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Nutrition Column

Diet High in Phytosterols Lowers LDL-Cholesterol Same As Statin Drugs

Plant sterols (also known as phytosterols) are chemical compounds naturally found in vegetable oils, nuts, grain products, fruits, and vegetables. Recently, they have been added to products such as margarine, orange juice, snack bars, and other common foods. Research has shown that phytosterols significantly lower LDL cholesterol levels – the “bad” cholesterol responsible for depositing cholesterol in your arteries.

The exact mechanism by which phytosterols reduce cholesterol is not fully understood, but researchers believe that it hinders cholesterol absorption. Fiber intake and cholesterol-lowering drugs alter cholesterol metabolism by different mechanisms, which suggests that adding phytosterols to your diet will have additional benefits in cholesterol reduction. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared participants taking cholesterol lowering drugs with participants consuming a healthy diet high in phytosterols. Both groups had comparable reductions in LDL cholesterol (30.9% and 28.6% respectively), suggesting that a healthy diet including phytosterols is as effective as a low dose statin therapy.

As of now, it is recommended to include 2 grams per day of plant sterols in your diet. However, eating more than 2 to 3 grams per day does not provide any additional benefit in lowering LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, a 2004 study reported in the Journal of Lipid Research showed that consuming high levels of plant sterols (>6.6 g/day) reduced the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and vitamin E and had no additional cholesterol-lowering benefit. For those eating a diet high in supplemented plant sterols (e.g. sterol-fortified margarine) an increased intake of a variety of fruits and vegetables is warranted. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, and a moderate consumption of phytosterols is a promising way to prevent heart disease.

Written by Ryan Serrano with Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D. Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA.