A relatively unknown substance that has become more popular over the past few years that you might’ve seen fortified in your milk or butter are plant sterols, which might also be referred to as plant stanols. Plant sterols and stanols are substances that occur naturally in small amounts in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. You can now get stanols or sterols in margarine spreads, orange juice, cereals, and even granola bars (1). Their main purpose is to help lower LDL, or the “bad” cholesterol that can lead to heart disease. When you look at plant sterols on a molecular level they mimic the structure of cholesterol, and when they travel through your digestive tract they compete with real cholesterol to be absorbed into the bloodstream. While this is happening, the cholesterol that isn’t absorbed is simply pushed through the body as waste.
Sterols Affect on Cholesterol
Research shows that three servings of plant sterols a day can lower cholesterol by as much as 20 points. Experts have been studying the effects of food fortified with plant sterols for decades. One important study of people with high cholesterol found that less than an ounce of stanol-fortified margarine a day could lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by 14%. The results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine (1). The FDA proclaimed plant sterols a “health claim” which means they are widely agreed to have a strong cholesterol-lowering benefit and now allows products to advertise their heart-healthy benefits on nutritional labels. In fact, plant sterols are considered to be one of, if not the most effective food for lowering cholesterol.
Over three weeks plant sterols can reduce cholesterol levels by up to 10% when taken at optimal doses and as part of a healthy diet(2). To get the recommended two to three grams each day ensure your diet includes fortified foods that are made specifically to help lower cholesterol including milk, a plant sterol spread, yogurt, or a fortified drink. You should also include many natural sources of plant sterols including fruits (such as avocados or tomatoes), veggies (such as broccoli or brussel sprouts), legumes (beans, lentils, and peanuts), and nuts/seeds (almonds and sunflower seeds, to name a few). Be sure to get your dose daily, as to continue their effectiveness indefinitely.
Further Benefits of Plant Sterols
Another benefit that might be attributed to a daily dose of plant sterols from various sources is a lowered chance of colon cancer as stated in this study: “Diets rich in vegetables are associated with a low incidence of colon cancer. Since plant sterols are plentiful in vegetarian diets, we studied the effect of β-sitosterol on colon tumor formation in rats treated with the carcinogen N-methyl-N-nitrosourea. We demonstrated that β-sitosterol nullified in part the effect of this direct-acting carcinogen on the colon. We suggest that plant sterols may have a protective dietary action to retard colon tumor formation. The beneficial effects of vegetarian diets may be enhanced because of the presence of these compounds (3).” Of course any study done on rats instead of human test subjects should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s without saying if you are eating a diet with plenty of vegetables (which you should be) it doesn’t hurt to have one more reason eat them by the pound.
Who Should Take Plant Sterols?
Plant sterols don’t need to be taken by everyone, if you have normal healthy cholesterol levels supplementing with plant sterols isn’t necessary. The amount you get from a varied, balanced diet full of veggies and nuts will be sufficient to regulate a healthy cholesterol level. But, if you or your family has a history of high cholesterol then plant sterol fortified foods and or supplements should be used as a helpful safety net to ensure your cholesterol stays in a healthy range.
- Griffin, R. Morgan. “The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Plant Sterols and Stanols.” com. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2016.
- “Plant Sterols and Stanols (phytosterols).” org. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2016.
- Raicht, Robert F., Bertram I. Cohen, Eugene P. Fazzini, Amar N. Sarwal, and Makoto Takahashi. Protective Effect of Plant Sterols against Chemically Induced Colon Tumors in Rats. Cancerres. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2016.