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Eating Plant Sterols to Lower Cholesterol

plant-sterols-cholesterolby Carol M. Bareuther, R.D.

Q. What are plant sterols? Should I be including them in my diet?

A. Plant sterols are found in miniscule amounts in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, legumes (dried beans and peas) and vegetable oils—particularly soybean oil. Over the past several years, manufacturers have started adding sterols, and related substances called stanols, to a variety of foods, including margarines, salad dressings, orange juices, cereals and snack bars.

If you have high cholesterol, consider adding sterol-fortified foods to your diet. Here’s why.

How Plant Sterols Lower Cholesterol

To our bodies, sterols look like cholesterol. If we eat enough of them, they compete with cholesterol for absorption. They can lower LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) by about 10 percent, decreasing your risk for heart disease by over 20 percent.

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How Much to Eat

People in clinical trials have downed up to 25 grams of these substances per day with no ill effects. However, as little as 1 gram a day can make a huge impact. In fact, research reveals that you won’t reap greater rewards by consuming more than 2 to 3 grams per day.

What Else to Eat

Some research suggests that plant sterols and stanols may block the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, especially beta-carotene (vitamin A). Most experts agree that eating a beta-carotene-rich food each day will make up for any potential deficiency. That includes carrots, peaches, cantaloupe and other deep-orange fruits and vegetables. Alternately, a multivitamin can do the trick.

CAROL M. BAREUTHER, R.D., has been a practicing registered dietitian since 1981 and a professional writer since 1986.

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Last updated and/or approved: May 2011.
Original article appeared in fall 2006 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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