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Can a Spoonful of Bran Help Cholesterol Go Down?


I'm not what you'd call a health-food nut. I love thick, blood-rare steaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue ribs, virtually all the killer P's (pastrami, prosciutto, pate, pastry, pepperoni pizza) and--above all--fine French food. So devoted am I to gastronomic self-indulgence that I take my own food and wine on airplanes, I make all my restaurant reservations before my hotel and airplane reservations and I insist on making a two-week gastronomic pilgrimage to France every year.

Given these predilections, it will probably not come as a shattering surprise to you that I regard with horror all vegetarian restaurants, health-food stores and anything that involves such words as whole grain, high fiber, low sodium, sugar-free and--shudder!-- macrobiotic. Let them eat tofu, is how I look at it.

But I'm not completely crazy. My father had his first heart attack when he was 38. His brother--my uncle--also had a heart attack. I'm 47, a resolutely Type A personality, and my cholesterol has long been borderline--in the 220-230 range (higher than the 200 maximum now recommended, although still below the 240+ high-risk level).

I don't jog, play tennis or participate in any of those other tedious activities, but I do ride an exercise bicycle each morning while I read the paper--pedaling just fast enough to break a sweat, not fast enough to dampen my Doonesbury--and I do try to eat my favorite foods in moderation. Well, OK, not moderation. But not gluttony either (except when I'm in France). My wife and I usually go out to dinner three or four nights a week, but I'm more likely to order fowl than red meat in a restaurant; and at home, I generally stick to fish, fowl and pasta, skipping red meat, dessert and rich sauces altogether (except when we have a dinner party).

Sure, I always eat dessert in a good restaurant (or even a not-so-good restaurant). But I don't use butter on my bread. And I try not to eat more than two hot dogs when I go to Dodger Stadium.

I've always figured that, sooner or later--preferably sooner--someone would develop a medicine that could control cholesterol, and I'd take that rather than go on a true low-cholesterol diet.

Sure enough, in recent years, several cholesterol-fighting drugs have come on the market. Each time I read about a new one, I call my doctor.

"Not for you," he always says. "Too new and unknown. Too many side-effects. Besides, you're generally in excellent health. Just try to be reasonably careful eating and don't worry too much."

I religiously followed at least half that advice.

Then, over the past year or so, I began to read about scientific studies on the amazing cholesterol-fighting powers of oat bran. (This was before a more recent round of studies said oat bran was useless as a cholesterol-fighter.) I tried several kinds of oat-bran muffins and oat-bran cereals and assorted other oat-bran products in a frenzied quest for the best of both possible worlds--to be able to eat all my favorite foods, then have the oat bran sop up most of the killer cholesterol before it could course through my blood stream, clogging my arteries like dumpsters overturned on the freeway at rush-hour.

Yuk! All oat-bran products tasted like a blend of sawdust and library paste--and the oat-bran cereals all turned to mush the instant I added milk.

Perhaps, I thought, I should try one of the newer products that also promise to do valiant battle with cholesterol--rice bran, barley, cabbage, carrots, onions. Maybe I could eat enough carrots to both reduce my cholesterol and throw away my contact lenses.

Fortunately, it was at about this point in my quest for life that I discovered Oat Bran O's, a dry cereal made by an outfit called Health Valley, precisely the kind of name that I had spent my life sneering at--and assiduously avoiding. Oat Bran O's certainly weren't delicious, but they were edible. Sort of. Texture has always been almost as important as flavor to me, and at least they were crunchy, even after several minutes' submersion in milk.

Oat Bran O's provides more oat bran per serving than any other dry cereal I could find--15 grams per ounce. (Quaker Oat Bran later came along at 20 grams per ounce, but it had 40 times more salt than the O's, it was sweetened with sugar instead of fruit juice and, in milk, it turned to mush faster than you could say "fatty deposits.") Since two ounces is a normal serving of cereal for me, I figured I could consume 30 grams of oat bran, pain-free, with the O's. That got me to thinking: Suppose I also took a two-ounce "snack-pack" of O's to work each morning and nibbled them like peanuts?

My wife, Lucy, began laughing uncontrollably that Sunday afternoon when she saw me carefully measuring Oat Bran O's into tiny plastic baggies and weighing them on my home postage scale. Let her laugh. I figured I'd be eating 60 grams of oat bran a day, and one study said people who ate 100 grams a day had cut their cholesterol 19%; 60 grams might cut mine about 10%.

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