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Article written by Jessica Barker.
Sterols are fats found in all living things, which perform a number of functions.1 Plant sterols, also known as phytosterols are an essential component of the cell membrane of plants.4 They can be found in vegetable oil, nuts, legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables.3 Though plant sterols are found naturally in food they occur at quite low levels, so it can be difficult to get sufficient amounts for any health benefit from whole food alone. In fact to get two grams of plant sterols you would have to eat approximately fifty kilograms of vegetables, fruits or nuts.5 This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if you were a elephant but for us humans the consumption of that much food is near impossible and highly unlikely to ever happen!
How can plant sterols help me?
Plant sterols can assist in lowering cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a type of fat found in human cells.2 It is essential for a number of bodily processes however the body can produce its own so we do not need to consume so much from the diet.2 In fact too much cholesterol in the diet is a risk factor for heart disease.2 Some studies have indicated that plant sterols may help lower blood cholesterol levels by an average of 10%, depending on how much you eat.3 By lowering our cholesterol levels by just ten percent we can decrease our chances of heart disease by twenty five percent!1 But more about cholesterol in a future article.
How do plant sterols work?
Plant sterols have a similar structure to cholesterol but are not absorbed, or only absorbed minimally.4 Plant sterols assist by blocking cholesterol absorption from the intestinal tract.5 In fact they compete with cholesterol for absorption.5 The body thinks they are cholesterol due to the similarity in structure so the intestine absorbs plant sterols and sends them to the liver in exactly the same way as cholesterol is processed.5 However, the body has no need for plant sterols they are returned back to the intestine. This means our body absorbs less cholesterol.5
What does this mean to me?
If you have elevated cholesterol levels eating foods enriched in plant sterols can assist in lowering your cholesterol levels. However there is always a catch. They will only work if you have a healthy diet. This means eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meat, and reduced fat dairy products and increasing healthy fats(polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) in place of saturated fats.3 A combination of a healthier diet and plant sterols can really help in lowering your cholesterol levels.
But how can I get enough plant sterols?
To lower your cholesterol some health professional boards recommend adults consume 2 to 3 grams of plant sterols per day from plant sterol enriched foods.4 Because we can’t possibly eat fifty kilograms of vegetables per day, to get a sufficient amount of plant sterols we should consume foods where plant sterols have been added. Look out for these products and check nutrition labels, the most common foods that can have plant sterols added include:
If you are concerned about your cholesterol levels, speak to your doctor who will provide you with additional advice to help lower your cholesterol. But now that you know a bit more about plant sterols you may just want to ask your doctor a bit more about how they may assist in keeping your heart happy and healthy.
Last updated 11/16/2009 1:22:29 PM