|A Sciencecast reader recently requested an edition on plant sterols, so here I bring you everything you need to know about these cholesterol combatants.
What are plant sterols?
Plant sterols are a compound that form the membranes of plant cells. They have a very similar structure to cholesterol and therefore when consumed, compete with cholesterol and partially block it’s absorption from the intestine into the blood.
There is also now evidence that a reduction in cholesterol absorption increases the liver’s uptake of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which in turn further reduces levels in the blood.
What’s the science?
Multiple studies have shown that consuming 2g (2,000mg) of plant sterols per day can reduce LDL cholesterol by approximately 10%. For context, a statin will reduce cholesterol by 20-30%.
Where to find plant sterols.
They naturally occur in foods such as vegetable oils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables so incorporating them regularly throughout the day will help.
A typical ‘healthy’ diet will contain about 160-400mg/day of plant sterols, which is far below the 2g suggested for optimal cholesterol lowering so therefore you’ll need to add some specific plant sterol fortified foods to help.
These can be found in:
Yoghurts – (for example, Benecol)
Plant-based spreads – (swap your usual butter for this)
Supplements – (Vitabiotics is a brand I tend to recommend however there are plenty of other good providers)
When to take plant sterols.
It’s recommended to take plant sterols everyday as part of your meal or with your meal, as this activates the digestive system and aids in their absorption. It doesn’t seem to matter if this is one in one go or spread across multiple meals, therefore, I would suggest whatever is most practical to you to make sure you get 2g per day.
Can you take too much?
In short, no. Taking more than 3g per day will not have any additional effects but it’s also unlikely to have any harmful effects either.
If you already have healthy cholesterol levels:
The evidence is mixed on this one. I would suggest the effect will be far lower if your cholesterol is already low and/or you eat a very low-fat diet, however, as I note above, it won’t do any harm so may be worth a switch to reduce LDL a touch more or for maintenance purposes
It works with a different mechanism to statins so can work as an addition rather than a replacement.
Take the natural route first:
As always, I would recommend a healthy food and lifestyle approach first, before trying supplements. Tackle things like activity levels, replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat and increasing dietary fibre – these will all have a significant effect.
That said plant sterols, have good evidence behind them and may provide a meaningful effect to assist in your cholesterol lowering strategy.
My podcast playlist: “Why do we see the bad more often than the good?” by Ella Mills
“Why do we respond more to the negative over the positive; to criticism more than praise? Why do we worry so much? How can we stop our negative thought patterns? Science shows this negative thinking is innate, it’s our negativity bias and it explains why negative events and emotions affect us more strongly than positive ones. Our guests today, John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, explain why our brains work in this way and how we can recognise the negativity effect and break destructive patterns.”.