The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, found that people who ate a healthy diet filled with cholesterol-lowering foods experienced a 13 percent decrease in their low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
While, those who followed a diet low in saturated fats experienced only a three percent decrease.
One in four adults age 45 and older in the U.S. take the cholesterol-lowering drugs, according to the American Medical Association.
New research indicates that a cholesterol-friendly diet rich in soy products and tree nuts can decrease LDL more effectively than a low-saturated-fat diet used through statins, drugs used to help lower cholesterol levels.
There's no question that statins have made a major difference in terms of cardiovascular disease control, said study author Dr. David Jenkins, from the University of Toronto. But, for now, he added, we can only get so far with statins.
Jenkins and his team examined how big of an effect a diet based on the pillars of lower cholesterol could have on LDL numbers without statins.
In the study, researchers randomly split 351 Canadians with high cholesterol into three groups, where one group got nutrition counseling promoting a low-saturated-fat diet for six months.
The other two groups, dietitians helped participants fit more cholesterol-lowering foods, including soy milk, tofu, nuts, oats, peas and beans, into a healthy diet - meeting with some of them twice during the study, and with others seven times.
After six months, people on the low-saturated-fat diet saw a drop in LDL cholesterol of 8 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), on average, according to findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
If you want to sit on the couch with the six pack and the wings and watch other people exercise and you're quite determined not to do anything other than that, then we've got a medication for you, Jenkins said.
That drop is really a lot, said Dr. Yunsheng Ma, a nutrition and heart disease researcher from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, who was not involved in the new study.
A lot of people rely on the medication, but diet is really powerful actually, Ma told Reuters Health. People ignore that. They think if they're on statins, they can do anything they want, they can eat the high-fat foods because the statins are going to take care of that.
One in five of the participants dropped out before the full six months, and even those that didn't had a hard time sticking closely to the diet plans, but many still saw cholesterol benefits.
The diet only is enough for the majority of the people that have a not-so-good lifestyle, Dr. Joan Sabate, head of nutrition at Loma Linda University in California, who was not involved in the new research, told Reuters Health. By changing the diet and their lifestyle they can establish good control of their cholesterol.