Plant sterol esters might sound a little unfamiliar, but you’ve probably been eating them your whole life. Fruits, vegetables, nuts? Well, we hope so at least. Because a diet rich in plant sterol esters is a great way to reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol.
So what are plant sterols? 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.1
When phytosterols are consumed, they compete with cholesterol absorption in digestive tract, blocking it and, as a result, lowering blood cholesterol levels. Some studies have found that getting just two grams of phytosterols a day may help you lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 10%. Unfortunately though, most people aren’t getting nearly this much in their everyday diets. In fact, today, dietary intake of phytosterols ranges between 78 and 500 mg per day, even with food manufacturers enriching common foods we eat with these compounds.
Why are plant sterol esters 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 plant sterol esters come into play.
As part of a heart-healthy eating program, eating foods containing plant sterols have been shown to reduce 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 plant sterols is so strong, so recognized, that the National Cholesterol Education Program recommends people with high cholesterol consume two grams of plant sterols every day.3
How to Incorporate Plant Sterol Esters in Your Diet
The National Institute of Health Reports that there are over 200 different kinds of sterols, and the highest concentrations are found naturally in vegetable oils, beans, and nuts. But what you might not know, is that many products also have added plant sterols. At the store for example, you might see orange juice or margarine advertising plant sterol 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 (plant sterols):
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 plant sterol-rich foods to your diet, a supplement containing plant sterol esters (a.k.a. plant sterols) can help too. Studies have shown that, on average, supplements containing plant sterols produce an average decrease in LDL cholesterol of 5 percent to 15 percent, with greater decreases shown with higher doses (2 grams per day). Notably, there is also individual variation in how much people respond to these sterols. Genetics and other factors may play a role as well.
Foods containing at least 0.65g per serving of plant sterol esters, eaten twice a day, for a total intake of 1.3g, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels.6
So if you’re looking to up your heart-health game, plant sterol esters can help support that goal. Try adding in some of the foods mentioned above, and a quality supplement, and reap the cardiovascular benefits.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.