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The Next Economy
Food vs Pharmaceuticals:
New Study Highlights Power of Nutrition Over Pills for Improving Heart Health

Founded by cardiologist Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, Step One Foods is aiming to change the paradigm in the US from treating high cholesterol and heart disease with drugs to the ancient wisdom of using food as medicine.

It’s striking to hear Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, a practicing cardiologist, say that in her 14 years of medicine-related training, not even an hour was spent on nutrition.

“The big ‘secret’ is that we’re not taught about food at all in the medicine track,” she told Sustainable Brands®.

That fact might help explain the prevalence and morbidity of heart disease in the United States: The condition is the leading cause of death in the US, according to the CDC, responsible for 697,000 deaths in 2020 alone.

One of the main contributors to heart disease is high cholesterol — which, while there can be a genetic component, is most often brought on by poor diet, lack of exercise and/or underlying conditions such as diabetes. The 2022 published results of a multi-year study — of which Klodas was a lead author, along with physicians from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Manitoba — offer hard evidence that the answer to lowering LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) may exist within food alone.

Food as medicine

The study evaluated patients with high LDL levels over two four-week periods — one incorporating food items from Klodas’ food brand, Step One Foods; and a non-treatment period. The goal was to compare the effect of integrating these foods, compared to using a statin — a pharmaceutical commonly given to help lower cholesterol.

Step One Foods wasn’t reinventing the wheel, necessarily — but rather, refocusing a small portion of patients’ diets on naturally cholesterol-lowering foods such as chia, flax and oat; all incorporated into low-sugar, low-salt and high-fiber products. Step One’s current product line includes snack bars, a pancake mix and a ground granola — foods that are easy to incorporate into most diets and generally easy on the stomach. The study also showed the diet-over-drug plan provided striking results.

“In our trial, 80 percent of people responded (with a lowered LDL reading),” she says.

On average, LDL levels lowered by 9 percent, a significant drop for not much more than modifying a patient’s diet “around the edges,” as Klodas describes. Patients continued eating somewhat as normal but replacing or modifying things they were eating twice a day with Step One products.

“From the public health perspective, even this small reduction would dethrone heart disease as our number-one killer,” Klodas asserts.

This doesn’t even take into account the patients who responded with 20-40 percent reductions in LDL levels, which is medication-level cholesterol reduction. That, in itself, is an eye-opening result that’s potentially breaking new ground in the conversation around using food as a first-choice treatment plan.

Of course, the idea of food as medicine isn’t new; but many doctors, especially in the medication-heavy fields such as cardiology, have been trained to look to medication as the first choice in treatment (especially with not-so-subtle nudges from the pharmaceutical industry). This has led to a serious overmedication problem, which itself presents two major problems: reducing the effectiveness of medications for those who need them; and increasing the cost of insurance and treatment, as those costs get passed through our country’s complex insurance system.

Food as a first step

Statins have long been used to lower cholesterol because they’re effective; but they’re not cheap. Generic statins can easily run in the hundreds of dollars, even if covered by insurance, as patients often begin a long course of use when prescribed.

Klodas hopes that because of this study, Step One products could eventually be covered by insurance — giving patients an option to use their pre-tax insurance dollars on a more natural approach to healing. She says the company is exploring this; but not surprisingly, getting insurance coverage for a product in the US can be quite complicated.

Klodas also sees Step One as another tool cardiologists can use to help treat patients, especially those hesitant about using medication.

“Physicians aren’t just there to provide drugs; they’re meant to help folks,” she says. “We (physicians) need to have data to feel confident in prescribing or recommending something. We didn’t do this study to prove Step One works — we did it to create a familiar basis of proof for clinicians.”