Plant sterols and stanols are substances naturally found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Research has shown that plant sterols and stanols help lower cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to protect nerves, make cell tissues and produce certain hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Your body also gets cholesterol directly from the food you eat (such as eggs, meats and dairy products).
There are 2 types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol can damage your arteries and contribute to heart disease. A high level of HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can actually help protect your arteries and prevent atherosclerosis.
If you have high cholesterol, eating plant sterols and stanols can help lower your LDL cholesterol while keeping your HDL cholesterol the same. Normally, your body’s small intestine absorbs cholesterol from the foods you eat. To your body, plant sterols and stanols “look” a lot like cholesterol. They can prevent your body from absorbing LDL cholesterol. Over time, this lowers the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood.
If you need to lower your cholesterol, the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that you take in 2 grams of plant sterols and stanols each day. However, it is important to remember that plant sterols and stanols alone will not help you reach your cholesterol goals. To improve your cholesterol levels, you will also need to make lifestyle changes that include eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising and quitting smoking.
Although plant sterols and stanols are naturally found in some foods, these amounts have only a very small effect on cholesterol levels. To use sterols and stanols to reduce your LDL cholesterol level, you will need more than these foods can provide.
Some foods are now fortified with plant sterols and stanols. These include fortified margarines, cheese, orange juice. milk and bread. Dietary supplements are also available. Ask your doctor whether getting your sterols and stanols from a fortified food or a dietary supplement is right for you.
If you do use these products, keep in mind that the amount of plant sterols/stanols varies from product to product. For example, a 2- to 4-tablespoon serving of margarine fortified with plant sterols provides the recommended 2 grams. Two 8-oz. servings of fortified orange juice also provides the recommended amount. You must read label information carefully to find out the appropriate daily dosage or serving size of these products. Also, remember that more isn’t always better. You still need to eat a wide variety of foods and be aware of how many calories you are eating.
No, plant sterols and stanols have not been shown to interact with any foods or medicines. It is important to take your medicine just as your doctor prescribed. You should not use plant sterols and stanols as a substitute for your cholesterol-lowering medicine.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from Nature Made®.
Cleveland Clinic. Boost your cholesterol-lowering potential with phytosterols. Accessed October 20, 2010
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Cholesterol: Top 5 foods to lower your numbers. Accessed October 20, 2010
National Cholesterol Education Program. Third Report of the Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults. Accessed October 20, 2010
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff