Mediterranean diet shows promise of a balanced cholesterol panel. These improved cholesterol ratios plus those that are yielded from statin use can minimize the likelihood of cardiovascular disease in the future.

Physical activity and stress management are the last of the interventions that should be made in conjunction while taking statins. Increasing physical activity has numerous benefits including better management of stress. The American Heart Association recommends completing 40-minutes of vigorous to moderate aerobic activity 3 to 4 times per week to positively affect blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Taking statin drugs or making lifestyle changes should not be considered a one or the other choice. To maximize the benefits the drug can offer, be sure to continue to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle. Your heart will thank you.

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Nelson, RD, LN

Lisa Nelson RD, a registered dietitian since 1999, provides step-by-step guidance to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, so you can live life and enjoy your family for years to come. Lisa's passion for health comes from her own family history of heart disease, so she doesn't dispense trendy treatments; Lisa practices what she teaches in her own daily life. Because her own health is the foundation of her expertise, you can trust that Lisa will make it truly possible for you to see dramatic changes in your health, without unrealistic fads or impossibly difficult techniques.