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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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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.

How Much Do You Need?

The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that people who have high cholesterol get 2 grams of stanols or sterols a day.

A Caveat From Some Experts

Research aside, some experts say people are better off getting their nutrients from whole foods. Whole foods offer a complex combination of nutrients that work together in ways we don't fully understand.

"Getting nutrients from whole foods [instead of additives] is the best way to go," says ADA spokeswoman Keecha Harris, DrPH, RD. "Supplements that are fortified with sterols do not offer as many benefits as getting sterols and stanols as they naturally occur."

The American Heart Association doesn't recommend sterol and stanol-fortified foods for everyone. Instead, it suggests that only people who need to lower their cholesterol or who have had a heart attack should use them.

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Reviewed on February 02, 2009
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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?