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The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Plant Sterols and Stanols

What are sterols and stanols, and does anyone like to eat them?
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WebMD Feature

Almost everyone has eaten cholesterol-lowering foods like walnuts, salmon, and oatmeal. But what's a plant sterol or stanol? And do you really want to eat it?

Most experts say yes. "Eating sterol and stanol-containing foods is an easy way to lower your LDL cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease," says Ruth Frechman, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Recommended Related to Cholesterol Management

Understanding Cholesterol Problems: Prevention

  As with many other health problems, prevention is the best medicine. You can help prevent high cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease by: Keeping your weight in check Eating no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol each day Getting no more than 20%-35% of your daily calories from fat Avoiding all trans fats Avoiding refined carbohydrates and processed foods Exercising 3 to 4 times a week (vigorously if you can, but moderate exercise is better than none at all) ...

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Plant sterols and stanols are substances that occur naturally in small amounts in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Since they have powerful cholesterol-lowering properties, manufacturers have started adding them to foods. You can now get stanols or sterols in margarine spreads, orange juice, cereals, and even granola bars.

How Do Plant Sterols and Stanols Help?

On a molecular level, sterols and stanols look a lot like cholesterol. So when they travel through your digestive tract, they get in the way. They can prevent real cholesterol from being absorbed into your bloodstream. Instead of clogging up your arteries, the cholesterol just goes out with the waste.

What's the Evidence?

"Plant stanol esters help block the absorption of cholesterol," Frechman tells WebMD. "Research shows that three servings a day can reduce cholesterol by 20 points."

Experts have been studying the effects of food fortified with plant sterols for decades. One important study of people with high cholesterol found that less than an ounce of stanol-fortified margarine a day could lower "bad" LDL cholesterol by 14%. The results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A more recent study from the University of California Davis Medical Center looked at the effects of sterol-fortified orange juice. Of 72 adults, half received regular orange juice and half the fortified OJ. After just two weeks, the people who drank the stanol-fortified juice had a 12.4% drop in their LDL cholesterol levels. The results were published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.

The FDA gave these products the status of a "health claim." This means that experts widely agree on the cholesterol-lowering benefits of stanols and sterols. It also allows manufacturers to advertise the heart-healthy benefits on labels.

Getting Sterols and Stanols Into Your Diet

Frechman says 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."

ADA spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD agrees. "If you use butter or margarine now, just switch over to one of these sterol-fortified spreads," she tells WebMD.

If you don't eat butter or margarine now, this is not an invitation to start slathering on the spread. More is not better. Extra margarine spread -- with or without stanols and sterols -- means extra calories.

You can also find plant sterols or stanols in some cooking oils, salad dressings, milk, yogurt, snack bars, and juices. Indeed, so many fortified products are headed to grocery store shelves that you'll soon have a dizzy array of choices. But check the labels carefully. While plant sterols are healthy, extra calories are not. Excess calories simply lead to excess pounds.

Next Article:

Cholesterol Glossary

  • Dietary fiber - The parts of plants that your body can't digest. If eaten regularly, fiber such as oats, pectin, and psyllium reduces serum and LDL cholesterol.
  • HDL Cholesterol - The "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol helps your body remove "bad" cholesterol from your arteries.
  • LDL Cholesterol - The "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol tends to be deposited in artery walls.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - A good-for-you polyunsaturated fat found in some fish and vegetables (salmon, flax seed, soybean, English walnuts, and canola oil).
  • Plant sterols - Found in plant foods, isolated from soybean and tall pine tree oils, they lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels.

Which foods do you favor?