The word phytosterol might sound a little unfamiliar, but you’ve probably been eating them your whole life. Well, we hope so at least. Because a diet rich in phytosterols is a great way to reduce your risk of heart disease, and also other diseases such as Alzheimer’s. So what are phytosterols? Actually, let’s back up…what is a “sterol?” Sterols are a family of molecules with a specific shape and structure. Phytosterols (“phyto” meaning plant) are sterols found in plants. They are similar in structure to cholesterol in the human body and block cholesterol from being absorbed.1 Why are phytosterols such an integral part of healthy eating, and of lowering cholesterol? Let’s take a look.
More on Phytosterols
When it comes to lowering your cholesterol, your first strategy is usually to change the way you eat. You replace the unhealthy fats (trans and saturated) with healthy ones (monosaturated and polyunsaturated), and increase dietary fiber by emphasizing whole grains, fruits, and veggies. If these strategies haven’t worked to their fullest potential, or if you want to work on lowering your bad cholesterol even further, this is where phytosterols come into play. When phytosterols are eaten, they compete with cholesterol for absorption in the digestive system. As a result, cholesterol absorption is blocked, and blood cholesterol levels are reduced.2
As part of a heart-healthy eating program, eating foods containing phytosterols has been shown to lower cholesterol up to 10% and LDL (bad) cholesterol up to 14%. This reduction is in addition to other cholesterol-lowering strategies you may have started, like eating more heart healthfully or taking a cholesterol-lowering medication. The effectiveness of phytosterols is so strong, so recognized, that the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends people with high cholesterol consume two grams of phytosterols every day.3
How to Incorporate Phytosterols in Your Diet
The National Institute of Health Reports that there are 200 different kinds of phytosterols, and the highest concentrations of phytosterols are found naturally in vegetable oils, beans, and nuts. But what you might not know, is that many products also have added phytosterols. At the store for example, you might see orange juice or margarine advertising phytosterols content. Foods containing at least 0.65 grams per serving of plant sterols, eaten twice a day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels.4
The following foods contain the highest amounts of phytosterols:
Nuts: Nuts contain high amounts of phytosterols, ranging between 95 and 270 mg per 100 g serving of nuts. Studies have shown that a handful of most nuts can have a favorable impact on your lipid profile.5 If you’re going to load up on nuts, these nuts have the greatest amount of phytosterols: almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. Avoid eating salted nuts, since these may have adverse effects on your health.
Whole grains: Foods with whole grains, like barley, rye, and oatmeal, are high in many types of nutrients. Some whole grain products also contain high amounts of phytosterols, so aim for these: flaxseed, wheat germ, and rye bread. Flax seeds can be added as a nutritious oatmeal topping, as can wheat germ. As for the rye bread, try toasting it and adding nut butter, as opposed to a sugary jam, to reap the greatest benefits.
Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables contain less phytosterols than nuts and whole grains, but they also contain lot’s of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other healthy ingredients that are great for cholesterol. These fruits and vegetables contain the greatest amount of phytosterols, so load up: broccoli, red onion, carrot, corn, Brussel sprouts, spinach, and strawberries.
In addition to adding these phytosterol-rich foods to your diet, a supplement containing phytosterols can help too. When looking for a quality supplement containing these plant sterols, it is helpful to look for one that has research behind it, and one that has the right sterol to sterolin ratio. Research has shown quite clearly that the blend of sterols and sterolins in a 100:1 ratio exhibits the best immune balancing activity.6
So if you’re looking to up your heart-health game, phytosterols can help support that goal. Try adding in some of the foods mentioned above, and a quality supplement, and reap the cardiovascular benefits.