In Australia, 51% of adults have high blood cholesterol – that’s 6.4 million adults. Research shows that if you lower your blood cholesterol levels you will lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. If you’re looking for help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, there is a natural solution to be found in plant sterols. Eating sterol and stanol-containing foods is an easy way to lower your LDL cholesterol, which may helps reduce the risk of heart disease. In fact, the FDA advises that foods containing plant sterols, eaten twice a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.
What are Plant Sterols?
Actually known as phytosterols, plant sterols are materials that appear in non-animal sources such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils. What is interesting is that plant sterols have a lot in common with cholesterol in terms of how they are chemically structured. The reason you will want to add them to the diet is that they actually prevent the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract. As sterols and stanols look a lot like cholesterol on a molecular level, when they travel through your digestive tract, they can prevent real cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream (see picture).
This means that plant sterols block the body’s ability to absorb cholesterol, leading to lower levels of cholesterol in the blood.
The Heart Foundation recommends eating plant sterols to help lower total and LDL cholesterol. This approach is complimentary to eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and high in fibre. It is also considered an addition to taking medicine.
What foods are the best sources?
Plant sterols and stanols are found in small amounts in:
- Breads and cereals
- Fruits and vegetables
- Brussels sprouts
- Wheat germ
- Wheat bran
- Vegetable oils from corn, sesame, olive, and canola
When eaten in the right amounts, plant sterols and stanols may lower blood cholesterol by up to 10-15% when combined with a healthy lifestyle. It’s easy to add in these foods to your diet. When you are putting a spread on your whole-grain bread or rolls, choose one with sterols or stanols. You can also find plant sterols or stanols in some cooking oils, salad dressings, milk, yogurt, snack bars, and juices.
How much do I need?
The National Heart Foundation of Australia recommends eating two to three grams of plant sterols and stanols per day for cholesterol management. You can get some plant sterols and stanols by eating the foods listed above. However to meet the two to three gram requirement you would also need to eat foods that have been enriched with plant sterols and stanols. These include some margarine, low fat milks, low fat yoghurts and breakfast cereals, lower fat cheese and processed cheese.
Food manufacturers are required to list plant sterols on the ingredients list of the food label. If claims are made about their benefit, the manufacturer must list the total amount of plant sterols in the nutrition information panel.
To get the recommended serving of plant sterols and stanols you need to read the product label. For example you would need to eat about one to one and a half tablespoons per day of margarine (with added plant sterols) to get the right amount. This would be equal to the amount of spread you would use on three to four slices of bread.
Foods which contain plant sterols will have on the label a statement saying that the product is intended for adults. Plant sterols have not been tested specifically in pregnant or lactating women. Plant sterols are not unsafe for pregnant and lactating women and young children but these groups are usually not concerned about their cholesterol levels and would not be consuming foods enriched with plant sterols unless they have been advised to by their doctor.
Also remember that an additional serve of yellow/orange fruit or vegetables is recommended when choosing plant sterol enriched foods. This is because the consumption of plant sterols and stanols can interfere with the absorption of beta-carotene. So it is important to choose at least one daily serve of fruit or vegetable high in beta-carotene such as carrot, pumpkin, broccoli, spinach, apricot, mango or rock melon.
So in summary adults who are watching their cholesterol levels should probably incorporate foods enriched with plant sterols into their diet.
If you have questions about how plant sterols can help lower your cholesterol naturally, contact your local doctor who will arrange for you to see a dietitian.