High cholesterol is a condition that plagues Americans of all ages and affects about 3 million new people each year. Traditional treatments for high cholesterol include medications, diet, and exercise. Medications have been a popular choice for cholesterol management in the past, but more people than ever before are now turning to natural remedies. While a diet containing healthy fats is a large component of a cholesterol-lowering diet, food companies have started adding stanols and sterols to products to promote mechanisms in the body that naturally lower cholesterol. Continue reading to learn about how these compounds work, where you can find them, and how to properly add them to your daily routine!

What are Sterols and Stanols?

Plant sterols and stanols have been studied for over 50 years and are also often called “phytosterols”. They are found naturally in small amounts in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and some oils. Stanols and sterols are structurally similar to cholesterol, which is a large reason why they are able to lower cholesterol levels.

So, how do these compounds work? Well, because they are so similar to cholesterol, they are able to mimic some of its work in the body. Specifically, the actions of bile. Bile is a substance that the body makes in order to aid in the digestion of fats. Normally cholesterol binds to bile, but phytosterols are more chemically attracted to bile than cholesterol is. When consumed, phytosterols and bile form a large complex that the body does not completely recognize. Because of this, the bile-sterol complex is excreted, and some free cholesterol is dragged along with it – but that’s not all. Bile is made from cholesterol. To make up for all the bile that is lost through excretion, the body must pull more cholesterol from circulation in order to make more bile that the body needs. By consuming plant sterols and stanols, cholesterol is able to be decreased by two unique processes.

Where Can I Find Them?

Along with certain plant foods, many companies have started fortifying their products with sterols and stanols to create functional foods. That is, foods that have effects on health beyond basic nutrition. Food products that contain these cholesterol-lowering powers include:

  • Margarine
  • Yogurt
  • Milk products
  • Orange juice

Be sure to check the packaging for terms like “heart-healthy”. Smart Balance is a brand that offers these products and can be found in most grocery stores. Also, look for products with low saturated fat, preferably 1 gram or less, to ensure it is a truly heart-friendly product.

How Much Should I Eat?

The recommended daily intake for sterols and stanols is 2 grams. In fact, people who consumed this amount each day saw a significant change in their cholesterol levels in as little as 4 weeks. Overall, people have seen up to a 14% decrease in their LDL cholesterol levels or “bad” cholesterol by using this method. However, it is important to note that eating more than 3 grams likely does not improve cholesterol levels further, and may decrease the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. To maximize the benefits these compounds offer, consume your phytosterol foods before or during mealtimes. Also, if you already take cholesterol-lowering drugs, do not stop taking them. Speak with your doctor and discuss what options you have. Usually, phytosterol foods can be consumed in conjunction with cholesterol medications.

Overall, evidence suggests that sterols and stanols from plants are a promising option for those who wish to lower their cholesterol. The presence of these compounds in certain food products allows people to advance their health and continue to consume the flavors they enjoy. When consumed properly, these compounds can positively affect cardiovascular health.

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