Plant sterols may be one of the strongest weapons in the fight against heart disease by helping to lower cholesterol. Research studies report that a plant-based diet is one of the best natural methods to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Scientists have tried to isolate one or more substances in plant foods that may lower cholesterol naturally. While plant sterols seems to work, no one is sure whether they work equally as well in fortified foods as in whole foods.
Steps for Lowering Cholesterol with Plant Sterols
Your body produces cholesterol naturally in the liver, and additional cholesterol comes from the food that you eat. The Center for Disease Control estimates that as many as 100 million Americans have cholesterol levels that put them at risk of developing disease. Statins, drugs prescribed to lower cholesterol, can be effective but may have undesirable side effects. Many people turn to natural methods to lower cholesterol.
One of these methods is plant sterols. After eating a meal, food passes through the various stages of digestion. When it reaches the intestines, the body absorbs whatever cholesterol was in the meal. Plant sterols block the absorption of cholesterol.
To help aid the sterols in lowering your cholesterol levels, take the following steps.
1. Eat a Plant-Based Diet
You can get natural plant sterols by eating a plant-based diet. This diet is based on whole foods: minimally processed grain, fruit and vegetables. Such a diet, also called a vegan diet, is very low in fat and devoid of animal-based foods that contain cholesterol and saturated fat. In addition, corn, soy and wheat are all good sources of plant sterols. Add them to your diet, along with plenty of fruits and vegetables, to increase your intake.
2. Eat Functional Foods with Plant Sterols
Functional food are foods that are supplemented with so-called healthy compounds. Some foods are now supplemented with plant sterols. Benecol, a margarine spread, contains plant sterols, and there are many other products such as spreads and dairy products that contain added sterols.
Do they work? Most researchers agree that in order for plant sterols to effectively lower cholesterol, they must be used over a long period of time. With margarine spreads fortified with plant sterols, the recommended time frame is at least three months. One such study at McGill University provided patients with a laboratory-prepared breakfast that included a margarine spread to which plant sterols were added. Participants ate lunch and dinner at home. Most participants saw a drop in their "bad" LDL cholesterol levels. Diabetic patients had the best results.
To find functional foods with plant sterols, look for products that contain the following ingredients:
- Wood pulp
- Soya proteins
- Whole grains
The following brands that include plant sterols in some of their offerings:
- Minute Maid
- Giant Eagle
- Nature Made
- Rice Dream
- Smart Balance
Foods that may contain plant sterols are allowed by the FDA to include the words, "Heart Healthy" in the labeling. Nearly all can be found at your regular grocery store.
3. Take Supplements
The quest continues for a magic pill that can be made from a natural substance that will lower cholesterol, and plant sterols are being tested as that magic bullet. A study conducted at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis tested experimental plant sterol pills for lowering cholesterol. Although the study was small, participants did indeed lower their cholesterol levels. The best results were seen in people with high LDL ('bad') cholesterol levels. The plant sterol pills used in the study aren't commercially available yet, but the results may be used for further study or development of supplements.
Some brands and types of supplements that contain plant sterols include the following:
- Centrum Cardio
- Natrol Cholesterol Balance
- GNC WELLbeING be-WHOLEHEARTED
- Bayer Heart Health Advantage
Most are available at your local pharmacy or GNC.
Lower Cholesterol Naturally
While you can certainly eat products such as margarine spread fortified with plant sterols to try to lower cholesterol levels naturally, there's a healthy, delicious way to lower cholesterol that doesn't rely upon specially fortified foods, pills or supplements. Eating a diet rich in whole grains may help reduce cholesterol, as well as reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and a host of other diseases. It's side-effect-free, doesn't cost a lot, and tastes good.
Here are some tips to incorporate more healthy plant foods into your diet:
- Snack on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of packaged snack foods.
- Choose whole grain pasta instead of white flour-based pasta, brown rice instead of white, and whole grain products whenever possible.
- At breakfast, eat oatmeal, whole gain cereal, or fruit and whole grain cereal.
- Try a large salad of fresh vegetables for lunch.
- Substitute one starch at dinner for a second heaping helping of vegetables.
- Try one vegetarian or meatless dinner per week.
Benefit from Sterols
Plant sterols can indeed lower cholesterol, but there are added benefits of eating whole, plant-based foods: they're packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants for all-over good health. Whether you choose fortified foods or a plant-based diet, there are indeed many ways to lower cholesterol naturally.