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5 Things You Need to Know About Plant Sterols and Cholesterol

High levels of cholesterol can be devastating to your health, and everyone has advice about how to lower it.  While some people recommend taking prescription medication, these come with a number of disadvantages. They can be expensive and they are often accompanied with harmful side effects. The best way to combat high cholesterol levels is through natural lifestyle changes such as diet. Through years of research, plant sterols have been shown to have powerful abilities to lower LDL cholesterol, which is known to be the harmful type of cholesterol. Sterols can be found naturally in food, in supplements, or in fortified products.


1. Plant Sterols Occur Naturally in Your Food

As you may have guessed from the name, plant sterols are found naturally in many plants. Although they are found in small quantities, they are enough to make positive changes in your health. Plant sterols are found in many vegetables, fruits, nuts, vegetable oils, seeds, legumes, and cereals. Over the years certain foods, such as cereals, yogurt, salad dressings, orange juice, margarine, and granola bars, have also been fortified with sterols.

Although it is always recommended to get plant sterols and other nutrients from whole foods, there are times when supplementation is an option. Sterols may be found in an oral supplement, either on its own or in combination with other nutrients (such as folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) linked to decreasing cholesterol levels.

2. How Sterols Work in the Body

Much research has shown why plant sterols are so effective in lowering cholesterol levels. Molecularly, they look very similar to cholesterol and they work by getting in the way and obstructing the absorption of cholesterol. Most absorption occurs in the small intestine, and by blocking this, plant sterols are able to lower the levels of LDL by 6 to 15 percent. The LDL particles are excreted with other bodily waste instead of clogging up the arteries.

3. Plant Sterols Have Earned Health Claim Status by the FDA

The effects of plant sterols have been studied for years and years, and it has been shown that three servings a day of sterols (about one to two grams total) can reduce cholesterol levels by up to 20 points. Research studying the effects of fortified food has also been done, and these have shown a 12 to 20 percent drop in LDL levels.

As a result of all the positive research, the FDA has given plant sterols ‘health claim’ status. This means that enough benefits have been shown and that manufacturers of fortified foods can legally advertise that their product has positive health benefits.

4. Plant Sterols Are Safe But Are Not for Everyone

With the tremendous research that has been done on plant sterols, they have been found to be approved safe for use in foods. However, while plant sterols may be beneficial for those with high levels of cholesterol, the idea is not that more is better. The American Heart Association only suggests sterol-fortified foods for those who need to lower their levels of cholesterol for health reasons, such as if they are at high risk for a heart attack.

Children who have inherited high cholesterol, also known as familial hypercholesterolemia FH, may take food fortified with plant sterols when under the supervision of a health care provider. Other children should avoid them as much as possible. Women who are breast feeding or pregnant should always avoid food fortified with plant sterols.

Food that naturally contains plant sterols is safe for consumption for all genders and ages. However, ingesting huge doses of supplemental plant sterols (such as those found in fortified products) may cause issues such as indigestion, diarrhea, and nausea. A consultation with your health care provider is highly recommended before choosing to add fortified foods to your diet, even if you suffer from high cholesterol.

5. Some Cholesterol is Good For You

While decreasing your levels of LDL cholesterol is important for your health, it is also important to understand that not all cholesterols are the same. In fact, certain amounts of good cholesterol are required for essential functions in your body, such as producing hormones, cell membranes, vitamin D, and bile acids that are used to digest fats. That is why you want to decrease the bad cholesterol but keep your HDL levels up.

Keeping the right balance of HDL and LDL can usually be done through lifestyle changes. One of the best ways to lower bad cholesterol and triglycerides (another factor in heart disease) is to cut down on refined grains and sugar. Although whole grains are a better choice than refined ones, they still should only be a small part of your diet. Vegetables, low-sugar fruits, healthy fats, and protein should be at the heart of your eating plan.

While some fats are healthy, others should be avoided or limited in order to keep LDL and triglyceride levels low. Saturated fats, found in butter, meat, and cheese, should be limited to no more than 10 percent of your fat intake. Trans fats are particularly harmful to your cholesterol levels, lowering the HDL and raising the LDL levels. Food labels that contain partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided, as this indicates the presence of trans fats.

Healthy HDL levels can be obtained through exercise and omega-3 fats. Daily exercise is better than exercising just once or twice a week, and it should be something that you enjoy so that you can keep up with it over the long run. Omega-3 fats are good for the heart and body, and sources include fish, cod liver oil, fish oil, and krill oil.