What to Know About Sterols and Stanols

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on July 19, 2023
3 min read

If you’re trying to manage your cholesterol, you know food plays a big part. Plant sterols and stanols have an especially valuable role. These natural compounds found in certain plant-based foods both look and act like cholesterol. But eating foods that contain these compounds can help lower total cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your liver makes. It protects nerves and makes cell tissues and certain hormones. You also get it from eating foods such as eggs, meat, and dairy products. Your body needs cholesterol, but too much of it can pose serious health risks, such as heart disease and stroke.

There are several types of cholesterol. These are the main two:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. If you have too much LDL (“bad” cholesterol), you put yourself at risk for heart disease. It can clog your arteries.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL). High levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol) are a sign of health. HDL can help protect arteries and prevent fatty deposits that could clog them.

Sterols and stanols have a similar molecular structure to cholesterol. That’s how these plant compounds get in the way when your digestive system tries to absorb cholesterol. So instead of going into your bloodstream where it can clog arteries, the cholesterol leaves your body as waste. This lowers your cholesterol level.

In fact, when you get enough sterols and stanols in your diet, you can lower your total cholesterol by up to 10% and LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) by up to 14%. They’re a key addition to a healthy diet.

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program, you need 2 grams of plant sterols and stanols a day to lower your cholesterol. You can do this by eating plenty of healthy food, such as:

The amount of natural sterols and stanols in these foods is a good bit lower than the daily amount you’d need to lower your cholesterol. But some manufacturers fortify their foods with them. Adding fortified foods to your diet can help round up your daily intake. You can find added sterols and stanols, also called phytosterols, in some:

  • Margarines
  • Cheeses
  • Orange juice
  • Milk
  • Bread

Read labels to look for added phytosterols.

Sterols and stanols also come as dietary supplements. Though taking supplements is better than getting no sterols or stanols in your diet at all, it’s usually better to get your nutrients naturally from whole foods when you can.

The American Heart Association recommends eating sterol and stanol fortified foods if you’re trying to lower your high cholesterol. These foods can also help if you’ve had atherosclerosis, a buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances on your artery walls, in the past. This can help prevent further buildup.

Experts don’t know whether these compounds benefit people simply trying to prevent high cholesterol, even if you have other risk factors for heart disease.

Talk to your doctor to see if you should add more sterols and stanols to your diet to help manage your high cholesterol.