Can Adding Barley to Your Diet Help Lower Your Cholesterol?

Barley is a whole grain that can be eaten alone or incorporated into many foods. Used primarily in the malting industry and for livestock feed, barley was not previously used as much as a food source in humans. However, due to its health benefits, barley is being incorporated more and more into balanced diets. Studies have shown many beneficial health effects of including barley in your diet such as improvement of digestive health and aiding in the improvement of blood glucose levels in people with diabetes and heart health. Recent studies have also indicated that barley may be helpful in keeping your cholesterol levels in check.

A barley salad with carrots, pomegranate seeds, and fresh mint
 Anna Kurzaeva / Getty Images

Does Barley Work?

Although barley contains vitamins and antioxidants, it also contains an important soluble fiber called beta-glucan. This heart-healthy fiber aids in lowering cholesterol levels and is also found in other grains, such as oats. It is thought that beta-glucan reduces the absorption of cholesterol and fat into the bloodstream.

Studies examining barley and its heart-healthy fiber, beta-glucan, reveal that ingesting roughly 3 to 10 grams of beta-glucan daily can help lower total cholesterol from anywhere between 14 to 20%. Additionally, LDL cholesterol was lowered by between 3 and 24% in these studies and triglycerides were lowered by anywhere between 6 and 16%. HDL, on the other hand, was not significantly affected by barley intake in most studies.

The lipid-lowering ability of barley increased with higher consumption of barley. However, increasing soluble fiber consumption also caused some people in these studies to experience unpleasant side effects, such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal discomfort, and feelings of fullness during and after meals.

It's important to note that there are some other studies in which the participants did not see an appreciable difference in cholesterol levels when barley was consumed as part of their diet. These studies examined individuals consuming anywhere 2 to 10 grams of beta-glucan from barley daily.

How Much Should You Consume?

According to the available research and the FDA, you would need to consume at least 3 grams of beta-glucan to see the cholesterol-lowering effects of barley. It is estimated that roughly one cup of cooked pearled barley equals 2.5 grams of beta-glucan fiber, whereas a one-half cup of barley flakes equals about two grams of beta-glucan. That means to see the results found in some of these studies, you would need to consume at least over a cup of cooked barley per day, or use greater than a half of a cup of barley flakes in some of the foods you prepare. Always check your food labels if you are in doubt about beta-glucan content.

There are many ways you can include barley in your cholesterol-lowering diet. Barley can be used as a warm, breakfast cereal, included in your salads and side dishes, or added to your entrees.

Bottom Line

Barley appears to be a heart-healthy ingredient that can be added to your diet if you are looking to help control your cholesterol levels. The Food and Drug Administration has also recognized the heart-healthy benefit of barley by allowing a health claim to be placed on its packages, stating that the soluble fiber contained in the food may aid in reducing your risk of heart disease.

Most of the studies examining the effect of barley on cholesterol levels examined individuals who already had mildly to moderately high cholesterol levels, so it’s not known whether or not cholesterol levels can lower more in those people whose cholesterol levels are within a healthy range. Nonetheless, the vitamins and soluble fiber contained in this heart-healthy fiber can be a beneficial addition to any healthy diet. However, if you have certain medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease, consuming barley may aggravate these conditions, so you consult with your physician regarding alternatives if you are interested in including heart-healthy fibers in your diet.

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