Following an eating plan that is low in saturated and trans fat, and high in fiber can help you lower your cholesterol and keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. But did you know that there are natural ingredients in some foods that should also be part of a heart-healthy diet? These ingredients are called plant sterols and plant stanols and they can help to lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, the kind of cholesterol that can increase your risk for heart disease.
Plant sterols and stanols, also called “phytosterols”, are substances that are naturally found in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables and vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
How do plant sterols and stanols lower LDL cholesterol?
Plant sterols and stanols actually look a lot like cholesterol in terms of their chemical structure. They work by preventing the body from absorbing cholesterol in the intestines. This in turn helps to lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol. Studies show that sterols and stanols lower LDL cholesterol levels by an average of 6% and perhaps as much as 14% in as little as four weeks.
The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends consuming 2 grams of plant sterols/stanols every day as part of an overall heart-healthy diet.
Wheat germ, wheat bran, peanuts, vegetable oils (corn, sesame, canola and olive oil), almonds and Brussels sprouts contain plant stanols and sterols. Smaller amounts are found in other vegetables and some fruits. Because it’s hard to get enough plant sterols/stanols from foods, food companies have begun to add plant sterols or stanols to some of their food products, such as vegetable oil spreads, mayonnaise, yogurt, milk, orange juice, cereals and snack bars.
Plant sterols and stanols are also available as a supplement; talk to your healthcare provider before taking a phystosterol supplement.
The good news about sterols and stanols is that they’ve been studied for more than 50 years and they are both safe and effective for lowering cholesterol. However, large doses of plant sterols and stanols may cause nausea, indigestion and diarrhea, and interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should check with their healthcare provider before consuming foods that have been fortified with plant sterols or stanols. Also, plant sterols and stanols are not a substitute for cholesterol-lowering medication; continue to take any medication as prescribed by your provider.
Meet with a registered dietitian to learn more about a heart-healthy eating plan and ways to lower your LDL cholesterol.
Page last updated: April 10, 2015